Prahran Accordion Band’s home is the German Club Tivoli on Dandenong Road. It’s not a building to evoke architectural wonder as you pass, but inside on the first and third Thursdays of the month, magic happens.
From around 6.45pm, members of the Prahran Accordion Band (PAB) can be spotted lugging cases out of cars, setting up music stands and testing their bellows in eager anticipation of another fortnightly session, led by Phil Carroll.
PAB is not huge in numbers which means a real sense of connection is being nurtured and as word gets out, the ranks are growing steadily. There’s now an average of ten players on any given week from across a wide area of Melbourne, battling evening traffic and catching trains in their dedication to squeeze in the time and to get to grips with their accordions.
We are a mixed bunch. Our lineage extends out of that big rehearsal room into the streets of Windsor and from there, all over the globe. To Poland, South America, Germany, Italy and the UK. Our ability varies a lot too; some people, like Hans Gruneberg, are absolute beginners while others have been playing since childhood.
Hans moved from Germany to Australia at the age of 22. Raised in West Berlin, he made the passage by sea away from his family and his home. On arrival at Port Melbourne he was put into quarantine where he was forced to shower seven times a day and have all his belongings sprayed with disinfectant. Undeterred, he has made Australia his home for the past 43 years. Speaking English as his second language, Hans found work as a butcher, married an Australian woman and raised a family of his own.
Hans speaks nostalgically of hearing the accordion played in his German family home especially at Christmas time and about how, as a child, it was a dream of his own to learn to play.
At the age of 65, thanks to the launch of the PAB as part of CMVic’s StreetSounds project, Hans was finally able to tick this wish off his bucket list. Having never played an instrument before, Hans was encouraged to join by Paul Smyth, founding member of the band, and Judy Gunson who occasionally leads the group.
Hans describes being able to play the accordion as a ‘dream come true’.
“It’s a great feeling to make music… it’s a great group, a friendly group. I enjoy taking part and it gets me out… it’s very supportive… and now I can play tunes by myself.”
The first thirty minutes of each session, is all about going slow for the beginners and that’s the time to ask questions and focus on tunes covering a range of no more than five notes in the right hand, and two chords or less, with the left.
Even then, it can feel surprisingly hard to correlate the two, and evokes the same looks of confusion and concentration as you see on the face of a child trying to simultaneously pat their head and rub their tum. But with just ten minutes practice every day or so, it’s amazing how quickly skills can noticeably improve.
The more extended part of the PAB repertoire includes classics such as La Paloma, and Roll out the Barrel. If you can’t play a piece with both hands, stick with one, join in when and where you can. In this way, we’re making great progress, and learning major and minor scales in the right hand, too.
The sound of a tune divided into alto and soprano parts can be amazing, the harmonies blending; the bits where we stumble and fall flat half way into a tune and have to go over a particular bar several times or start all over again, serve to deepen our connection and commitment to our practice because nobody minds and we all have a laugh.
The chat around the table during our break is also evolving to include more personal issues as people open up to share stories of their backgrounds and their daily lives.
Hans, for example, has overcome an ongoing battle with joint pain and a recent knee replacement makes him the most bionic member of the PAB. He is also a keen documenter of the club’s progress, taking photos of the group in action at Christmas and in concert last year at the Chris Gahan centre, which he then prints out and shares around. Old school, and precious. Hans is also a regular at the club’s shooting range and is a bit of a champion shot. As Phil says, Accordion Players, beware!
The Prahran Accordion Band meets every fortnight for two hours from 7-9pm. An annual subscription of $40 is paid by each player to Club Tivoli for the rehearsal space, which, as Phil points out, is probably cheaper than a one to one accordion lesson, so we’re onto a pretty great thing and there’s a weekly cost of $10. So if you or anyone else you know is using their cased accordion as a coffee table , get them to come down and see what it’s all about.
Prahran Accordion Band is open to players of all age, skill level and ability and is supported by Community Music Victoria through the StreetSounds project. For further information, email the team at Community Music Victoria