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2 entries from April 2012

Keys to the City

My mental picture of a street musician was formed in Australia, where every smelly hippie thought he was the next folk-rock sensation. We used to walk past and them and shake our heads, vowing that Bob Dylan has a lot to answer for. 

Street musicians in Europe are, like, real musicians.  With musical day-jobs and buyable CDs and stuff. 

Folky balladists get no audience.  You either do real folk, which in Bavaria means a brass band, or you prove your chops with the classical repertoire.

Munich musicians favour keyboards, in one form or another.  This presents some physical challenges.

These guys don't set up a second-hand Korg on the sidewalk and croon that James Taylor ditty about pina coladas, no sir-ee.  At least one insists on a grand piano—a Steinway, no less.  As Tom Lehrer said, just think of it as an 88-string guitar.

Not sure if this instrument belongs to the city, the musician who plays it, or the nearby Galleria Kaufhof.  You'll find it on Kaufingerstraße just west of the Marienplatz, wheeled out in front of delighted passers-by when rain doesn't threaten.

Many, though, simply strap their keyboards over the shoulder and give it a good squeeze.  In other words, they play the accordion.

I always believed that the definition of good taste is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't.   When Greg forced Joan to play accordion on Mad Men, it humiliated her.

Of the many aesthetic insults from my grim Pittsburgh childhood, accordions inflicted the worst.  I dreaded early June, when my parents would pack a picnic and cart us off to the annual Polka Day  at Idlewild amusement park in the Laurel Highlands.  Loud fat drunk people dancing and singing: the only noise shrill enough to rise over the chaos was the accordion.   Mother and Dad loved Frankie Yankovic and his Polka Jets—little did they know that a few years later, distant relative Wierd Al Yankovic would mock accordion music so mercilessly that it almost diappeared from American popular culture.  Lawrence Welk, it wasn't.

My attitude to accordion began to soften in Melbourne, where a young virtuosa broke through the din of busking Garfunkels.   Every Satuday, smiling at the indifferent shoppers on Bourke Street, we would find Bernadette Conlon.   Severely visually impaired, she surpised squeezebox-bigots like me with a distinctive repertoire—the baroque.  Unchain the accordion from folk, polkas and oompah bands, and it suits serious music very well indeed.

Don't put an accordion in an orchestra—nor, god forbid, make an orchestra of them.   What do you do with the instrument?  In Munich, our street accordionists work the classical organ repertoire.    Makes sense.  It's all air through reeds, innit?

Most of our artists prefer the Hohner brand.  This Swabian firm is the world's largest manufacturer of accordions, as well as the world's largest maker of harmonicas.  One can snigger at the phrase mouth organ, but technically, it fits—like I said,wind through reeds.

The undisputed king of Munich squeezeboxers is Ivan Hajek.  He eschews the classical repertoire for his own compositions, the most energetic of which he composed as a workout accompaniment for his friend Rob Kamen, nine-time world kickboxing champion.  English speaking tourists often respond to this piece with a holy-fuck-I-didn't-know-an-accordion-could-do-that!   I have tried to listen  from beginning to end, as I pass Hajek on the street.  I can't.  About half-way through, I get so worked up that I start punching passers-by, or in a pinch, strangle their dogs. 

For my money, though, one must take care when applying the accordion to popular music styles.  Europeans have the knack for jazz accordion, and I prefer them—though I must confess that Art Van Damme sneaks into rotation on the car stereo. 

What music suits the instrument best?  Every day, many years worth of seasons are pressed out of the pianoaccordion on city streets, and it always pleases the crowd.  My personal fave is Astor Piazzolla's Libertango, another popular Munich choice.   Here, Ukrainian import Zdravko serenades the Hofgarten.  

Zdravko uses the so-called chromatic accordion, or button accordion to the likes of you and me. It strikes me that the chromatic accordion is a little more authentic for the piece.   Piazzolla himself played a bandoneon, an elaborate buttoned concertina from his native Argentina.  Most local musos make do with a piano accordion, and it's not quite the same to my ear—though Roman Setchko (often found in arcades off Theatinerstraße) makes an excellent fist of it.

If you pass any of these guys on the street, be sure to toss them a Euro or two.  Or better yet, a Ukrainian Hryvnia, since that's where many hail from.


More grand pianos on the street—but curiously, only a box for a drum kit.  The Odeonsplatz is like being at home in your parlour.