Monday, June 11, 2007

Master of the Accordion: Remi Picco

I wrote this story about my accordion instructor for the defunct Showcase magazine.

Remi Picco: Master of the Squeezebox

Christmas has come early for 76-year old Remi Picco. The Kelowna resident eagerly displays his new 10-track digital recording equipment. “It writes straight to CD,” he says in his studio, the walls lined with speakers, amplifiers, mixing board and a tremendous variety of electronics. Not surprisingly, a security system blinks in the corner of the room. Clearly at ease with this complex musical equipment, Remi says with confidence and a gentle smile, “It offers me unlimited musical possibilities.“
The heart of the equipment sits gleaming on a shelf. Gloss black and bejewelled in rhinestones, it’s a top-of-the-line, state of the art ”Petosa” accordion. Custom built in Italy, the 16-channel Petosa connects the studio equipment together as an electronic ensemble.
You could call Remi the Okanagan Grand Master of the Accordion, the Maestro of the Squeezebox, or a Virtuoso of Harmony. Trophies crowd a shelf in his studio; he has won an award every year he has competed at the famous Kimberley International Old Time Accordion Competition. This year he won the Diamond award, the first time its been offered. On another wall are signed photos of past and present giants of the accordion world. Remi knows each of them. “They’re all friends of mine,” he says.
Formerly much maligned as the instrument of schmaltz and geriatric waltz, the accordion has experienced a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years. Remi’s schedule is evidence of this growing appreciation; he’s playing 17 events this holiday season. “It’s my busiest ever, “ he says, “I’m already booking into next year.
The accordion is a difficult instrument to play well. The musician can see neither hand, and both hands must play independently to provide melody, harmony and rhythm. Though a keyboard is part of the instrument, the accordion, Remi points out, is really a wind instrument. The subtle skill of controlling the bellows breathes life into musical pieces. “When you wear the instrument, it becomes part of you, “ he says, “When you play a Strauss waltz, its your own expression.”
Remi is known throughout Kelowna for his many appearances. He plays at ethnic society dances, such as the German club, the Italian club, and the Sons of Norway. He also performs at innumerable weddings, banquets, anniversaries and events like OUC’s Career Fair. His success stems from his love of connecting with his audience through his toe-tapping dance music.
Remi remains a popular favourite at senior care homes such as Hawthorne Park and Three Links. At such venues his audience is often younger than he, something he attributes to his love of the accordion. “It’s bestowed the gift of youth on me, “ he professes. His youthfulness is apparent in the swift sureness of his strong fingers over the keyboard. “At 76 I’m playing better than when I was 25,” he says.
Remi only began playing in his teens after he immigrated to Canada from Italy. Living outside Cranbrook, he taught himself to play by ear on a model that he and his dad purchased for thirty dollars out of the Eaton’s catalogue.
After a variety of jobs in the resource industries, Remi attended teacher college in Victoria before returning to the Kootenays to teach. Later in Vancouver he ran began taking accordion lessons. He was 28 years old and his teacher “made me start from scratch.” In later years he moved to Kelowna and pursued the accordion fulltime. He now teaches, plays gigs and arranges music.
Remi’s life is full with other pursuits too. Earlier this year he played the role of a strolling accordionist in a CBC-TV French production. As well, he adjudicated a competition and conducted a 52-piece ensemble. And in July he and his daughter flew to Brazil where they drove to a remote countryside spiritual centre. “It was an enlightening unforgettable experience,” he.
Music remains his enduring passion. He plays hundreds of selections from memory and has a repertoire of thousands from written music. His cabinets hold uncounted volumes of accordion books and reams of sheet music. His collection of accordion music is outstanding, possibly the largest in Canada. “Oh, gee, I’ve got music coming out of the walls “ he says, “A fellow came from back east just to buy some from me.”
Remi’s musical range encompasses the range of his library. He easily demonstrates his musical virtuosity, playing the same piece in a variety of styles. His musical comfort zone extends from east European polka and waltz to Latin tango and rumba, from Scandinavian schottische to Italian tarantella, just to scratch the surface. Recently, says Remi, “I’ve become more interested in semi-classical music.
His knowledge of music theory is no less encyclopaedic. He discusses with ease the nuances of minor and major keys, discords, and intervals. “It makes me a better player,” he says. For Remi Picco, music constitutes part of his life, and the cultural life of the Okanagan is the richer for it.

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