They had not docked as planned in Cienfuegos, as the sea was too rough and the winds too strong and the ship’s captain made the decision not to and no one was happy. They had gone first to Key West, and the old man was happy there, visiting the Hemingway house and seeing his typewriter and his books. And then they had gone to Havana, and that was good and the old man saw the decaying buildings from the old centuries when the Spanish came and fed God to the natives and killed them. And he saw the building where Ernest lived and wrote and drank rum and cola and looked down at the baked stones of the ancient plaza. But now they could not dock at Cienfuegos, the ship idled, and the old man got too much sun and sat on the veranda outside his cabin and wrote.
In Havana they had heard music at Tropicana and the music made the old man sad because he could not make it with them, joining the trumpets rejoicing in high perfect thirds over the claves and drums and maracas and impossible girls in thongs and high-piled hats writhing.
He could not make the music without his ‘Cordeen.
…The reason for all this ersatz Hemingway? I am on a fancy cruise; I’m visiting all sorts of Hemingway sites in Key West and Havana; I’m rereading “The Old Man and the Sea”; and I miss my squeezebox.
Maybe I should have titled this “A Farewell to Accordions”, for a week at least. Or “For Whom the Bellows Squoze.”
I am, apparently, quite insane.
At night, as the ocean rocks me to sleep, rather than envision the impossible girls in thongs, I see all 120 bass buttons arrayed in my head, and my mind rehearses fingerings from last week’s lesson. My mind works no better than my fingers, and it makes plenty of mistakes.
During the day, while my wife is roasting herself at poolside, I furtively sit on the cabin veranda and try to make sense of the Hohner iPad Accordion Life App, purportedly a digital practice ‘Cordeen, right at my fingertips. It provides a graphical two-octave keyboard and thirty-six buttons: nine bass notes with a choice of counterbass or bass (but not both at once) and major, minor and seventh chords. It even provides three “registers” — musette 1, musette 2, and clarinet. They don’t sound too bad considering the tiny iPad speakers. If I hooked it up to a higher quality Bluetooth speaker, who knows – I might have a budget Roland….?
The Hohner app also offers the curious capacity to raise or lower the bass tones by a whole step — kind of like exposure compensation for an accordion. At first glance, I thought it might serve the same purpose as that guitar capo that lets your niece the teenage-angst folksinger play her guitar in those hard keys — but it won’t. It only works on the bass buttons. Apparently, it’s there to push the range of the app up or down a step while leaving the treble to you: transposition not included.
No, the Hohner app won’t give me my desperately needed fix — most of all because it’s missing one critical element: tactile markers for my C, E, and Ab buttons. Absolutely no way to find them without looking, which is against true religion. Now it would be possible to scratch the screen with a nail file to give me feedback for finding the proper buttons, but that might get in the way of some other applications. Probably not the best idea.
We ate breakfast this morning on the “Lido” deck. It bears no resemblance to the island off of Venice, so the name is pretty much arbitrary. At 8 in the morning, it gets pretty crowded, but my fellow cruisers are pretty happy to share their tables. We shared ours this morning with a couple from Toronto who commented on my Phillies hat and asked us questions about Philadelphia. “I saw some of your Mummers’ Parade on TV,” the gentleman said. “What is that all about?”
I explained our annual civic New Years’ drunk as best I could, and how the Mummers had only recently allowed women to participate, as they were previously considered not man enough to wear a dress. I also explained that I had been invited to be a Mummer, as I played the accordion: Mummer “string bands” frequently consist of saxophones, tenor banjos, and accordions. And one or two unfortunates marching with a string bass on a caisson.
“The accordion?” My new Canadian friend chuckled, more amused by ‘cordeens than with Mummerdom. “You don’t meet too many accordion players these days!”
I assured him there was an Accordion Renaissance going on
“Uh huh”, he said.
By the way, I didn’t become a Mummer. A friend of mine, a distinguished lawyer who plays banjo, did join up. We have a picture of him from last year’s Mummer’s parade dressed up as Carmen Miranda — fruit on his head and all. It’s a bad image. And the idea of playing my accordion on a frigid Philadelphia New Years Morning and freezing my fingers off while dressed as an impossible girl in a high-piled hat (thankfully, no thong – that’s a really bad image) holds little appeal to me.
