Squeezing life into that old accordion

When you get to heaven, you hear harps, but if you go to hell, you hear accordions.

So goes the joke among devotees of this hand-held, bellows-driven mini-piano such as Nils Olof Soderback, a Talent resident who boasts a collection of 25 and works as an accordion repairman, teacher and dealer, often taking the instruments off the hands of families when someone dies.

If you love accordions, you love them with a passion. And if you hate them, you hate them with the same intensity, says Soderback, a fixture for years at Key of C Cafe's Sunday morning Balkan music jam and dance.

"When my grandma gave me my first accordion at 17, I didn't think it was a serious instrument," says Soderback, 56, a Swedish native who was then studying piano, violin and ethnomusicology.

Soderback notes accordions were immensely popular in the 1930s and 1940s, when millions of them poured into the U.S. with Italian immigrants.

But "anything that popular is going to become an object of ridicule," Soderback says. "It got victimized."

Today, his clients for accordion sales, repairs and lessons span the gamut in age, and there's always a couple of much-pierced young women who want to learn to use them in street acts, he says.

"It's a good business for me. I buy and sell them on Craigslist," says Soderback, adding he makes a living at it after retiring from his landscaping business five years ago. He recently acquired large collections of accordions from estates in Roseburg and Eugene.

The instruments had been treasured by elderly family members, but when the members died, he says, their families didn't know what to do with the heavy, space-gobbling things that no one knew how to play.

Piano accordions have 41 piano-style keys for the right hand, bellows in the middle and 120 buttons for chords at the left hand. They take a lot of practice and brain cells to coordinate and shape into appealing music, Soderback says.

Many of his accordions were precious gems of the industry 80 years ago but passed into disuse and got tossed in garage sales for $100. Such was his 1936 German Hohner, which became almost new with three hours of overhaul on his bench.

An average accordion in good repair might go for an affordable $500, with rare ones at the top end going for $2,000. New ones can climb to $15,000.

Every accordion should have a story, Soderback says. The Hohner's tale goes back to Nazi Germany, where Hans Leeser got it from his parents for his 16th birthday (he wanted a motorcycle). Then the family, who were Jewish, had to flee the Holocaust, setting up in San Francisco.

The instrument, which is ergonomically curved and made of early plastics (appearing like mother-of-pearl), spent 50 years in a basement, passing to Leeser's son, Ken, who put it in his garage sale. It rattled badly and required extensive repair, but now it's one of half a dozen that Soderberg won't part with — and the story is lovingly recounted by Ken Leeser in a grateful e-mail to Soderback.

Among his prizes are a 1920 Guerrini, made in San Francisco, and two local acquisitions, a 1936 Dallape from Jacksonville and a tiny bandoneon from Eagle Point.

How did Soderback evolve from disdain to passion for the accordion? Recovering from a heartbreak with a Swedish girl, he took off hitchhiking in 1978 through Europe and Africa, ending up in Bombay to study Indian tabla drum and raga music. There he met his future wife, Seeta, a Brazilian, and they found one big thing in common: They both played the accordion.

"She played passionately, for the tango," he says, noting they are still together 30 years later.

The accordion may have a geeky and eccentric reputation, but when you listen to Soderback's 2007 album, "Tunes for Crossing Borders," at soulfeltmusic.com, you realize this is not the "Beer Barrel Polka" — this instrument can carry the freight for any genre, with tremendous gravity, joy and feeling.

Soderback plays raga and Western violin, piano, guitar, accordion and tablas and is in the group Nastrave. He also plays Klezmer accordion and violin in Mazeltov and with Anton Mizerak at Three Rivers Indian Restaurant in Ashland. He also leads the Swedish fiddle group and Klezmer group at Lark Camp in Mendocino, Calif.

He can be reached at 541-944-7009 or olof@mind.net.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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