Classically Trained: Just for polka music? Not so

October 11, 2010|By Bradley Zint
  • Thessaly "The Ukulady" Lerner leads a group of children dancing to "When the Saints Go Marching In" on Sunday at the second annual Orange County Accordion Festival at the Orange County Market Place in Costa Mesa.
Thessaly "The Ukulady" Lerner leads a group… (Bradley Zint, Daily…)

COSTA MESA – I'll admit that I was at first a little hesitant to attend a festival full of accordions. I once played in a band with a song featuring an accordion, but that was the extent of my experience with it.

The accordion and its so-called ugly-duckling cousin, the bagpipe, may be the most stigmatized and stereotyped of all instruments. Many find their sound, even under the hands of a skilled player, akin to an irritable substitute science teacher scratching her nails down a chalkboard.

But perhaps it's that very reputation — and the desire to dispel it — that brings out such an enthusiastic crowd to play and listen to these instrumental underdogs. That's the sense I got when wandering the four stages Sunday afternoon of the second annual Orange County Accordion Festival, affectionately known as "The Big Squeeze," at the Orange County Market Place.

There was a whole lot of squeezing going on of those funny boxes that were supported by some guitars, a harp, drums, penny whistles, synthesizers and fiddles.


But who caught my eye the most was accordionist Johnny McKenna, a member of the Los Angeles-based Celtic rock quintet Slugger O'Toole.

Except for his Bronx accent, he was Irish as can be. The son of Irish-born parents and wearer of a green T-shirt and socks with shamrocks, McKenna played on his 93-year-old mother's old-school accordion. He loves the box engraved with the family name so much that he proclaimed to have seen some kind of holy face after playing it.

"It's become my new religion — the Irish accordion," McKenna announced.

His songs inspired by the hard life of the fabled Emerald Isle could be overhead by patrons next door at Carlos' Cantina. The "Home of the World's Best Taquito" pouring cold Coronas with lime and dishing deep-fried Mexican fare was the only taquería in town, probably ever, whose ambience bled with the soul of Ireland (if only for a day).

Great performances abound Sunday, from the Zydeco and Cajun soul of the American South to the salsa and meringue flavors from Latin America. Some enthusiastic attendees — including the skilled Becky Bennett and Mark Signaigo, both of North Hollywood — danced to their favorite jigs even under the unforgiving hot sun of the day.

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