Even in the midst of the fervor for the 2012 Olympics, Lincoln Center is the last place you’d expect to find a wrestling match. Add an accordionist to the mix, and the picture becomes more intriguing. The esoteric sport has been revived in Accordion Wrestling, a cross-disciplinary tribute to a quirky Finnish tradition. Created by Kimmo Pohjonen, who plays a modified electric squeezebox and sports a mohawk, the show runs Friday 3 and Saturday 4 as part of the arts presenter’s gratis Out of Doors festival. TONY spoke with Pohjonen and Lincoln Center’s public programming director, Bill Bragin, who gave us a few choice tidbits about this lost art and how it’s been updated for today.
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Wrestling was different back in the day.
Pohjonen first heard of the sport in the ’90s, when he met an old-timer accordionist who used to accompany matches half a century before. “I thought at first that it was a joke because it sounded pretty weird, even for me,” says Pohjonen. The international governing body for wrestling didn’t impose time limits on matches until the 1920s. (The world’s longest bout, at the 1912 Olympics between a Finn and a Russian, lasted an exhausting 11 hours and 40 minutes.) To boost the entertainment value, Finnish promoters enlisted accordionists to play during contests.
It’s choreographed…kind of.
Determined to revive this tradition for the modern era, Pohjonen reached out to the Helsinki Nelson professional team at its gym. At first, the younger members were suspicious. “Most of them looked at me really weird,” he says. “What is this guy doing here with his amplified accordion?” Eventually, ten Nelson members, a mixture of men and women between 15 and 61 years old, agreed to collaborate. Together with choreographer Ari Numminen, Pohjonen and the athletes created a performance that includes sparring that can alter from show to show, plus choreographed pieces inspired by actual wrestling strength exercises. “You can see the connection to break dancing,” says Bragin. But at other times, “it almost looks like a Busby Berkeley routine.” Pohjonen plays along on his accordion, with an extra percussive element added by the sounds the performers’ bodies make when they strike the amplified mat.
Accordionists were rock stars.
Squeezebox players were billed alongside the wrestlers, partly to attract women to the generally dudecentric events. After the match was over, the musicians would continue to play, striking up a few ditties so spectators could kick up their heels. It was as much a concert as it was an athletic event. For Pohjonen, the Hendrix of the squeezebox world, Accordion Wrestling is one way he’s trying to popularize the instrument. “Nowadays, there are lots of young players who are modernizing it,” he says. “When I was starting to play as a young boy, it was a really uncool instrument. I was even ashamed to tell my friends.”
Wrestling is a big deal in Finland.
With the 2012 Olympics now under way, it seems appropriate to mention that Finland has won 27 gold medals in wrestling (more than all other sports except track and field and Nordic skiing). Pohjonen’s show highlights its lofty standing, right up there with saunas and poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer). “One of the sections deals with issues of machismo in the Finnish personality,” says Bragin. “There’s a certain kind of stoicism that’s present in it; and then there are points in the piece where the wrestlers are really playful. You just don’t usually see wrestlers like that. Hopefully, this is something that will tear people away from their TVs for a little while to see athletes in the flesh.”
Accordionists of yore had to learn one particularly strange skill: Musicians were instructed to keep an eye on the wrestlers’ expressions as they grappled, searching for telltale signs that a contestant was about to let one rip. “These guys squeeze each other so much that sometimes there’s extra air that comes out,” explains Pohjonen. When he sensed that the moment was ripe, the accordionist would play louder to cover the sound of the fart.
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