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from Punk to Polka

Music | November 19th, 2021

By Sabrina Hornung

sabrina@hpr1.com

You may recognize Owen Hanson, from seeing him play with any number of folk punk projects throughout the past few years, such as his solo project Owen Broke, Bottle Wound, or Mr. Meaner. His folk punk roots may have just delved deeper into his interest in traditional folk music.

With the encouragement of a good friend, Fargo-based musician Owen Hanson applied for an accordion apprenticeship through the North Dakota Council on the Arts Folk Art and traditional art apprenticeship program, in which a learning artist works hands-on with a master artist to learn their craft.

“At first, I didn’t want to get my hopes up and thought, there’s no way I'm gonna get an apprenticeship from North Dakota to play accordion. That's too good to be true-- but I'm doing it and for the first time I think I’d be honest when I say I’m living the dream!,” he laughed.

Though Hanson didn’t have a master artist in mind, Troyd Geist, North Dakota’s state folklorist, was more than willing to lend Owen a list of resources.

“I got a list of accordion-playing masters to contact and reach out to and see if they would accept me as a student. I wanted to see if we’d get along with them -- you know, first impressions. I contacted Roger Emter and we got along very well right away. But he told me he won't teach key accordion though, he only taught button box,” Hanson said. Though the offer was still on the table, and still in the back of Hanson’s mind.

Roger Emter’s legacy is a multi-generational accordion playing family. In fact, his basement serves as a venue and music studio at his home in Steele, North Dakota. In fact, he occasionally hosts music events and button-accordion seminars. During these events it’s not out of the ordinary to see three generations of Emters sharing the stage.

He sent Owen a number of DVDs of his grandchildren playing as well as a few CDs from his band. Owen still wasn’t convinced but found himself going back listening and rewatching those videos.

“I eventually called him back, I'm like you know what... I'm gonna give it a try and sure as hell once I had that thing in my hands, I knew I wanted to play it. I definitely made the right choice and I kind of realized that I was about to turn down an essentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if I said no. I’ve never even seen this type of accordion before meeting Roger,” he said.

That accordion being a Strasser, which is a very traditional Austrian button-based accordion, played using the diatonic scale. During the apprenticeship Hanson made the trek to Steele for lessons face to face -- or rather accordion to accordion as well as through Zoom.

Hanson has an eclectic music taste, and often posts short videos of stuff that he’s working on through his Instagram. Influences range from Klezmer-style piano to Italian waltzes on his key accordion. Which is reflected in his songwriting for the Roma swing/folk punk band Mr. Meaner.

He was attracted to a more traditional folk genre early on in his music career and took on playing the acoustic guitar, accordion, and even the harmonica. But not your typical blues harmonica, he wanted a more folk-oriented styling such as a traditional Arabic or Russian-style harmonica.

In his days travelling and busking he met an accordion player, stayed in touch and asked if he would be willing to teach him to play. Instead of teaching him, he suggested he buy a broken accordion and fix it so as to have the general knowledge of how the instrument works, and then teach himself.

After six years of dabbling with accordion, he’s shifted his focus from guitar to keys/accordion. Once he finishes his apprenticeship he hopes to continue lessons with Emter and perhaps expand his playing schedule to more traditional music settings and maybe even play in nursing homes.

“When people find out I play not just accordion but button box as well, I tell them, if you asked me when I was 14 years old, playing in metal bands, and local punk bands and what I thought I'd be doing with music when I'm 27 I would not have told you I'm trying to keep polka alive.”

He went on to say “I feel like it's a style of music that gets stomped on pretty hard. But honestly, it's so fun and I feel like everybody without even knowing it has that kind of music type of shared memories. With all the new music that's coming out and stuff, there's not a lot of roots anymore and it feels really cool to get down to the roots of it all.”

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