“I try to get people to challenge what they hear; it keeps your mind active and touches that inner part of you where you’re still young and alive.” – Bob Bellini.
Bob Bellini doesn’t actually like the sound of accordions, but that hasn’t stopped him playing one for 74 years. “If I walked in on me playing somewhere, I’d probably walk straight out again,” he admits. With a cheeky grin and his long hair in a ponytail, Bob also admits to occasionally making things up, but this sounds true enough.
Bob’s main criticism of the accordion is: “I prefer jazz and the accordion isn’t exactly a jazz instrument.” But it was the only instrument available to learn with his gran, a professional music teacher, when he was growing up in Naremburn, on Sydney’s Lower North Shore.
“We had a piano at home when I was small, but we were in this two-bedroom house with 12 people, so the piano had to go,” Bob says.
“Still, my music has made me a few bob and got me a lot of friends.”
If you live near Bob at Australian Unity’s Willandra Village and Bungalows in Cromer, New South Wales, you may have seen him play – he performs for “anyone who will offer me money or food”.
“I soon learned that sitting on your own playing is boring as batsh*t – getting out and playing with others is fun,” he says.
Breaking the sound barriers
Bob played with his gran at old-time and Scottish dances in Balmain on the other side of the harbour, and later joined bush bands and ceilidh groups.
His high-tech Roland accordion works more like a synthesiser than an old-fashioned squeeze box, and he can make it sound like anything from brass or strings to wind and percussion.
Bringing technology to music is a perfect mix for Bob, who “started off at 15 on the tramways as an apprentice electrician”. He spent most of his working life at IBM, before running his own consultancy. Computers are in his blood, he says, and, for the past 10 years or so, he’s been teaching seniors how to use new technology. His classes are held at Willandra.
He loves getting people to think – a gift learnt from his gran and great-gran, who were both proud suffragettes.
“They were strong ladies who understood how to look after themselves,” he says.
“When I was about eight, my gran used to take me down to hear the speakers [at Speakers Corner] at The Domain [in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens], and some weeks we would listen to the communists, and sometimes the conservatives
“She’d have soirees and invite along priests, communists, poets … they would pick a topic and debate it.”
Head in the cloud
Now his thinking is inspired by the possibilities of technology. “All my information is in the cloud, so I don’t worry about my wallet and cards and stuff because it’s all in the cloud – I can be found naked in a gutter and it doesn’t matter as long as I can get on a computer.”
Sharing information is a skill he developed giving presentations at IBM. “I have a great memory for sounds, but when I started giving presentations, I didn’t realise that other people didn’t remember things the same way – you have to show them. But when you realise you can control an audience, it really feels great,” he says. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bob ended up in marketing.
The teaching and artistic genes have been passed down to his children: his son Peter is a fireman who also teaches kids art, while daughter Kara is a pottery teacher and artist. Each has two children.
Bob’s second partner, Wendy, died five years ago and he moved into Willandra Village. “I bought without viewing; it’s got two rooms and a bathroom and balcony out the front. I have a lot of fun.”
Some of that fun involves being a bit of a stirrer, so if he hears a rumour, he’s more likely to embellish the invention than deny it. “I try to get people to challenge what they hear; it keeps your mind active and touches that inner part of you where you’re still young and alive.
“Some people worry about the world and safety but we’ve got it pretty good compared to the hardness of life back in my parents’ time – you’ve got more chance of getting taken by a white pointer in the bath than some of the things people worry about now.”
At IBM, he loved working with young people – “they were game to try new things and always had brilliant ideas” – and he still loves people who are willing to put themselves out of their comfort zones and try something new.
That could be his grandchildren or a 97-year-old neighbour “who still thinks like a 35-year-old”.
“When I was a kid, I thought I’d be a rock musician or a gigolo, and I ended up at IBM. But it’s just as well [I wasn’t a gigolo] ’cos I’d be a bit like a dog chasing a car; I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I caught it.”