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Putting On the Squeeze--Big Time : Music: Attendees at this convention make a joyous and lyrical noise--with accordions, of all things.

August 26, 1995|CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To outsiders, it may recall "The Far Side" cartoon in which St. Peter is handing out harps at heaven's gate while Satan, standing at the depths of hell, is dealing out--what else?--accordions.

But to players and fans, the Accordion Federation of North America's 40th Annual Music Festival, being held at the Hyatt Regency in Long Beach, is paradise. Where else can you see squeeze-boxes of all shapes, sizes and ages? Or hear children gleefully comparing accordion stories? Or listen to a concert of nearly 100 accordionists all performing together?

Not too many places. (Which, some may say, is a good thing.) This is the largest festival of its kind in North America, and for the thousand-plus attendees who love the accordion, it's the one place they can proudly show it.

You could maybe call it Welkstock.

"Actually, most of the kids today don't even know who Lawrence Welk is," says Sandra Martin, festival coordinator and a committee member of the Los Angeles-based Accordion Federation. "So their interest in the accordion comes from elsewhere."

Children are the focal point for the federation's five-day festival, which is held every year in the Los Angeles area (this year's began Wednesday and continues through Sunday). Although there are concerts, workshops and demonstrations given by professional players, the event centers around competitions for kids of different age levels, from 5-year-olds right on up to college students.

Anyone arriving at this hotel Thursday for a meal or a weekend getaway must have stopped dead in his or her tracks upon entering the lobby. Seas of children--boys in bow ties, girls in flowered dresses--were lugging around square, overbearing accordion cases. Some of them were showing off their instruments to friends; others were using the cases as stools.

Most of the kids come to compete--and to win. Besides being crowned Duke, Duchess or members of the royal accordion court at formal coronation dinners for various age brackets, competitors can also win enormous golden trophies, which are on display in the lobby and seem to catch the eye of every young virtuoso who walks by.

"They've got even bigger trophies than last year," says Paul McKenna, 10, from Walnut, Calif., a glimmer of determination in his eyes as he was preparing for his second competition of the day. "I'm not too nervous. I like playing."

Whether he wins or not, McKenna says he loves going to the festival, making this his second appearance. More important, though, he loves the accordion.

"I like it because it's just something fun to do after school," he says. "And it's a really neat instrument--you can get so many different sounds out of it."

Some of those sounds have acquired a certain degree of hipness in music circles when associated with the likes of tejano veteran Flaco Jimenez, who has played with everyone from Ry Cooder to Dwight Yoakum, or the late zydeco king Clifton Chenier and the legion of Louisiana musicians who have sought to inherit his crown.

But none of those styles is heard too often at the festival. Most of what is played are standard pop pieces like "New York, New York" or big-band melodies.

Images of strict parents who make their children sit and practice the accordion while their friends are out playing are quickly dispelled here. The kids all appear to be having a blast.

Especially Michael Smith, 11, who came with his parents from West Jordan, Utah.

"I was pretty confident," says Smith, a foot-high trophy in hand. "It's actually fun getting up and performing in front of people."

Federation officials say that families come from around the country to attend this pinnacle of accordion events, and this year they even had a competitor from China and a few attendees from Canada. Many of the families find out about it through their children's teachers and music schools.

"It's a fun event, and it's real good for the kids," says Michael Smith's dad, Michael Sr. "It encourages them and teaches them a little discipline and good sportsmanship."

The younger Smith had never expressed interest in the accordion until one day when a salesman came to their door, his father says. Several parents at the event will tell you the same story. Apparently, there are actually door-to-door accordion salesmen out there (and you thought encyclopedia sales people were bad), selling instruments that on the average cost about $3,500--and that's for a used model.

Martin, the festival coordinator, says one of the reasons the event focuses so much on children and competition is because it maintains interest in the rather costly instrument.

"Kids go through that phase with any musical instrument where they just don't want to play," she says. "This gets them through that.

"It's really a magical instrument, and kids can get a lot out of it--discipline, musical knowledge and a lot of fun."

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