Cafe Accordion Orchestra's Daddy Squeeze on the Gypsy life in Minneapolis

Categories: CD Release
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There are so many annual shows in the Twin Cities worth a year's anticipation that a music lover could forget the time of year. One memorable annual tradition is the Café Accordion Orchestra's January show at the Cedar Cultural Center. This year they'll be celebrating the release of La Zingara, their ninth album and the first to focus on the Gypsy traditions that have inspired endeavors into everything from cowboy music to rhumbas and cumbias.

Gimme Noise caught up with Dan Newton, aka "Daddy Squeeze," ahead of Saturday's release show at the Cedar.

Gimme Noise: How does one live the Gypsy lifestyle in Minneapolis?

Dan Newton: When we hear the word Gypsy there's different ideas that pop into our heads. One is more Bohemian, an image people get is a group of people sitting up late at night, drinking, playing music, dancing, maybe outside in a campground or something like that. That's one thought. Another that comes to mind is a family or a clan or a small group of people that are constantly wandering, drifting and traveling, nomadic or homeless. And that gets blurred with the idea of being a hobo.

There are young people who seem to have chosen the hobo lifestyle as a path to find their way around the world. Rather than being homeless or out of work they've decided to put their stuff on their back.

There's also the level of ethnicity, or that you've been assimilated into the society, whether it's Romani or Manusha or whatever.

So there's a wandering description of what gypsy is, the same as with the music on the album. It's kind of a big wandering type of thing. The playlist starts and ends with tunes that come right out of the Manush or the French gypsy tradition, and they are threaded together by some of those other aspects.

What do you mean by other aspects? Other musical sources?

Yeah, like there's a western swing song, a Texas tune with a little bit of a cowboy image. Cowboys are on the edge of society, just like the Gypsies. As a matter of fact, Gypsy jazz from France and the cowboy jazz that came out of Texas in the '30s and the '40s have so many similarities, not only the music but the guys that were playing it.

So we're loosely tying things together, even to the point where a song may have a sound that make you think of a Gypsy camp or a caravan or something like that. We're not claiming that we're playing Gypsy music.

How does your travel experiences fit into it?

I had my own experiences of putting my pack on my back and going from Nebraska to New York on no schedule. And of camping out at the airport until I got a standby to the British Isles, and hitchhiking around there. One morning we were waking up in our tent in a park in a little village, and there were some boys outside the tent. I stuck my head out and they were all sitting there. They said, 'Are you Gypsies?' They were just hoping to meet some real Gypsies. 'Well, we're not,' I said, 'But we're kind of living like them.' They wanted to know if they could bring us water and something to eat.

Those experiences, even though I don't travel that way anymore, stay with you your whole life. You can harken back and draw on those feelings and put it in the music that you play.

And your experiences playing overseas?

Yeah, lots of experiences. I've been to Finland a number of times. It's an amazingly musical society there, all kinds of musical instruments. I've never seen so many accordions as I saw in Finalnd.

I remember a Saturday afternoon in a park and in four or five different places there were people gathered and playing music together. Here's a group that looked like they were fourteen or fifteen years old with a violin and a clarinet and something else, sitting around a music stand playing a traditional tune.

During their festival season in the summer -- because it doesn't get dark for almost a month -- things happen the middle of the week and run all night long. And I remember blues bands with fifteen to twenty members. I thought, 'Huh, there's a lot of musicians and not a lot of venues.' They just form these huge ensembles.

I also did a lot of traveling with Dr. John Walker, who plays finger-style guitar and slide. Together we'd play Piedmont-style country blues, western swing and a little gospel. We'd take a few weeks and drive around Oklahoma and Texas and hit little taverns, coffee shops and house concerts along the south plains, just playing songs for people and having a good time of it.

The Café Accordion Orchestra comes from all around the country, even around the world, doesn't it?

