Valerio Longoria's accordion smells like sweet leather and is as weathered as an old saddle. On a table, she sits still, silent, inanimate, yet you can sense his soul stirring inside her bellows.

Such is the power of the humble accordion: Her mechanics are merely a function of air, bellows, and metal tongues, no more complicated than the human breath. But placed in masterful hands, like those of the late Longoria, she tells immigrants' tales of joy and sorrow, wanderlust and home.

These stories, portrayed in photographs, instruments, and music, are passed along through a new exhibit at the Witte that traces the squeezebox's span across cultures — Czech, Polish, Mexican conjunto, and Creole, and zydeco.

The 50-plus photographs depict not only artists, but also fans and other cultural symbols that enrich the art form. In most cases, the sweaty performers, whirling dancers, and even busy cooks preparing kielbasa in the kitchen convey an exuberance that strains to break through the frames. Yet, Rick Olivier's rural Louisiana shots also show the poverty that informed much of this music, while Dick Blau, who documented Polish polka circuit in Chicago, reminds the viewer that the dancehall can be as homely as a fluorescent-lit meeting room at the Knights of Columbus.

All the exhibit's photographers fittingly shot these pictures in black-and-white. For Valentino Mauricio to have photographed in color 90-year-old Texas accordionist Robert Haisler — or even the Polka Lovers Club of America 2002 King and Queen — would have appeared gaudy and anachronistic; Blau ably captured the essence of Johnny Hyzny's Personality Lounge and a pack of spinning polka dancers without the intrusion of color.

click to enlarge visart_dancersjpg
Dancers twirl at the Tejano Conjunto Festival (date unknown). Al Rendon spent nine years taking pictures at the annual event.

Olivier, a Louisiana-based photographer, took portraits that froze his favorite Creole and zydeco artists and their accordions in quiet moments and surroundings, rather than the freneticism of a live show: The Creole Cowboy Boozoo Chavis poses under a Schlitz beer sign in what appears to be an empty bar; Bois Sec Ardoin stands in a pasture, smiling, while a small white dog, also apparently smiling, romps through the field; Hiram Sampy (of Sampy and the Bad Habits) relaxes in front of his modest, white bungalow and its corrugated tin roof, while a man with his back to the camera, wheels away a barbeque pit.

Al Rendón, whose photos, including some in the exhibit, enrich the book, Puro Conjunto, spent nine years chronicling the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in Rosedale Park. The time was well spent: It allowed him to gain the rapport to shoot a sinewy Santiago Jiménez Jr. stretching the bellows to their maximum, and Fred Zimmerle and Narciso Martínez warming up backstage, aware of their onlookers, yet relaxed and comfortable with being watched.

"I felt it was very important to document these musicians," Rendón says. "A lot hadn't been documented very well. Many were already pretty old and weren't going to being around forever. I wanted to do them justice, so to speak."

There is a spiritual difference between instruments that are performed at, such as the piano, and those that are portable — like the accordion. The former, over years of practice at the hands of its performer, can foster such familiarity as to become an extension of the body — a limb. But instruments that travel well can experience the world alongside their guide; a vital organ in the corpus, they intimately hold the memories, experiences, and lifeblood of the player. The five accordions on display — in addition to the toy versions that visitors can try — show the design differences that accommodate each musical style, the craftsmanship of their makers (including Louisiana artisan Marc Savoy who builds breadbox-sized Acadian models), and the modifications invented by their owners.

click to enlarge visart_squeezebox-photo1jpg
Renata and Girls! Girls! Girls! is a rarity for the genre — an all female band. The concertina — along with fiddle — is often affiliated with the gorale or Polish highlander folk melodies that run deep in polka music.

Anton Vrazels's fingers eroded the white keys of his 1978 Imperial Lindo, leaving ruts on the naturals from Low D to High A (except a curiously smooth B — does he not like B?) A member of Vrazels Polka Band — a Texas Czech ensemble — he plays the traditional piano-style accordion, which was introduced into Tex-Czech music in the '30s and '40s, when early brass bands needed a keyboard instrument — a portable one — where a piano was unavailable.

With its ornate façade, a 2002 red, white, and blue Gabbanelli, a favorite among Norteño and conjunto players, looks edible, like a Jolly Roger candy out of its wrapper. Dazzling, yes — with 34 buttons — yet virginal, it needs a player to give it a soul.

Finally, the Holy Grail of accordions: Valerio Longoria's Customized Hohner Corona II Accordion, made in about 1995. It is neither the oldest, nor the shiniest (San Antonio bajo sexto makers the Macias Brothers crafted the coffee-and caramel wooden inlay), but the conjunto legend played this accordion during the last years of his life. If she were a car, the odometer would have turned 200,000 miles: missing slots among the clear, pink, and blue rhinestones; ragged straps that had been adjusted and readjusted; pink-and-gold piping on the bellows; a jerry rigged silver plate that holds together pieces of the instrument.

These are only sights of the accordion; to fully appreciate the power of the instrument, you must hear the music. Fortunately, the Witte plans to pipe conjunto, zydeco, and polka into the exhibit gallery. Therein lies the accordion's power: its melody, harmony, rhythm, and emotional range have sustained cultures across oceans and borders for generations. "That's my dream," notes Longoria in Puro Conjunto, "that accordion music will never end."

Opening reception 6:30pm, Thursday, September 26
Noon-5pm Sunday, 10am-5pm Monday, Wednesday-Saturday, 10am-9pm Tuesday
Through January 5, 2003
$5.95, $4.95 seniors, $3.95 children ages 4-11, free on Tuesdays from 3-9pm
The Witte Museum
3801 Broadway



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.