An accordion player in Myanmar? He can’t believe it either
NOW I find myself in Myanmar, playing tango on the accordion.”
This is an admittedly strange place to find oneself in, but such is the case for Rodger French, a professional musician set to perform alongside the Orchestra for Myanmar tonight at the Yangon Gallery.
Scheduled to accompany the group for three compositions by Astor Piazzolla – the famous Argentinian tango composer – French will also perform a solo tango on his accordion. The performance marks his third in Myanmar, where he has played twice previously at the American Club and at an album release party for a record he produced at Yangon’s Esus5 Recording & Jamming Studio. You read that correctly: French recorded Che Acordeon – Tangos from Buenos
Aires from the small studio in Utopia Tower on the shores of Kandawgyi Lake. The experience of being a Kentucky-born American man playing Latin American tangos in a Myanmar recording studio was, according to French, a bit bizarre.
“The recording engineer spoke no English, and I speak almost no Myanmar,” he said, laughing. “But when we needed to make adjustments, he got it done.”
French is accustomed to unusual international situations, having performed on five continents over the last 30 years. What began in Lousiville, Kentucky, with private lessons in 1954 led to a lifelong passion for the accordion, which he says was a lot cooler back then, before the rise of Elvis and the six-string guitar.
Over the years he picked up drums as well, making a living playing in bands, recording studios and orchestra pits. French even picked up professional juggling, performing what he calls a “new vaudeville thing” at colleges around the US during the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2006, Rodger and his wife Anne Johnson began life as expats due to her diplomat job in the US State Department. Their travels have taken them from Ghana to South Africa to Argentina, and at every stop, French has found a niche for his accordion.
During their time in Buenos Aires, French managed to score some jam session with Rodolfo Mederos, the internationally renowned bandeonisto (playing the accordion’s sister instrument) who has been nominated for Latin Grammy Awards three times in the last 16 years.
It was Mederos – who performed with and even opened for Piazzolla in 1960 – who transformed French’s understanding of the tango. “It was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life,” French told The
Myanmar Times. “He almost completely revamped my approach. Argentinian tango is so dramatic ... It was less about technique, and more about how to approach the music more emotionally.”
After departing from Buenos Aires and arriving in Yangon, French set to work on the album inspired by his sessions with Mederos. One month after releasing the album, he met Orchestra for Myanmar conducter Sebastian See-Schierenberg at a concert in the Strand Hotel Ballroom. They discussed collaborating, which led to tonight’s performance.
French says he’s excited to perform, especially for a Myanmar audience that is often unfamiliar with the accordion. Though older generations may remember singer/accordionist Ohm Kyaw, famous during the junta years for songs such as “Yaung Pei Su”, younger Myanmar people are often fascinated by French’s instrument.
“You get their attention right away,” he said. “The accordion is not something you see every day.”
“You get their attention right away. The accordion is not something you see every day.” Rodger French, professional accordion player
See-Schierenberg says that the program was born from a desire to raise the standard of string music in Myanmar.
Guest musicians from Taiwan travelled by way of Hong Kong to join the performance.
Sebastian See-Schierenberg conducts the Orchestra for Myanmar tonight at Yangon Gallery from 5-7pm.
Rodger French takes a break from recording at Yangon’s Esus5 Recording & Jamming Studio during a session in November 2015.