Phil Cunningham

Phil Cunningham thought he knew a bit about the accordion until an idea for a television programme that came to him while playing at a ceilidh grew into something way beyond his imagination.


“I’d always thought of the accordion as a Scottish instrument,” says the man who has become familiar to viewers at home through his long-running role as the nation’s musical first foot as well as forging an international reputation with folk bands Silly Wizard and Relativity and through his duo with fiddler Aly Bain. “But I quickly realised that probably every culture in the world thinks of it as their own instrument. It’s as ubiquitous, if not more so, as the guitar and the violin and I’d say way more adaptable than either. We didn’t get as far as this but you’re talking about an instrument that’s played by Inuits in specially built igloos and Zulus in searing temperatures.”


Over four one-hour programmes that begin transmission next week, The World Accordion to Phil examines the rise of the instrument that’s become second nature to him since he was given his first small accordion at the age of three.


He knew beforehand, of course, that many other folk traditions used the accordion and variants thereof. Some of the people he meets, chats to and plays with on his travels across Europe, China and North and South America are old friends: there’s Flaco Jiminez, the Tex-Mex master who rose to fame through his recordings with Ry Cooder; Marc Savoy, whose Cajun music formed a very natural alliance with Cunningam and Bain on a Scottish tour a few years ago; and Sharon Shannon, whose dexterity with Irish tunes on her tiny button-keyed melodeon is a constant source of pleasure to Cunningham.


What he wasn’t prepared for, though, was the sight of a park in Beijing’s Forbidden City teeming with accordion players, one of whom borrows Cunningham’s own instrument and seems reluctant to give it back, or the intense, contemporary music created by an accordion-cello duo in Vienna or the moment that reduced him to tears when Russian virtuoso Viatcheslav Semionov played him the most affectingly tragic but beautiful piece of music Cunningham had ever heard.


“I don’t speak Russian and he doesn’t speak English but through an interpreter we’d been looking into the story of how the Russian authorities got classical composers to turn folk music into so-called serious music for the accordion,” says Cunningham. “I suspect he thought I was just some twit of a foreigner who was feigning interest and asking daft questions and he went into this piece that was supposed to be a few bars of illustration and, I’m telling you, I’ve never been so moved by a piece of music in my life. He had me in floods of tears and we had to stop filming for about half an hour so that I could recover. Even doing the voice-over back home, that music broke me up.”


Semionov must have realised that Cunningham was genuine because the Russian went to the trouble of seeking out the TV crew from Scotland in their Moscow hotel the next morning and gave Cunningham a big hug. 


Watching the sociable Cunningham as he plays an impromptu familiar tune on the world’s biggest accordion in the Italian accordion town of Castelfidardo, roams the tango bars of Buenos Aires and hears a Brazilian variation on the schottische with typically brilliant triangle and tambourine accompaniment – if he thinks the accordion gets a hard time from the joke merchants, he should try playing these – it would be easy to imagine The World Accordion to Phil as a holiday with a few assignments attached. Not so. The filming schedule meant that the team had to fly in, get what they needed and move on. Consequently, Cunningham feels that the series only scratches the surface of the accordion’s impact on the world.


It is, nevertheless, full of fascinating insights. Not the least of these are Cunningham’s introduction to the sheng, the forerunner of the accordion and its free-reed cousin, the harmonica, which dates back 5,000 years, and his meeting with the son of Guido Deiro, the count who was the world’s first accordion superstar – he actually coined the term piano accordion – and was secretly married to and became briefly the Svengali behind Hollywood legend Mae West.


The aforementioned “Brazilian schottische” turns out to represent a style of music called forro that grew out of the Scottish and Irish railway workers inviting local people to their dances, saying they weren’t just holding these occasions for themselves, they were “for all” – a term that was localised into “forro”.


“We could have gone on for hours and hours,” says Cunningham, whose fascination for his instrument and its relatives has only increased with his travels and his team’s splendid research. The day before we spoke he’d acquired another ancient Chinese relative of the accordion, the hulusi, which has similar fingering to one of Cunningham’s other passions, the tin whistle, and which may well feature in a future musical adventure. It’s unlikely to replace the accordion in Cunningham’s affections, though.


“I’ve been playing the accordion professionally for thirty-five years and over that time I’ve grown to appreciate it as an incredibly expressive instrument,” he says. “It’s also very personal – if you look at Martin Green with Lau, he plays fantastically and what he does is entirely his own thing – and I think these points have been reinforced time and time again with this series. It’s given me a thirst for more knowledge of the instrument and its place in the world but it also, and this is the best bit, makes me want to pick up my accordion and play.”


From The Herald, March 4, 2011.


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