Friday, 10 October 2014

The music man who mends accordions ... and brings the past back to life

 It’s raining as I step through a heavy wooden door into a workshop in the middle of the countryside. 

Lining the walls are shelves laden with a multitude of accordions - squeezeboxes, garmoshkas - call them what you will. It’s part-sickbay, part-museum, part-stage, part-celebration. Some have buttons, some have keys: all have stories.

Some of the boxes are top of the range and beautifully finished – there are famous names I recognise.  Some have intricate inlays of mother-of-pearl. Others are fairly rudimentary; mechanically adequate but not exactly showcase items. They have the look of Soviet workmanship, if I’m honest – a little basic.. but that doesn’t mean they’re not great instruments.

The man for whom this space is home, work and almost a place of worship is Gunars Iguanis, a musician who has turned collector and then, over time, slipped into a role akin to a saver of lost musical souls. Now, instead of simply playing instruments and performing for people, he rescues them, and then makes them sing again.

I can understand why he does this. I’ve tried to do it myself on certain occasions. I know that musical instruments are not simply pieces of wood with wires on. They have characters and personalities, and can make indelible impressions in peoples' lives.

Sometimes human beings and musical instruments can be inseparable, fitting together like a hand in a glove. 

At other times, perhaps at the end of one’s life, an instrument may be discarded. “I’ll never play that thing again,” a person might say. “What good is that to me now?”

Gunars Iguanis is a collector of these memories. He’s become a receptacle for discarded musical instruments that have outlived their owners or their welcome. 

Sometimes they are gathered in house clearances: sometimes they are traded with those who now prefer the music of bottles being unscrewed.
Gunars takes them as they are, sometimes with photographs of their former owners. 

On this left wall there are the stringed instruments Gunars has collected, restored or made himself.

Mandolins of all descriptions, a lovely semi-acoustic guitar; a classic, if battered, triangular balalaika.

This workshop is like a crossroads of music, where Russia meets Latgale, where travelling instruments meant to end up somewhere else but didn't.
It’s like an encyclopaedia of obscure varieties: a dulcimer, a Latvian kokle, an American autoharp, a mandolin-zither hybrid.

There's even a weird four-stringed mandolin-like instrument shaped like a cobra. I've never seen one like that before.

To engage and encourage the youngsters, Gunars makes a variety of whistles and percussion instruments for them to play while he persuades their parents to bang drums and strum along
as he knocks out tunes everyone knows: a bit of Beatles here - O Bla Di - a classic Latvian folk tune there .. Kur Te Tetse.

Gunars is a famous man in these parts. He’s appeared on television with his family band and is well known for his music. 

He loves to get his visitors playing along with him as he demonstrates his instruments and tells their stories, playing a different song on each one and by doing so, bringing them into his own musical family. 

As he takes each squeezebox from the shelf and plays it, the long dead people in the pictures look on, windows onto happier, black and white times: a dance in full swing, accordion at full stretch, wide smiles to be seen everywhere ..  and how times have changed since then.

There those same instruments are, placed gently on shelves lining this big room, carefully cleaned and polished with missing or broken parts replaced, played again, brought back to life by Gunars, wheezing at first to clear the dust of half a century but then finding their voices and soon belting out tunes that once everyone knew, that had toes tapping and skirts twirling ... and just for a moment it’s like the old times again.

The notes die away, echoing gently off the concrete walls, and a gentle silence replaces the gaiety.

For a few moments their former owners live again, beaming out from the photos on the shelves, alongside the instruments they loved so much. 

Now, thanks to Gunars, they will never be parted from them.

Gunars Iguanis
Musical museum and workshop
Bikava 2,  Gaigalava,
Latgale, Latvia.
+ 371 287 287 90