While the international quintet profiled in Swiss filmmaker Stefan Schwietert's 2004 documentary film Accordion Tribe had a contemporary and even avant-gardist reputation, the squeezebox ensemble, founded in the mid-'90s by New York City's Guy Klucevsek, also affectionately embraced the accordion's past. Featuring Klucevsek along with Sweden's Lars Hollmer, Slovenia's Bratko Bibic, Finland's Maria Kalaniemi, and Austria's Otto Lechner, Accordion Tribe were serious composers who enthusiastically played all-original waltzes, polkas, or circusy tunes along with more outré fare. With a healthy respect for the important role of accordions in community life, the bandmembers weren't about to ignore the instrument's history and roots. Accordion Tribe visits Slovenian-American Klucevsek at his Staten Island home but also follows him back to the Eastern Pennsylvania working-class neighborhood of his childhood -- and a reminiscing accordion teacher -- with marvelous black-and-white still shots of kids' accordion orchestras and excerpts of old Super 8 movies; Klucevsek describes how he later emerged as a minimalist-oriented composer in N.Y.C. but felt that something was missing in his music until he revisited those early influences and began incorporating them in his art. And likewise, the other quintet members are filmed and interviewed on their home turf, sharing their own accordion narratives.
The camera peeks in on a Tribe rehearsal at Hollmer's Chickenhouse studio outside Uppsala, Sweden, but Accordion Tribe's most sublime moments arise in the film's non-chronological meld of voice-overs, live performance music, and occasionally stunning visual imagery. The viewer is immersed in wide-ranging seasonal moods of Europe -- the camera lens scanning fields, forests, mountains, rooftops -- around the musicians' homes and also as the quintet travels by bus on a European tour, performing for large and appreciative audiences. Schwietert's film is both a beautiful travelogue and sometimes unflinching depiction of the challenges of the road -- particularly for Lechner, blind since 15 years of age. The ensemble traveled in comparative luxury, although not without such minor irritations as an unhelpful GPS system (provoking a bit of humorously intended invective that could lead some viewers to ponder whether sexism can extend to interactions with a female-voiced machine). Although the live performances are presented in excerpts, the alternately sweeping and intimate camerawork and well-recorded sound ably capture the accordions' vibrations and shimmer, as the Tribe members dive into their alternately elegant and rambunctious repertoire. The five accordionists are empathetic collaborators but each musician's individuality is highlighted as well: Klucevsek's good-natured warmth, Bibic's backstage rigor and on-stage playfulness, Lechner's jazziness (and throat singing!), Kalaniemi's embrace of heartfelt emotion, and -- as Klucevsek describes -- Hollmer's utter lack of cynicism or irony. In many ways, Hollmer exemplified this ensemble's comfort with the accordion's past and embrace of its present and future. Hollmer died in 2008 and the group disbanded, and the 2005 Schwizer Filmpreis-winning Accordion Tribe -- now widely available as a "legitimate" digital download -- lets us climb aboard and ride along with a Tribe that sadly won't be taking to the highway ever again.