Beyond Polka: Championing the accordion at Mahler Music

Ken Mahler examines an accordion // Photo by Tj Turner

Ken Mahler of Mahler Music examines an accordion // Photo by Tj Turner

A 20-something man lugs a battered accordion case through the screen door at Mahler Music. As he pulls the instrument out of the box, Ken Mahler is already speaking.

“This is a 1930s accordion. Probably 1938 or ’39,” he says, pointing to the engraving and inlay. He tinkers with the strap, points out broken buttons, and begins to explain the process of repair. This particular model has waxed-in reed plates, which typically only have a 50-year lifespan, he explains, then recommends using the instrument as a showpiece as opposed to trying to play it.

Ken can appraise an accordion in a matter of seconds. He can rattle off model years and components invisible to the average onlooker in the same way your grandpa might recite the make, model, and horsepower of the old rattletrap whizzing by on the highway. He says it all as though he were talking to the instrument itself—respectfully, reverently even. Ken is a reserved individual and seems more at home with his instruments than with people. Talking about himself is well outside his comfort zone. But put an accordion in his hands and his reserve melts away.

The story behind the young man’s accordion is a common one. It was a gift from his grandmother, who had played the instrument decades earlier and thought her grandson, also a musician, might like to try it out. Unfortunately, the years it spent sitting in storage haven’t been kind, making it more of a novelty item than a working instrument.

An assortment of accordions on display inside Ken's shop // Photo by Tj Turner

An assortment of accordions on display inside Mahler Music in St. Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

Once popular, the accordion’s heyday was in the mid-20th century. “In the 1940s and 1950s, there was an accordion player on every block,” Ken says. “Now you might find one every square mile.”

One reason for the popularity of the instrument at that time was its presence on “The Lawrence Welk Show.” But while Welk gave the accordion a spotlight, there was an unintended consequence of him being the one highlighting it: it cast the instrument as being for “squares.” As Elvis Presley and then The Beatles rose to popularity, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll music became wildly popular, relegating the majority of bulky squeezeboxes to the basement, only to be dug up decades later by a younger generation.

Mahler grew up during the 1960s and says he appreciates both accordions and guitars, as well as the styles of music for which the instruments are best known. He started his musical career playing the guitar but moved on to the accordion when he was 10. He played all the way through high school and eventually landed a long-standing gig with the Mancini Players, a five-piece dance band that performed four nights a week at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul. He played there for 25 years. He’s now retired but still jams with a band called The Goombas, a group he affectionately calls “senior rockers.”

Ken outside of his shop on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

Ken Mahler outside of his shop, Mahler Music, on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

In 1983 he opened Mahler Music, a small shop on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, where he repairs and sells accordions and teaches lessons. Thirty-five years later, Mahler says he’s still “up to his eyeballs” in business. It’s evident: On a rainy Wednesday morning in July, the store is teeming with people lined up for their lessons or dropping in for repairs. Four men drive up from southern Minnesota every other week to take lessons back-to-back. Those waiting for their turn squeeze themselves into an alcove, joking and chatting like teenagers in the classroom.

“I used to teach one day a week,” Mahler says. “Now I teach six. I have 20 to 25 students a week. I can’t keep up.”

Is it a resurgence in interest in the squeezebox?

“Nah. All the old guys who teach are dying off,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “There are just fewer of us now.”

Deb Vosejpka, Ken’s niece and the brains behind Mahler Music’s newest endeavor, the Legacy Project, isn’t so sure. She sees a rise in young players. “Of Ken’s 20 to 25 students, at least six or seven are children,” she says. (In fact, eight are.)

Deb is certain that the accordion isn’t going anywhere—so certain that earlier this year she committed to raising awareness about the accordion and those who play. In April 2018, Deb launched the Legacy Project, an online hub of all-things accordion. In particular, Deb aims to provide a space on the internet where accordionists can create and update profiles showcasing their work, their concerts, and their progress in playing the instrument.

The Legacy Project is hosted on Mahler Music’s website. The concept is simple: each musician has a page with a short bio, photos, and links to audio or video recordings. Deb hopes to make it as easy as possible for everyone to participate. “They just send the info to me and I’ll do all the uploading and resizing,” she says. “It’s really a service, a way for us to support the community. It’s not about making a buck; it’s all free.”

In her estimation, many musicians just don’t have the time or interest in keeping up a website or Facebook page. As a result, they stay under the radar. “They’re musicians, they don’t have time to do this stuff,” she says. “We want to provide a way for them to document their work.”

The most common misconception about the accordion is that it’s an old person’s instrument. The sight of one triggers visions of polkas and traditional folk costumes. But the accordion is finding its way into plenty of popular music as well. Bands like Flogging Molly, Arcade Fire, and The Decemberists feature it in their work. What’s more, accordions have enjoyed continued popularity outside of the United States.

Ken in his shop // Photo by Tj Turner

Ken Mahler of Mahler Music explains the inner workings of the accordion // Photo by Tj Turner

Ken asserts that Americans tend to think they have the last word on what’s hot in the music scene. “[They] couldn’t be more wrong,” he says, adding that the accordion is prevalent in cultures across the globe, from Europe to the Middle East to South America. “Our slogan is that you really can travel the world through the accordion,” he adds, motioning to a license plate cover emblazoned with these words.

Like his niece, Ken is dedicated to educating people about the world of music the accordion has to offer beyond standard polka. According to him and his team, the accordion is as relevant as it ever was. And Ken, like the accordion, has no plans to go anywhere. He’ll keep championing his instrument as long as he’s able. “They’re going to have to carry me out of here on a gurney,” he jokes.