Among accordionists in the Washington, D.C. metro region, Frank Busso is considered a rock star.
Much like having a respected tennis pro on staff at a racquet club, Busso has raised the bar among area players, promoting the instrument he literally holds close to his heart.
"I'm practically always doing something accordion-related," said Busso, 30, an Alexandria resident and member of the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
Busso lives for the accordion -- performing both with the Air Force Band and as a freelance musician who gives lessons and plays at festivals. He says it is all part of an effort to promote the coolness of the accordion.
"The Steve Urkels of the world certainly didn't help the image of the accordion," said Busso of the stereotype associated with the "squeeze box" or "button box" as the accordion is sometimes called.
"Over the last couple of years, we have seen an upswing in the popularity of the instrument" brought on by its use by household-name performers such as Billy Joel, Cheryl Crow and the Canadian alt-rock band Barenaked Ladies, he said. "Decades ago [the accordion] was probably more popular than the guitar."
Culturally, he added, the instrument often is associated with ethnic music -- like the Cajun romps and the Creole's Zydeco, Polish and Scandinavian genres such as polka, and Mexican popular music. But diversity of uses for the instrument is coming along, he said.
Peter DiGiovanni, president of the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society, agrees things are looking up for the accordion.
"When The Beatles came over, a lot of rock bands used the electronic keyboard," causing the accordion to fall into disuse, said DiGiovanni, 63, who lives in Oakton and is a student of Busso's.
When the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society was founded in 2003, it had about a dozen members, DiGiovanni said. Today, that number has swelled to about 70.
"Now, as bands start using it again, and kids get to see it, [it's becoming popular again] ... We're definitely further along than we were five or 10 years ago. There's been a growing acceptance with the younger crowd. It was popular among the older crowd, but there was definitely a gap. And now we're seeing it come back."
Part of Busso's goal in promoting the accordion in the Fairfax area is dispelling the perception that it is a Polka-only instrument.
"I'm a firm believer in the accordion being a very flexible instrument. You can play anything," he said, pointing to the popularity of the 2001 French film "Amelie," which features the accordion predominantly in its soundtrack.
Similar to a piano -- but more portable -- the accordion allows performers to play the melody in the right hand and bass accompaniment in the left. The instrument often is referred to as the "one-man band" because it offers its players the ability to perform melody, harmony and rhythmic accompaniment, Busso said.
"I also once heard it referred to as the 'stomach Steinway,'" he said. "The important difference [between the piano and the accordion] is that on the accordion, a single key can sound up to three octaves at once."
This year, one of Busso's students, Yimeng Huang, 54, of McLean, won a national title in the Adult Ethnic Solo division during the National Accordion Festival.
Huang began playing the accordion as a teen in China, where she lived until 1985.
"When I was a teenager, the accordion was a popular instrument back in China, as not many people had the money or the space for a piano. I'm sure there was the influence from the former Soviet Union," she said. "For me, playing the accordion again after 30 years is a nostalgic experience.
"I think we are lucky that we have an accordion community [in the Fairfax area] and I think it is growing," she said, adding that overseas the instrument is more popular -- especially in Eastern Europe and China.
Busso, who teaches lessons out of his studio "Busso Music School" in Alexandria, says the Washington-metro area offers a lot of opportunities to current accordionists and those who wish to learn the instrument.
"Like any musical instrument, the accordion takes practice," he said. "With the right level of enthusiasm, many of our students are able to play their first song by the end of their very first lesson."