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Dave's Accordion School: Nurturing Melodies in Atwater Village

The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website www.mylariver.org


"The accordions just find me ... if we left the door open we probably would not be able to walk through the room," Dave Caballero, the owner of Dave's Accordion School in Atwater Village, jokingly says.

Caballero opened Dave's Accordion School in 1971, and has stayed in the same storefront on Glendale Boulevard for over four decades. In the time since Caballero opened his shop, Atwater Village has changed quite a bit -- from a neighborhood with a high crime rate and gang violence, to one with thriving art galleries, hip coffee shops, and busy yoga studios.

"It's changed for the better I think. People come in regularly. I know almost everybody in the neighborhood and we all get along," Caballero says.

Remembering the early years of the store and when Atwater Village was a rougher neighborhood, he quips that he has luckily never been robbed.

Dave's Accordion School offers music lessons and dance lessons for children, in addition to being the only shop in Los Angeles that does in-house accordion repairs. In fact Caballero says that he now gets at least one phone call a day asking about a repair.

Caballero grew up in Echo Park, where his father was a TV repairman in the 1950s. Oddly enough, it was his father's TV repair business that would ultimately become a bridge for Caballero to discover the accordion.

"[My father] brought home this one television with a black and white screen that was about six by six inches. I saw this guy playing an accordion on it and I said, 'gee that looks so cool I would like to do that.' That kind of set a seed in my mind," Caballero says.

Coincidentally, a few months after Caballero first saw the accordion on that small television, a salesman knocked at his door with a little accordion.

"They [door-to-door salesmen] used to canvas areas and try to drum up more business," Caballero remembers. "They knocked on the door and said 'Oh try this little accordion,' and then they would say, 'Oh gee your kid is a natural. Here do this, let them learn.' So that's how they hooked a lot of people."

Caballero's father did buy him that small accordion, and soon after his parents also bought him some lessons.

"I was hooked," Caballero says.

Before Caballero opened his own school and shop he taught accordion to children at a music shop on Sunset Boulevard. When he finally opened Dave's Accordion School he had about 100 students, one of which was Veronika Caballero, a woman who would soon become his wife.

Veronika was born in Germany but moved to Northeast Los Angeles when she was six-years-old. When she first met Caballero and started taking accordion lessons, she was 23-years-old and a science teacher at Eagle Rock High School.

Before Veronika started lessons with Caballero she had tried to teach herself, but to no avail.

"What is funny is that my mom actually saw him three years before that at a parade and saw the name Dave's Accordion and phone number. So I called him, and at the time he was on Sunset at another outfit and they did not teach adults," Veronika says.

A few years later her brother, by happenstance, drove by Dave's Accordion School soon after it first opened, and told her to call them. Veronika not only finally received formal accordion lessons, but she also met her husband.

"Within six months of moving here Veronika, my wife, walks through the door and then started lessons with me, and that's history now. We have three kids and six grandkids," Caballero says, smiling.

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Although Dave's Accordion School is busy with accordion repairs and lessons, business was not always that way.

"When I first got here it was a little tough in the beginning. In the early years I also repaired TVs on the side, and of course radios ... I learned a lot from my dad," Caballero says.

In 1984 Veronika started dance classes in order to support their income. She also took part-time teaching jobs, and Caballero would even repair cars too. "My family, we are immigrants we know how to live frugally. We both learned how to live on a shoestring budget," Veronika says.

Both Veronika and Caballero agree that the amount of business depends on current trends.

"The accordion was really popular in the 1950s, there were schools everywhere," Veronika says. "And then the whole Elvis revolution, rock guitar, took over. The accordion's main exposure would be The Lawrence Welk Show or polka shows. With Lawrence Welk you had the old folks dancing and you did not have a great image with that. It was just not fun and attractive to teenagers."

But Veronika also explains that like with most trends, the accordion's popularity goes in cycles, and currently it's up again.

"A movie like 'Amelie' comes along, and that got about half a dozen people in -- the music [in the movie] was almost all accordion," Veronika says.

Caballero adds that currently gypsy, Romanian, Russian, and French music, all of which use the accordion, are very popular among the younger generation.

Just from spending an afternoon at Dave's Accordion School, the influence of the accordion through generations and on different kinds of music is visible.

A family of Russian-Armenian immigrants make their way into Caballero's store. The wife browses through the variety of accordions on display and compares prices.

While she peruses, her son and her husband sit down opposite of each other in the middle of the store. The son takes out his accordion from the case and starts playing the different melodies he has been practicing. Caballero jumps up and is excited to listen to the teen play, who he says is quite a gifted accordion player.

After a few minutes of playing, the teen is accompanied by his father, who plucks up an accordion from the pile near him. They begin to play together, switching from playing in unison to taking turns playing solos.

Caballero is in his element -- listening to people play the accordion and talking about all the intricacies of the instrument and the rich sound it produces. He turns to the woman, who is happily watching her son and husband play music, and suggests that it might be time to buy her son a better quality accordion.

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Photos: Danielle Tarasiuk

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