There are street musicians all over Havana. Everywhere you go — especially where las turistas wander — guitarists strum and sing, accompanied by various ethnic percussion instruments. One group even launched into a rousing chorus of “La Cucaracha”, apparently believing that as long as they sung in Spanish, the traveling gringos wouldn’t be able to tell Mexican from Cuban. The groups were all very good — but it bothered me that none of the quartets we saw included an accordion. I’d heard the button variety ‘Cordeen in particular was endemic in Latin America these days. Gabbanelli, the well-respected Italian accordion manufacturer, now operates out of Houston, making colorfully decorated button instruments for the Latin market – their website comes up in Spanish. In Colombia, the drug trade has been replaced by accordion competitions: there’s a Smithsonian Channel documentary about it: “The Accordion Kings.” Almost every competitor plays the Hohner Corona, and even the children’s division features virtuoso performers. Some of the kids are spectacular.
But back to Havana — not a single ‘Cordeen on the street.
Oddly enough, though, we did hear one accordion solo in a less likely Havanese venue.
Let me explain – an American citizen can’t just jet off to Havana for a Cuba libre and a cigar. In its wisdom, the US State Department mandates that you can’t act as an ordinary tourist: you have to take part in a “cultural exchange.” This mostly consists of being ferried around in a tour. Our guide meandered us through historic forts and plazas (first stop: the souvenir shop. Hooray for Capitalism), spoke nonchalantly of the Cuban Missile Crisis, took us to lunch at Hemingway’s favorite restaurant (overrun with “cultural exchange”), and spoke glowingly of the Revolution and Che Guevara.
But she also took us to a modern dance recital invoking various Cuban folk traditions. And there, in a beautifully sequenced performance by an elegant young dancer, we heard a brief, achingly beautiful accordion solo.
It was the last place I expected it.
As we sat on our stateroom balcony last night, marveling at the lustrous black night and the vast, glittering canopy of stars, my thoughts very naturally turned to the accordion.
I mean, whose wouldn’t?
And what I wondered about was why I missed it so much and whether I should stow a concertina away in my luggage next time we go cruising.
As to the latter, probably not. I’m having enough trouble learning the accordion to some degree of skill; mastering a whole ‘nother system of concertina buttons would likely drive me nuts.
As to the former — I don’t know. Maybe it’s the comforting feeling of becoming part of the instrument every time I strap into it. Maybe it’s the rush I get squeezing music right out of the air. Or maybe — OK, I’m going to go out on a limb here…….
In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman, hasn’t had a catch in 84 days — so he sails “further out” and hooks a magnificent marlin.
He battles it for three full days, fighting it to exhaustion.
As he fights the fish that will make his fortune, he realizes he loves it. But despite his suffering and eventual victory in the epic struggle, the sharks come and devour his catch, despite his futile efforts to fight them away.
Santiago is left with nothing but the marlin’s spine and sword and the admiration of the villagers and “the boy” who takes care of him and gives him hope..
But the Old Man doesn’t despair — as the novella ends, he and the boy prepare to go out to the water the next day.
The story is a magnificent metaphor for all human struggle.
OK – I am not an impoverished Cuban fisherman fighting marlins and sharks for survival. But I definitely am an Old Man — and ‘Santiago’ was even my name in 4th grade Spanish class because the other Steve snagged ‘Esteban’. And I will be the first to admit that the comparison I’m about to make is slightly ridiculous.
But the accordion is my marlin — something I am attempting to conquer in my old age. It’s a hell of a fight. Dallas, my young teacher, is the boy. And poor eyesight, arthritic fingers, and a lousy memory are my sharks, biting away at any successes I might have. I will probably never master the instrument; but damn it all, I’m going to take the boat out again tomorrow.
Our cruise is about finished: we pull in to Fort Lauderdale early, and if the weather holds (the Northern forecast is for snow), I’ll be back in Philly by evening.
I’m sorry the cruise is over. But I can’t wait to practice.
Copyright © 2018 Stephen A. Hirsch