Unbeknownst to many residents, Berkeley has a reputation among music lovers as a hub of accordion music.
It all started when Boaz Rubin, a former commercial fisherman/truck driver/machinist, got together with UC Berkeley students at Berkeley’s Hilel House where they jammed to Klezmer, a type of Eastern European Jewish wedding music. Los Angeles refugee Rubin quickly realized the instruments in his repertoire didn’t fit the style he was looking for and decided to pick up the accordion.
And he hasn’t put it down since. Rubin became so immersed in the subculture of the accordion that now, seven years later, he makes his living repairing, teaching and generally promoting the instrument. Rubin and wife Judy, with the help of apprentice Emily Esner, run Boaz Accordions out of a warehouse-like space at 1040 Folger Ave.
As a former machinist and current musician, his appreciation of the accordion is both technical and artistic.
"You move the bellows and air goes through,” Rubin said. “On another level, they’re very subtle. To make them work and respond well, that’s the art."
While others in the industrial park import French foods or African carvings, the Rubins’ exotic imports draw fans of every nationality. Indeed, Rubin points out how central the accordion is to the music of many cultures.
The variety of compact discs for sale in the front of the shop and the instructional books and tapes in a couple of different languages illustrate the variety of appeal.
The Boaz workshop/salesfloor/performance space has drawn Slovenes, Mexicans, Bosnian Serbs, Irish and Americans, all interested in learning more about the instrument.
"What’s interesting is that there are these enormous communities of accordion (players) that are completely under the radar. There are gatherings of people, hundreds if not thousands, up and down the Central Valley. It’s a huge subculture," Rubin said.
Judy Rubin added, "someone joked we ought to have a ‘refugee of the month club.’ We get every refugee and we get to hear them play. There was a Bosnian guy in here who had lost everything and come over with his family. He had been a doctor and now he makes living playing accordion."
The Rubins see themselves as ambassadors of the instrument, offering a wealth of information through $15 drop-in classes, a monthly newsletter, a variety of fliers and a website.
Concerts at their shop showcase the many genres of the accordion. July’s event stars an Argentine Tango duo, September’s a Klezmer band and October has a "Cowboy" trio. Visiting artists also pop in, such as French provincial master Daniel Thonon, who will light up the performance area on August 18.
Last week, local musician Mark Growden dropped in to pick up an accordion for one of his gigs.
"They are incredibly supportive of the accordion and the music community. That’s what I love about this place,” said Growden.
He and Boaz Rubin went on at length about how they borrow tricks and styles from each genre of music, be it French, Cajun, Conjunto, Norteno, polka, etc.
“The accordion is absolutely fascinating. The possibilities are endless and it also has technical challenges that you can never get tired of trying to meet,” Rubin said.
The shop is eye candy for a lover of musical instruments or someone who simply likes the way the well-crafted appliance looks. Though an accordion might just be a bunch of reeds and an aluminum sounding board inside a wood box, there are many variations of the design, and some people collect them just for the way they look.
A beginner’s model may cost as little as $300, while a top-of-the-line model anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. While Rubin says that Italians definitely make the best accordions, "it’s like sports cars– at a certain level it becomes a matter of taste.”
“There are certain factories that produce things that are so fine, then it becomes a matter (of) do you want one that sounds brighter, stiffer action, (or) one that sounds darker," he said. Rubin is a fan of the Armando Bugari, for which he is an authorized dealer.
Accordions can be classified by what tuning they are in, whether they have buttons or piano keys and how many rows of keys they have.
They are often grouped into these basic categories: diatonics which are tuned to an eight note scale, chromatics which are tuned in half steps, concertinas and piano accordions. Within these classifications are many varieties, indicative of how far and wide the instrument has traveled. For example, the South American bandoneon is considered a direct descendent of the German Concertina.
For as many variations on types of accordions exist, there are corresponding styles of music. In fact, there are particular pairings of instruments to genres, such as the Alfred Arnold bandoneon which is used to entice dancers of Argentine tango while Gabbanelli boxes are favored by practitioners of Tex-Mex.
And for those who "hate accordion music," think again. "Accordions are like beans. People say they don’t like beans, but they like humus, tacos and other things made of beans. Just like people like music with accordions in it, they just don’t realize it," said Judy Rubin, who has a background in public relations and journalism, specializes in the "customer advocacy" aspect of the business.
The biggest showcase for Boaz Accordions and their associates is the annual Cotati Accordion Festival in August, during which Sonoma County is overrun with accordion players. Boaz has been an official sponsor for the past three years, helping to coordinate talent for the shows, and naturally, supplying top-of-the-line instruments.
And whether it be a Yugoslavian-made Slovenian polka box, a chromatic Irish button box, a 30-pound "full house" number or the more recent 14-pound "lite" innovation, you can bet that you’ll find it on the shelves at the shop on Folger Avenue.