My grandfather learned to make accordions in Castelfidardo, the town where that industry began
At a table covered by a red and white-checkered tablecloth in his tiny Chicago condo, my grandfather would sit for hours manipulating wires, rods, and buttons. I’d watch with intense interest, as he’d fit each part perfectly.
Only as the final screws moved into place did we hear the harmonic melodies his music box could play.
“Bravo!” my grandfather would exclaim, as the sound escaped the accordion we’d built.
For many years, I studied my grandfather, Umberto Carocci, as he delicately built each accordion and organetto for clients around the Midwest. He was a one-man company, painstakingly constructing these complex instruments with grace and ease.
Sometimes I would help him fit and test the parts. It was during our “work hours” that I learned about the culture, history and artisan tradition behind Italy’s accordion industry, and came to better understand my Italian heritage.
After my grandfather passed away, on October 24, 2008, I began to think more about this. In the summer of 2010, I decided to delve deeper into his craft, and to revisit Castelfidardo, the central Italian town where he was born, and helped shaped the craft of accordion-making.
A Trip to Castelfidardo
The story of the making of the first accordion follows an oral tradition that seems to change with each generation.
The original tale tells of an Austrian pilgrim who lodged at the Soprani home in Castelfidardo, and introduced a bellowed box-like instrument as he and his hosts relaxed by the fire one night.
Interested in the mechanisms that allowed this music box to work, young Paolo Soprani built his own version. That led to the establishment of the accordion, concertina, and organetti industry in Castelfidardo, in 1864.
My grandfather founded the accordion house Armoni in 1946, after World War II. Then in 1969, he brought his craft to America, by purchasing Star Concertina, in Chicago.
As he distributed his concertinas throughout the Midwest, my grandfather’s work soon became well known. Star also absorbed the Imperial brand of electronic accordions and organs/pianos.
In 1986, he sold his company and retired. No other family member took up the trade, and the company eventually folded.
My grandfather’s story is similar that of many Italian accordion manufacturers. As the industry began to boom in the late 1950s, many manufacturers appeared, only to shut down within an average of five years, due to increasing competition and shrinking demand.
“The boom years were pre-Beatles,” said Fausto Fabi, the operations manager at Soprani/Scandalli in Castelfidardo, when I visited in the summer of 2010. “The accordion was not typical to rock and roll, and stayed outside of that musical circle for the most part.”
But although the accordion wasn’t a feature of the rock and roll band, John Lennon used it while composing most of his songs. Only later, during recording, would he replace the melody with the guitar, drums and bass.
Fewer Accordions Built By Hand
Today, a branch of my family continues both the Soprani and Scandalli accordion lines in Castelfidardo.
In their factory on the outskirts of Castelfidardo, a group of about 20 artisans builds an average of 1,200 accordions each year. An average of 14 people work on each accordion, which has more than 15,000 parts.
Only two major Italian accordion companies, Pigini and Soprani/Scandalli, are left here. Much of the mass production has been shifted to China, making it harder for the local producers to compete. A professional-grade accordion sells for more than $20,000 today.
The intensive artisan construction and the multitude of vendors contributing to its creation have driven up costs.
“More than a 100 different businesses go into the production of a single accordion,” Fabi explained. “All [of these businesses] are locally based, and require specialists, thus making it more expensive.”
In the past, the trade was passed down through the family, typically from grandfather to son to grandson. But in recent years, the trade has lost its strong family connection, as younger generations choose to go into different fields, and machinery replaces human handwork.
Yet the craft is still a staple of the the hill town region around Castelfidardo. And it will forever play a role in my family heritage.
In 2010, Castelfidardo’s International Accordion Festival takes place from Oct. 5-Oct. 10
Stephanie Todaro is a writer in Los Angeles. She wrote this story for the forthcoming “Urbino Now,” a magazine produced by students in IEI Media’s journalism study program in Urbino, Italy.
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