Me and my bayan

OK, this is a bit of a contrived image – a pastiche of the kind of grainy monochrome pictures you see in photojournalism pieces on people who’ve returned to their villages in the Chernobyl exclusion zone – but it was an amusing stylistic exercise. More in a moment on what the instrument is.

On Sunday evening, Clare and I went to TOPJAM, a local open musical session in Topsham. It was formed maybe a year ago, but it’s lately been on hold through lack of venue. However, we had a summer special in the function room of one of the major pubs in town, an arrangement we hope can continue, and the turnout was the best yet. Open sessions are difficult to get right. I’ve been to others over the years, and frequently found them a complete frost for various reasons. Sometimes the claim to be an open session has turned out to be bogus: they were unwelcoming if you weren’t part of an existing clique. Others have just been uninteresting: a crowd of musicians sitting grimly around the room, eyeballing each other as they ground out dirge-like folk staples in unison. TOPJAM is nothing like that: they’re a friendly bunch, accommodating a nice mix of individual and collective playing, who have thoroughly welcomed me despite (or – it’s hard to tell – because of) my playing an instrument rather unusual around these parts.

The story: I’ve dabbled in music for decades. I took piano lessons in my teens, but not long enough to get any Grade qualification. I played recorders and trombone at university. After that, I bought a small busking-level piano accordion in a junk shop in Falkland, and carried on with that, not very competently, for some years. And then, maybe three years ago, I started getting into Finnish folk and fusion music on YouTube: bands and individuals such as Värttinä, Maria Kalaniemi, and Johanna Juhola. The common factor was chromatic button acccordion. I loved the sound, and something clicked.

I resisted it for a long time, but I listened to a lot more on YouTube, tried online keyboard simulators, and read up on the technical side (there are two keyboard layouts, B-system and C-system, as well as a ‘free bass’ configuration that I rejected on grounds of price and difficulty). Eventually, after a lot of saving up, I went to eBay and bought a B-system one, the Russian style called a bayan. When I opened the immensely-padded parcel from Ukraine, marked “НЕ бросать” (“DO NOT drop/throw”), it was love at first sight. It’s called an Орфей (Orfei = Orpheus), and is a full-size professional accordion as used by dance bands (you can see one in this video by the Ukrainian folk-rock band TIK, though the guy doesn’t appear to be actually playing it).

The learning curve was very steep. As you can see, it has a keyboard unlike a piano: the right hand has large buttons with a scale that goes up in semitones diagonally; the left has an array of 120 smaller buttons that play bass notes and chord presets. There’s also probably no-one else in the county that plays one, much less teaches it, so I’ve been on my own except for YouTube and website instruction. It’s also mightily heavy: nearly two stone. The sound, however – which the vendor called “a strong sweet voice” – is delightful; the basic voice is clarinet-like, cleaner and with less vibrato than the standard Western accordion, making it suitable for any genre of music.

I’ve been playing for around 18 months now, and have reached the stage where I regularly play in public, a mixed repertoire from oldies like Peg O’ My Heart (the Singing Detective theme) via pop staples like Ghost Riders in the Sky and tangos such as Por Una Cabeza, to novelties like the Angry Birds game tune. Performance anxiety is my bugbear – the “I can play this perfectly at home” syndrome, where distractions are likely to make me freeze or fumble. But it’s not enough to stop me doing it.  For the first time in my life, I truly feel like a musician: an accordionist, rather than someone learning accordion.

Even if you don’t normally like accordion, you might want to check out some examples of people who are the top exponents of chromatic button key accordion. Especially in Finland, which has a very rich fusion music scene driven by many musicians who go into other genres after classical training, accordion music is moving in unexpected directions. Try Viejo Amor, by Johanna Juhola with Las Chicas del Tango (“The Tango Chicks”); Vappassa Tilassa (In A Free Space), jazz /tango / chillout fusion by Johanna Juhola with Timo Alakotila; Arctic Paradise by Maria Kalaniemi; and the powerful and fairly unclassifiable music of Kimmo Pohjonen, which spans folk fusion, rock, modern jazz, contemporary classical, and avant-garde, such as Regenerator (which features raw and percussive sampling from farm machinery) and Keko (a folk fusion / beatbox improvisation that builds to a frenetic climax and collapse). Although I know I’ll never be at the level of these musicians, it’s an exciting trend to be in touch with.