Squeezebox Night: monthly Swiss tribute in Monroe

musicOnce a month on a Tuesday night, the basement at Monroe’s Turner Hall fills.

Fans of all things Swiss devour Schublig sausages, potatoes with melted Raclette cheese, Hasli-filee pork medallions, cheese pie, fondue and more.

Diners linger because of the music, a jam session where accordions dominate. Each of the 10 or more performers takes a turn to choose a waltz, polka, obscure ethnic folk tune or long-loved classic – taking the lead while colleagues listen or harmonize. The format is laid-back, and any genre of music is fair play.

This is Squeezebox Night, one of several efforts to keep Swiss heritage front-and-center in this southwest Wisconsin city of 10,800 residents. Why accordions? The instrument is popular in Swiss folk music, and the late Rudy Burkhalter, a notable Swiss accordionist, taught hundreds of area residents to play.

John Waelti was among the students, and now he teaches others, including 14-year-old Esperé Eckard-Lee of Brodhead. When the gifted teen shows up at Squeezebox Night, he needs no music.

“I just like the way it sounds,” Esperé says, of the accordion. It is one of five musical instruments that he plays.

The monthly jams, says mother Heather Eckard-Lee, are attractive because they convey “an old-fashioned, hometown pride that’s becoming very rare.”

What began in 2007 under the guidance of long-respected accordionist Del Heins turns strangers into friends and performance partners.

That’s the case with John Waelti and his work partner, Bobbie Edler, who met during a jam and now perform as a duo. “This is where we discovered we had a similar rapport with accordion” music, she says.

Accordion players are “the Rodney Dangerfield of musicians,” John acknowledges, with a smile. “We get respect in a back-handed way.”

Bobbie says what began as a romantic instrument, then a proud expression of ethnic pride, hit a peak in the mid 1950s – but the subsequent slide in public interest apparently is reversing.

More accordions are popping up in rock bands, the duo notes, and accordion music is being picked up at the symphony level.

“It’s caught on in rather sophisticated circles,” Bobbie observes.

“In Europe, the accordion remains taken seriously, and it’s a conservatory instrument in Russia. We are inspired with what could happen here.”

Bertha Digman, a Monroe retiree who is among the Turner Hall regulars, says she is thankful for this and other Swiss heritage events.

“With so many new people moving to town, we just hope these wonderful things don’t die,” she says.

Squeezebox Night is 6-8 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month, and newcomers are welcome. For more about Swiss heritage events, Ratskeller food and the nonprofit Turner Hall, 1217 17th Ave., Monroe: turnerhallofmonroe.org, 608-325-3461. Dancing to live music happens from 1-5 p.m. on Sundays; admission is $10.

This year’s Green County Cheese Days, Sept. 19-21, happens 100 years after the inaugural event. One hundred accordionists – some playing the instrument for the first time in decades – will present “Come to Cheese Days,” the event’s anthem since 1965, with the Monroe City Band.

“Come to Cheese Days in Monroe:
“That’s the place for you to go.
“Music, dancing, yodeling, too,
“And a big parade for you.”

The event draws 100,000 visitors, who nibble cheese by the ton. That includes grilled sandwiches and cold cubes, some paired with chocolate or beer.

Another option: sliders with pungent and soft Limburger, which is only manufactured in one place in North America: Chalet Cheese Co-op in Monroe.

Green County’s 12 creameries produce about 50 of the state’s 600 kinds of cheese, and 13 of the country’s 60 master cheesemakers (advanced certification) work here.

Cheese is the star of this festival, but it also is an opportunity to show off Swiss crafts, bakery, music, dancing, yodeling and music.

Green County Cheese Days happens on even-numbered years. Admission is free. cheesedays.com, 608-328-1838

A World of Accordions Museum, 1401 Belknap St., Superior, is home to the nation’s largest collection of the instrument. Also inside this former Presbyterian church is a 1,000-seat concert hall.

Director/curator Helmi Strahl Harrington takes a scholarly approach to her work, which also involves operation of an accordion repair school and weekly accordion lessons for 60 students in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Endeavors are affiliated with the American Accordionists Association.

The museum opened 10 years ago with about 1,000 accordions, ordinary to rare (as in a $65,000 Pigini Mythos, from Russia). Helmi says it has since gained many more items from the estates of accordion teachers, scholars and aficionados (including Faithe Deffner, whose publishing company with husband Ernest sold many styles of accordion music worldwide).

“We felt that it was urgent for us to enter the publishing arena and sustain the existing literature even if it was not profitable,” she states at accordions.com. “We decided to use accordion profits to subsidize music publishing simply because the accordion could not exist without literature.”

Museum admission is $10; call for hours. Memberships are $36 for an individual, $55 for a family and $200 for a corporation. Tax-deductible donations also are appreciated. accordionworld.org, 715-395-2787