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The Entertainer and Dining Guide: Polka-Palooza

Solander, O.J. "The Entertainer and Dining Guide: Polka-Palooza." Lodi News-Sentinel, 16 October 1998, 1.


Musician Don Sommerfeld poses with his accordion and his lederhosen in his Lodi home. Sommerfeld said his band performs at two or three Octoberfests a week during October. Two versions of his band will be at the Lodi Octoberfest.

Of all the unusual facts Don Sommerfeld knows about the accordion, this may be the one that surprises people the most: The instrument so closely associated with German polka music was invented in China.

But that's only the beginning of what Sommerfeld knows about the portable folding keyboards. And he doesn't even have to start talking about the instrument - it's obvious from the numerous ceramic figurines on display in the musician's home.

Dogs with accordions. Frogs with accordions. Clowns and kids and Santa Claus, all with accordions.

"When I see a figure playing an accordion I don't usually pass it by," Sommerfeld said, decked out in his lederhosen.

He has about 30 accordions all together, some of which are stacked on shelves in his Lodi home along with all those musical figurines.

Sommerfeld collects the instruments. He repairs them. And he even built one for a friend once. And, of course he plays them.

Sommerfeld will appear with two different versions of his band at the third annual Lodi Octoberfest on Saturday.

From 4 to 7 p.m., he will appear with a four-piece band. From 7 to 11, the band expands to seven players.

It will be the first appearance at the Lodi Octoberfest for Sommerfeld, who moved here in 1962.

The reason Sommerfeld hasn't performed at Lodi's version of the traditional German harvest celebration is that he's usually busy playing similar festivals throughout the state.

"This time of year, we're usually doing two to three Octoberfests a week," he said. "This counts more than all those other jobs. Now I'm recognized in my own town."

The family band travels so frequently that the outgoing message on the Sommerfeld answering machine says that if they're not at home, they're probably at an Octoberfest somewhere.

"They're very busy this time of year," said Lodi Grape Festival Manager Mark Armstrong. "We've been trying to get him for three or four years."

Sommerfeld is originally from Gackle, N.D. - town that he described as two-thirds German and one-third Finnish. He was a trumpet player first and began playing accordion in 1954.

"I worked my first 2-1/2 years of college playing the trumpet. Then I came to California and did another 2-1/2 of college playing the accordion," Sommerfeld said. "When I came here, nobody was looking for trumpet players. Or, they weren't looking for me."

Another surprising accordion fact that Sommerfeld is able to cite: The instrument, thought of by so many as the essence of being unhip, is actually quite technologically advanced and can be used to play any kind of music from polka to rock and roll.

The technology point is illustrated by popping the hood of his slick black, rhinestone-speckled, 26-pound accordion.

Place the insides of the instrument next to the guts of a typical personal computer, and Bill Gates himself may not be able to tell the difference between the two.

"The accordion has been out in front of keyboard technology," Sommerfeld said. "Accordions now have things that keyboards will have in a few years."

The big black squeeze box hardly looks futuristic. Sommerfeld even has a few more ancient-looking models - instruments with rounded metallic exteriors that look like a set of piano keys welded to the grill of a Studebaker.

But many accordions have been fitted with digital technology since 1977, Sommerfeld said, Showing the series of wires that goes to produce the accordion's tone - technology that he sees modern keyboard players marvel over whenever he explains it to them.

"The idea of having an electric accordion goes all the way back to when I started playing," he said. "Sometimes the modern generation is behind the older guys."

Reprinted with permission of the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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