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September 1, 2022IM -
Gary Kreller happened to see a Facebook post about a 10-year-old musician in need of an accordion. Kyrylo Kisten had to leave his accordion behind when he fled Ukraine with his mother in March. Kreller, of Local 226 (Kitchener, ON), didn’t hesitate to offer one of his, especially after he clicked on the YouTube link and heard the young musician play.
“He’s 10, and I was impressed,” says Kreller. Both Kreller and Kisten started playing at age 6. “I don’t think I was that advanced when I was 10. I think it would be a travesty to deprive a talented kid like that of an opportunity to develop his gift.”
When Kreller was 16 his accordion teacher introduced him to the leader of a local dance band, who invited him to play a gig. “I joined the union. I bought a Cordovox, and then the next thing I knew I was playing a nine-day Oktoberfest,” says Kreller.
A few bands later—including a stint with a Ukrainian group based in Hamilton, Ontario—he became a founding member of the Black Forest Band in 1981. Adding to his polka and multi-ethnic repertoire, Kreller plays Celtic music with The Gaes and classic rock, blues, and jazz with Winnipeg Wind.
He’s been a member of the AFM since 1972, and a member of the executive board of Local 226 since 2018. Kreller was not a music major in college. In fact, aside from his early entrée with accordion lessons, he has had no formal training.
“The result of my studies in political science was an abiding appreciation of the value and necessity of the labor union movement in our society.” He adds, “And of course, the union is yet another demonstration of interdependence. We all support one another.”
Born in Toronto, Kreller has lived most of his life in Kitchener, except for a brief period while attending York University in the early 1970s. He’s played major festivals in most of the Canadian provinces and a number of US festivals, from Michigan to Tennessee. He’s done session work on accordion and keyboards for many local and regional artists. He says, “Life makes me tired. Playing music invariably energizes me.”
“Some of the longest running and best paying gigs came about because of my union membership. So, for me, being in the union is an extended example of being in the right place at the right time,” says Kreller.
One of the first breaks for the Black Forest Band occurred when a band member happened to be in the Kitchener union office when a call came in about Oktoberfest players. “We ended up performing the Kitchener-Winnipeg Oktoberfest, a 10-day event before a crowd of about 8,000 people,” Kreller says. “We played it for the next 20 years.”
Kreller convinced all of his band members to join the union, stressing one of the instant benefits. “If you get one job, you basically pay your union dues.” The Gaes, a classic toe-tapping Celtic band, which has been a fixture on the local Kitchener music scene for years, has participated in a number of summer concerts sponsored by the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF).
“The MPTF is a wonderful program. At its most basic, it is something that offers work for musicians—always a good thing. It’s also an opportunity for members to work with different musicians,” Kreller says. “It provides musical/cultural benefits to the community at large. And it gives the members the potential to have their music reach a wider audience in venues they might not normally reach.”
His accordion influences are wide-ranging and include jazz accordionist Art Van Damme, Irish fiddler and button accordionist Sharon Shannon, and polka players Chicagoan Eddie Blazonczyk and Joey Miskulin of Cleveland polka fame, a Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member. Kreller says, “[Joey] is the one who really solidified the Cleveland style sound. Yankovic was the cake and Miskulin was the icing. He played lines around the melodies that accordionists have been copying ever since.”
A practicing Buddhist, Kreller is also a writer and poet and a past president of the Canadian Authors Association (Waterloo-Wellington). Growing up, he listened to The Beatles; as a teenager, it was Yes. He says, “When I’m in my car, I still listen to them.”
On the importance of the union, Kreller says, “Ultimately, I think it’s a demonstration of the interconnectedness, or in Buddhist terms, the interdependence of things. It might be called networking—but it goes deeper than that.”
“I am convinced that Kyrylo, given the opportunity to continue his studies, can become a wonderful musician, and I’m satisfied that I could play even a small part in furthering this.”
Accordionist Gary Kreller of Local 226 (Kitchener, ON) has been a member of the AFM since he was 16 years old. In that time, he’s played pubs, big arenas, and music festivals in Canada and the US. He says the best gigs he’s gotten have often come through the union.