Niche Market | Accordions

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New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow and video below.

Main Squeeze Accordions
19 Essex Street 
New York, NY 10002

"Main Squeeze" has a double meaning, says accordion shop owner Walter Kuhr: "Your darling baby, and squeezebox." The tiny Lower East Side store certainly functions as Kuhr's main squeeze; playing has been his passion since the age of seven when his mother gently put an accordion in his arms. 

When Kuhr opened the shop in 1996, accordions had a cult following among genre-specific musicians. But these days, Kuhr said, the accordion is "the hippest instrument on the planet" and has a place in avant garde bands, Mariachi, neo-folk or the 14-piece female orchestra that Kuhr conducts. He claims the oft-mocked instrument is experiencing a renaissance because people realized the wide-ranging sonic expressions of the instrument.

"In the middle of a song you can switch and all of a sudden from sweet you can sound nasty or rough or brutal," he said. "And then you switch another button it sounds like a lonely, a lonely shepherd on the top of an Italian hill somewhere."

The accordion's tremolo sound is integral to many different musical genres: "When an Italian hears an accordion being played he thinks of Italy. When a German hears an accordion, he thinks of Germany. And when a Russian hears one, he thinks of Russia," Kuhr said.

Accordions vary widely in shape, size and what sounds they produce. Kuhr sells his own line manufactured in the Czech Republic and others from China that range from $250 to $5000. He said many people now prefer to buy instruments online, but he gets indirect business from eBay and craigslist sales as musicians bring him those very instruments to repair.

What really keeps him going is high demand for lessons from budding accordion players, mostly female. According to Kuhr, that's due to it being a "romantic" instrument.

The store is also known to be a one-stop-shop for accordion needs in the city, and a place to jam. On a recent afternoon, French singer Floanne Ankah dropped in looking for an accordion player to play with her in an upcoming gig.

"A lot of the classics are done with accordion, it's the old fashioned way," she said. "But you also have to make it current, so you have to play with musicians who are good to make things work for today's tempo and rhythm and everything."

Within minutes, Kuhr was sitting on a chair squeezing air through an instrument all the while playing keys, pressing buttons and flicking switches, and she was singing Charles Aznavour tunes.

When did you start to play the accordion?

I started playing the accordion at the age of seven. My mother handed me an accordion which she played herself, and asked me, 'Do you want to take lessons? Do you want to learn how to play it?' And I said 'Yes,' which was back then not the hippest instrument. On the contrary, it was rather ridiculed. The hip thing was the electric guitar, but I played the accordion all my life, and I never regretted it. In all the cities I lived — in Frankfurt, Hamburg — sometimes I even put it in the pawn shop but always got it back and I'm still playing it. Now, here in America, where I am for the last 21 years trying to make it more popular, and now it's totally coming back into style.

Why do you think it's become so popular?

People discovered that the accordion is not only extremely powerful and expressive, it can be everything: funny, intimate, and it has many sounds. Unlike a piano where you hit a string and 'bong,' it goes down, an accordion you can do the exact opposite. You can start from nothing and make it scream, and vice versa. ... With an accordion with several switches you can sound like a clarinet or a bassoon, or a bandoneón, or you can sound like an Hammond organ, and you choose the sounds for the type of music you're playing.

Is there one popular model of accordion that's popular?

A solo performer on the accordion needs an entirely different instrument than, let's say, a guy or a person who wants to join a rock band. If you play an accordion concerto, like a big arrangement, you need 120 bases and lots of different sounds from piccolo to everything. If you play in a band, let's say you're Mexican and you play in a Mariachi band or being accompanied by a guitar, all you need is a certain sound and you don't even need the left hand because the left hand, which is the accompaniment, is covered by the other musicians and all you want is that specific sound, that tremolo, that makes it sweet and Mexican.

What kind of instrument is the accordion?

The accordion is a wind instrument. It only works if wind goes into a certain valve, in a certain hole where the reed is attached to. When the wind goes in then the reed starts to vibrate, the metal tongue starts to vibrate and that's when we hear the note. If you press a key on an accordion sitting on a bench or on the floor you hear nothing. All you do you press a key and it opens a hole and that's it. That's not an instrument. The wind, which is controlled by your left arm, by your left wrist, pulling and pushing the air into the bellows, and into the reeds that makes this instrument sound.

Walter Kuhr, owner of Main Squeeze, playing the accordion.
Walter Kuhr, owner of Main Squeeze, playing the accordion. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Walter Kuhr and French singer Floanne.
Walter Kuhr and French singer Floanne. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )