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Accordionist has hands full in keeping tradition alive:

Chicago Sun-Times - April 30, 2004 - Accordionist has hands full in keeping tradition alive:   - Chicago Sun-Times - 04/30/2004
by Celeste Brusk - Staff Reporter

Accordionist has hands full in keeping tradition alive:

By Celeste Brusk
Sun-Times Staff Reporter
Published April 30, 2004

"In order to play the accordion, you have to be strong as an ox to hold it and twice as smart."

That's the bottom line from Mazurka Wojciechowska, who says she's one the few remaining professional accordion players in the Chicago area. You can listen to her oompah music every Sunday afternoon at Klas Restaurant, a Czech-American haven of ethnic cuisine in Cicero.

Dressed in Bohemian clothing in colors ranging from yellow, blue and pink to black and white lace, and with flowers in her hair, the talented accordionist entertains diners with a repertoire that includes hundreds of European folk tunes. Some of the crowd-pleasers include the "Beer Barrel Polka," "The Blue Skirt Waltz" and the Bulgarian dance tune "Sedi Donka."

If anyone had told Wojciechowska 10 years ago that she would have a career as an accordionist, she would have laughed.

"I thought accordion playing was low-brow and for nerds only," she said.

Wojciechowska says the accordion, once a popular instrument, began losing popularity in the 1960s and since then has become something of a laughingstock. She pokes fun at it by asking questions during her set such as, "How do you get an accordionist off your doorstep? Pay for the pizza," she said.

Nevertheless, it's apparent she enjoys playing the accordion.

"It's a great instrument," she said. "The left hand provides a steady rhythm, which is good for dancing, while the right hand is like a piano that you play the melody with. Many instruments only play a melody or a rhythm, not both like the accordion."

The Chicago native, who lives in West Rogers Park, says she started playing the piano when she was 4 years old.

"In high school, I played the cello and then the hammer dulcimer after college," said Wojciechowska, who works for a brokerage firm.

She then purchased a used accordion, and after a 10-minute lesson, she was hooked.

"I bought the accordion, then practiced like a demon -- two to three hours daily -- and was playing professionally within six months," she said.

Although Wojciechowska's background is in classical music, she has developed a fondness for Slavic folk music.

"I like the rhythms, the harmonies, chord progressions and the melodies of the music," she said. "I also like the instrumentation, particularly in music from Slovakia, Moravia and the region of Ardeal [in Romania]."

"I was raised on classical music exclusively, so my first exposure to music was Bach, Beethoven and Brahms," she said. "Then I heard pieces by Chopin and Dvorak that were based on their national folk rhythm tunes -- Polish and Czech, respectively. These were the pieces that attracted me the most."

When you catch a performance by Wojciechowska at Klas, be sure to tour the restaurant before or after you eat. The three-building restaurant resembles a Czech-Moravian chalet with peaked and mansard roof lines and Tudor-style decor.

The restaurant originally was opened in 1922 by Adolph Klas, a native of Bohemia, a region that is now part of the Czech Republic. It's decorated inside with five kinds of wood imported from Bohemia. Each room is a study in wood carvings and wood-carved light fixtures, a hand-painted bar, leaded glass windows, stuffed birds and animals, and innumerable Czech artifacts. The restaurant also has an outdoor garden and pond.

Menu items range from roast Long Island duckling (Wojciechowska's favorite), Spickova pickled beef and Pilsner beef goulash to fruit dumplings, boiled smoked butt and potato pancakes.

Mazurka Wojciechowska performs from 1:30-4:30 p.m. Sundays at Klas Restaurant, 5734 W. Cermak, Cicero. Call (708) 652-0795. She also will perform at the 14th annual Skokie Festival of Cultures on May 23.

Copyright 2004, Chicago Sun-Times