Musicians in exile spreading joy through their music.

     We like to believe that the Cotati Accordion Festival is much more than a once a year concert in the park. Each year we present performers that have stories that go far past the confines of our multiple stages and thousands of attendees. We are a multi-cultural, multi-generational event that tries to avoid politics as they become nothing more than a distraction to the joy our music brings to the community. However, sometimes we come across stories that have a political backdrop that can’t be ignored. Two of these stories involve two of our musicians that will be taking the stage August 19th and 20th in order to show how music can be the salve to heal all wounds.

     One of our performers this year is Carlos Mejia Godoy, originally from Nicaragua, and now residing in Santa Rosa. During the revolution in Nicaragua,  when the Sandanistas came to power, Carlos was a nationally acclaimed accordionist, artist, and poet. He wrote the song that would become the Sandanista’s national anthem. He was one of the many who felt that the Sandinistas represented positive change and the coming of a new sense of liberty. Sadly, he became one of the many who ended up fleeing the new totalitarian dictatorship.

    In the aftermath of the take over, Carlos Godoy prohibited the Sandinistas from using his music and took a stand against the abuse of power that Ortega employed. However, that did not stop him from playing his music world wide, including a special performance for Pope Francis. To bring it all even closer to home, a movie about Carlos called Living in Exile, produced by Jon Silver, was played  in Santa Rosa on May 22.

    We are proud to have Carlos coming to our stage August 19th in order to share his internationally acclaimed artistry with our community. Personally, having met Carlos and having watched him perform I am really looking forward to his showing on August 19th. His presence lights up a room and brings a celebratory joy to the stage. How voice and musicianship is a truly uplifting experience. 

     Our second performer living in exile is Elena Stenkina. I had been talking to Elena as far back as 2018 about coming to Cotati to perform. However, each year presented different challenges to her coming from her home in Russia and taking the stage in Cotati to perform her energetic  style of accordion music.

   Since our first communications about performing in Cotati,  the war broke out in Ukraine. As the war took on international attention one  of the first things that I noticed was  what  Elena was doing on Instagram and social media. Elena  was actually taking the risk of coming out against Russia for starting the unnecessary and cruel war. Reading her postings  worried me because I believed, as most westerners believe, that Putin does not take criticism lightly. Plus, Elena, being an internationally acclaimed Russian accordionist, has a profile where her words are read by thousands. As it turned out my fears were warranted.

    Since Elena has come out on social media against the war she has had her bank accounts frozen, has had numerous threats lodged against her by government agents, and has had to flee Russia. First she had to escape to India and then made her way to New Jersey where they took her in at Liberty Bellows, a nationally renown accordion outlet. 

      Elena tells me that a year before the war began she knew something was being plotted by the government. Elena says that she, and other musicians, were being pressured to play older patriotic songs celebrating the victory of World War II. She says that this nostalgia for the USSR, before the breakup, was put in overdrive at venues all through Russia. At her concerts she would find that she was unexpectedly joined by dancers in costume on stage. The eerie part was that they were always Lenin and Stalin impersonators. She says they were ubiquitous, showing up at all kinds of public concerts. The worst of it was that there was a growing acceptance of them by the general populace. Then, after about a year of this, the war broke out. It was all Putin trying to prepare the country mentally for his aggression and his attempt to reinstate the USSR piece by piece.

      I asked Elena what kind of support the war has in her homeland. She told me that, unfortunately, it has huge support. Russian TV has convinced the general populace that Ukrainians are fascists and Nazis. Elena says that because she performs all over the world, and because she has performed in Ukraine and with many Ukarinians, that she knows all of Putin’s propaganda is just that, lying propaganda. She stays in contact with her Ukrainian friends and gets first hand information on the horrors that they are going through.

    Yet, Elena, like Carlos, will not be bringing stories of cruelty and oppression to our stage. They will be doing what accordionists do in general by spreading joy, hope, love and togetherness through their music. We are looking forward to experiencing this brave pair and the international music that they specialize in.

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