“What is 10,000 accordions at the bottom of the ocean?” asks a beaming accordion sage.
The riddle's obvious conclusion: A good start.
The 50-odd people gathered at the foot of the Great American Music Hall stage have undoubtedly heard the joke a thousand times, but they chuckle anyway. The crowd has gathered Saturday morning for the second day of workshops in conjunction with Arhoolie Records' 35th-anniversary celebration. In attendance are accordion lovers and two men who helped make the instrument viable: the renowned Flaco Jimenez and Marc Savoy.
The heavy velvet drapes are drawn to block out the brightening sun. Chairs creak as people settle into their seats. Cajun master accordionist Savoy kicks off the lecture: “Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to have traveled to Germany with this man [Jimenez] to search out accordion-making factories.”
“When I first heard the tone of an 1889 prewar accordion,” Jimenez says with reverence, “I almost passed out. As a young man, I dreamt of finding an abandoned warehouse full of accordions.”
Listeners nod their heads emphatically.
“When I made my first accordion in 1960 at the age of 20,” he continues, “they almost sent for a paddy wagon. Nobody in their right mind would want to make an accordion.”
Clearly moved, a man in the audience stands to speak: “I just want to say that I'm glad you were crazy.” A smattering of applause gives him courage. “And I'm glad you're still crazy.”
Despite Jimenez's cheerful countenance, he is working on little sleep. His sold-out show the preceding evening at Slim's opened the weekend-long Arhoolie celebration. The Tex-Mex Fiesta, which is the talk of the morning, featured Los Caimanes, Mariachi los Gavilanes de Oakland, Los Cenzontles, Flaco JimŽnez y Su Conjunto, and a surprise appearance by JimŽnez's longtime friend and patron, Ry Cooder. To the joy of Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz, the crowd was largely Latin and worked itself into an orgy of dancing feet, flashing teeth, and sweaty limbs. By some reports, the energy hit its lowest point, surprisingly, when Cooder took the stage.
Saturday night's show is Louisiana in flavor, a celebration of Cajun and zydeco madness held at the Great American. The entire Cajun dance community turns out to stomp feet and twirl skirts to the rollicking sounds of C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, The Magnolia Sisters, Danny Poullard and the Californian Cajun Orchestra, and Marc and Ann Savoy. As a display of respect, Curtis Joubert, ex-mayor of Eunice, La., shows up on behalf of the Louisiana State Tourist Board to thank Strachwitz for “bringing the music of French Louisiana to the rest of the world.” Strachwitz returns the compliment by stating that Joubert “has single-handedly done more to dispel the Louisiana prejudice against Cajuns than anyone else.”
Sunday night finds another Arhoolie showcase at the Great American, this one offering a little gospel and a lot of blues. The Paramount Singers, John Jackson, Omar Shariff, and Johnny Otis and His Orchestra, which features Otis' son on drums and a grandson on bass, play their hearts out to a half-full house. The Paramount Singers bring revelers to their feet with the “spirit” as members of the group move freely among them. Shariff tells of his flight from the racial prejudice of the South, and of his elation upon learning that in San Francisco his skin color is a badge of pride. Before Johnny Otis takes the stage, Strachwitz invites everyone to share in a large chocolate birthday cake donated by True Confections. The crowd, riding high on a chocolate rush, jump out of their seats as Otis cranks out the classics.
“I used to listen to this when I was 14, back in '57,” croons a snow-haired woman as she squeezes onto the dance floor in between children, seniors, surfers, hippies, blacks, and whites.
“The nice thing about Arhoolie,” says a 22-year-old in a half-shirt and choker, “is you get it all.”
By Silke Tudor