Accordion gaining respect through festival

Mary Ross first fell in love with the accordion when she was just 13 and has been playing it ever since. - submitted
Mary Ross first fell in love with the accordion when she was just 13 and has been playing it ever since.
— image credit: submitted

The accordion, in many people’s minds, is the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments. Like the famous comedian, it doesn’t get any respect.

Mary Ross, who’s been playing the instrument for 50 years, and who’s one of the headliners at Chemainus’ accordion festival feels it’s time to change all that.

“People like to poke fun at it,” Ross said. “It can be a loud instrument and lots of people don’t play it well. It’s time to look at its versatility and what it can do.”

Ross first fell in love with the instrument when she was 13 when her Dad took her to a musical show. The shiny knobs and buttons mesmerized her and drew her in.

“I knew right then it was what I wanted to do,” the accordionist said.

She got her wish; in some interesting venues to boot. Ross once leaned into a sailboat’s mast, to steady herself while playing. She played on a double decker bus at a wedding. While playing on a Via Rail train, she braced her legs between two chairs. Prior to 9/11, out came the accordion during a trip with the chamber of commerce as they headed to Sudbury. And while working on the Rocky Mountaineer in the dead of winter, she walked over snow and ice while negotiating between rail cars.

“I felt like a bank robber going between the cars,” she said, laughing.

As hard as it might be for people of a certain age to believe, the accordion at one time was what she calls a “worldwide,” instrument. Of Scottish heritage herself, she said the accordion and fiddle are traditional Scottish instruments, in addition to the more widely known bagpipes.

The half century from 1900 to 1960 was known as the accordion’s golden age.  Its popularity, she said, started to wane when Elvis came on the scene.

“The younger generation said it’s not cool, guitars were the thing,” Ross said.

Interestingly enough, John Lennon — and you don’t get much cooler than that — played the instrument.

“I think Elvis played it too,” she said. “It’s too bad that Elvis Presley and John Lennon didn’t feature the accordion when they played it. That would have been a great promo.”

Ross said the much-maligned instrument has been making a resurgence of late, for two reasons.

There’s been an interest in the electronic-digital accordion, which can have all kinds of instruments programmed into it, in addition to background tracks.

“It’s big in the jazz world.”

A second reason is that two world-class accordionists — Jelena and husband Aleks Milojevic — have moved to Victoria and raised its profile. They’re even starting a group class for younger people.

“They’re exposing the city and the world to the wonders of this instrument again,” Ross said.

When people do think of the accordion, Lawrence Welk’s music often comes to mind.

But the musician — who recently completed a classical degree in the accordion — says other genres lend itself to the instrument, classical and jazz to name just two.

“After I’ve played, people often come up to me and say they didn’t know that an accordion could do that,” she said.

Those wanting to hear for themselves the things an accordion can do should check out the Chemainus Accordion Festival today and tomorrow.

Festival Schedule

August 8, the Gypsy Belles, playing from and outside: 11 a.m. to noon, Twisted Sisters Tea House; 1 to 2 p.m., The Book Nook; 2 to 3 p.m., Top Hat Antiques.

August 9, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Waterwheel Park: The Acchords; Rose Menzi; Heart and Soul; Mary Ross and Tony Brouwers; Don Hall; Bruce Bakker and Friends; The Victoria Accordion Club.

Your ticket

What: Chemainus Accordion Festival

When: Friday, Aug. 8, 11 a.m. to noon, 1 to 2 p.m. and 2 to 3 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 9 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: On Friday, outside various businesses in downtown Chemainus and on Saturday at Waterwheel Park

Tickets: By donation

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