Eric Mohring, our mandolin and violin player, grew up with all kinds of experiences. His mom was from Greece, his Dad was from central Europe. When he was three years old he got pinched on the cheek by Edith Piaf in a cabaret. And even though he's settled here he's one of those guys who can converse with you in French, or Greek, or whatever. He goes to Louisiana often and has been accepted as a Cajun even though that's not his ethnic or social background.

Our guitarist Robert Bell travels a lot with his music. He goes all over the place and kind of specializes in that French Gypsy jazz style. He reminds me of something I read, that you can recognize a true bluesman or a true Gypsy musician because they travel in the same clothes they perform in. [Laughs] One of the Cactus Blossoms told me it doesn't matter if you get a chance to wash up or change your clothes for a couple of days so long as you have a jacket and a tie. You'll look great.

What's the state of the accordion in the Twin Cities today? Seems like it's enjoying a lot of popularity.

That's what I love about this scene, every day there's something new that's popped up, and a style of music or a particular instrument gets hot and trendy. Right now it's the ukulele. They're flying off the shelves in music stores and you hear them on TV. Ten years ago it was happening for the accordion.

When I first moved to the Cities in '87, I was one of just two or three people gigging on the accordion, outside of the polka world. And since it's gone from nowhere to being really cool, to now being just a regular part of the scene.

Pat Harison is probably the best known, but there's also Datta from Machinery Hill, and Andy McCormick from Dreamland Faces. I haven't met the Poor Nobodys [Whose Jenna Wyse plays accordion] but I would like to.

There's also Dee Langely of the Orchestra Bez Ime. They play traditional Balkan music, in fact the band got a grant and went to Croatia to spend a week at a state-sponsored Gypsy music school. You sit in the woods and drink Gypsy drinks and eat their food and try to learn the music they play for you.

The accordion's moment in the Cities started with Steve Kramer and the Wallets. I came to town right around the time they were doing their last performances. At the time the only other person I could find with an accordion outside of polka was Mark Stillman, who was playing a lot of Irish music, as well as French café music and Balkan music. He's a great musician who can play anything.

The Café Accordion Orchestra seems to outlast the trends, though.

January first was the nineteenth anniversary of our first gig. Our drummer, Joe Steinger, played our second gig and has been with the band ever since. Eric joined a few weeks after that. He just came up and asked to sit in. Erik Lillestol has been with us since '99. And we asked Robert to join us after Brian Barnes, who played guitar from the start until around '09, left town.

This is our eighth January show at the Cedar. Our first was a Friday the 13th, right after their winter break. After a couple of years we were doing well but we thought it was time to sweeten the pot. So we had Diane Jarvi join us, and three years ago we came up with the theme 'Music of France and the French diaspora. We got Alliance Francaise involved, and Ensemble Limousin, a duo from Winona who play French bagpipes and hurdy gurdy.

This year we've got everybody who played on the album, including Diane Jarvi and Tony Balluff, who played the clarinet on four tracks. Diane's bringing a couple of songs that aren't on the album, something I think she learned from a Cesária Évora recording. The Gypsy influence there is in the Creole thing in Cape Verde and Ivory Coast, and the people who've been displaced and forced into a homeless in their own homes situation.

So there will be all kinds of what I guess you could call world music, as if music could come from anywhere else.

And you'll still sit in at the Cactus Blossoms' Monday night residency at the Turf Club, right?

I love those nights. It takes me back to when I was about the same age as Jack [Torrey] and Page [Burkum]. I was playing in a band that played, except for the Cactus Blossoms' original songs, almost the same repertoire. When I get up there I feel like I'm in my twenties again. There's this energy on stage, and this energy in the crowd, and these songs come back. I forget that I'm not in the honky tonk in Nebraska. That's one of those Gypsy things of the mind, traveling someplace in your mind and never settling down.

Here's a new track debuted called "La Zingara":

Cafe Accordion Orchestra. $12-$15. 8 p.m. Saturday, January 12 at Cedar Cultural Center. Click here.



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