The Future of Accordions
The 12th annual Texas Folklife Big Squeeze accordion contest for youths was held April 21st in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The accordion has figured prominently for over a century and a half in the growth of the immigrant sounds that has become Texas music, be it Czech, Tejano, German, Cajun, Zydeco, or Western Swing. This statewide contest is aimed at nurturing budding young accordionists in several categories.
Since 2007 Texas Folklife has built a reputation as a champion of Texas accordion music genres through the Big Squeeze program, and has supported over 300 young, talented players from dozens of Texas towns and cities in their efforts to carry on these vital community-based accordion music traditions. The contest is one of the ways in which Texas Folklife carries out its mission to preserve and present Texas’s diverse cultural heritage.
This spring Texas Folklife held nine Big Squeeze talent showcases that were free and open to the public, in communities throughout the state, and featured music by established accordion artists as well as the young accordion contestants. The showcases were held in Ennis, Dallas, Houston, Nederland/Groves, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Los Fresnos, and Palmview. Those who were not able to attend a showcase were able to send their entries to Texas Folklife. Executive Director Charlie Lockwood stated that: “This year we had forty-seven contestants, one of the highest contestant turnouts in the history of the Big Squeeze program.”
Twelve winners from these showcases met in Austin at the showcase of Texas’ cultural history, the Bob Bullock Texas State History museum. These finalists were:
• Cajun & Zydeco: Chloe Johnson, age 17, from Moscow, Texas, and Steven Williams, age 14, from Humble.
• Polka: Peter Gresser, age 13, from Weatherford; Chris Trojacek, age 22, from Ennis; and Isaak Wolfshohl, age 16, from Seguin.
• Conjunto: Ricardo Cabrera, age 10, from Austin; Melenie Gonzalez, age 17, from Rio Grande City; Johnny Joe Gutierrez, age 15, from Mission; and Perla Hernandez, age 15, from Roma.
• Anthony Ortiz Jr. Conjunto Prize: Eloy Renteria, age 20, from Midland; Christina Valdez, age 19, from San Benito; and Jesus F. Venegas, age 21, from Brownsville. The Ortiz prize honors a previous Big Squeeze winner who recently passed away from cancer at the age of 24. Anthony Ortiz Jr. was a rising star in the conjunto music community.
AND THE WINNERS ARE...
April 21st was an afternoon celebrating Texas’s vibrant roots music and all things accordion with approximately 500 in attendance. Families who had come to see the museum were treated a live display of Texas cultural heritage in addition to the music and historical areas of the museum.
The semifinalists each performed two songs of their choosing to display their talents. A panel of judges observed each performer from the front row marking their ballots on various categories of performance. While the ballots were being tallied the crowd was treated to a fabulous, energetic performance by Grammy-nominated Alex Meixner and his band. Meixner had the audience on its feet and dancing to his inspired accordion squeezing.
After some tough deliberating the winners of the four categories were:
• Polka (25 and under): Peter Gresser, age 13, from Weatherford.
• Cajun & Zydeco (21 and under): Steven Williams, age 14, from Humble.
• Conjunto (17 and under): Melenie Lissette Gonzalez, age 17, from Rio Grande City.
• Anthony Ortiz Jr. Conjunto Prize (18-21): Jesus F. Venegas, age 21, from Brownsville.
The four Big Squeeze 2018 Grand Prize Winners received a prize package valued at more than $4,000, including a Hohner accordion, cash prize, performance opportunities with Texas Folklife, publicity, professional development, and other professional opportunities. Additionally, the Grand Prize Winners will perform onstage with legendary Texas musicians at Texas Folklife’s Accordion Kings & Queens Concert, held at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre on June 2.
“Congratulations to our 2018 Big Squeeze Champs; the skill level of the contestants this year was at an all-time high. And because of that, the judges had great difficulty deciding on this year’s Grand Prize Winners. We are very proud of all our contestants and want to encourage them to remain part of the Big Squeeze community. They all have our support. We are so grateful to our sponsors and partners throughout the state who are helping us keep the tradition of the national instrument of the Lone Star State alive and well,” Charlie said.
PETER GRESSER PLANS TO POLKA ON
The Polka Category Championship was captured by Peter Gresser from Weatherford, Texas. Peter, 13, fell in love with polka music at the age of six after hearing a polka CD that his Wisconsin grandmother had given his brother. Later his mother was working in the yard when she heard him singing “If you can’t dance the polka, don’t marry my daughter.” She knew something was brewing. When his parents were stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Peter decided to attempt learning the accordion.
Knowing the possible limitations Peter might face, his parents contacted Mary Archuleta, a former private music teacher, who six years ago founded Dreams Fulfilled Through Music with her daughter, Kathyrn Archuleta. Ms. Archuleta directs The Alamo Angels Accordion Orchestra which includes individuals with a wide range of conditions: Down syndrome, autism, vision impairment, various physical and mental challenges, and Alzheimer's disease.
Peter began lessons under Ms. Archuleta using the internationally acclaimed Palmer-Hughes Method of Instruction and soon became a member of the Alamo Angels Accordion Orchestra.
Three years ago, the Gressers moved to Weatherford and Peter’s parents located Elena Fainshtein and her Musical Expressions school. Under Ms. Fainshtein, Peter has been taking lessons and learning the other sides of accordion music besides polka and she is responsible for encouraging him to attend conventions and the Big Squeeze contest. For the last three years, Peter has been attending the National Accordion Association Convention and performing with the Youth Orchestra.
Recently, Peter was able to travel to Ethiopia with his parents. Their mission was to serve the Special Needs families of Ethiopia. Peter demonstrated his accordion abilities, and was joined by a flute player to show what special kids can do. Peter said that the music they played together will remain with him forever.
Peter chose the Barbara Polka as his first song in honor of his Grandmother, Barbara, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic in polka rhythm because he loves the song. Peter says the accordion will always be a part of his life and is looking forward to performing in Houston.
ANTHONY ORTIZ SETS THE CONJUNTO MOOD
The winner of the Anthony Ortiz Jr. Conjunto Prize was Jesus F. Venegas. Jesus, 21, is from Brownsville, Texas. He has been listening to conjunto music with his family for as long as he can remember. He first tried to learn on his own in the fifth grade by watching videos and imitating them, however he took a break after a year. Hearing how the accordion carries the song through its changes and sets the mood of a song kept reminding him that he should be playing that music.
After several years, he located Juan Longoria Jr. and began taking lessons from him and Juan has nurtured him into a champion player. Juan was the 2007 Big Squeeze champion and is now the music teacher at Los Fresnos High School. His school band blew the crowd away as they were the opening act at this year’s Big Squeeze championship. Jesus was a finalist in last year’s Big Squeeze and came back prepared to take the crown.
Jesus practices about an hour a day at his house in addition to playing in a band, Grupo Dezataeos (the Unleashed). His goal is to cut a CD of his band or possibly a solo effort and be just like Ramon Ayala, Juan Longoria, or Paulino Bernal in his abilities.
This year he chose to perform a three-song medley and two-song medley of his favorite songs of which his friends advised him that were too difficult to play; he proved them wrong. Jesus is looking forward to performing on the big stage in Houston in June.
Continued on next page MELENIE GONZALEZ PLAYS ANGELIC ACCORDION
The winner of the Conjunto Category (17 & under) was Melenie Gonzalez. She is 17 and a senior at Roma High School in the Valley. She was raised listening to conjunto music and was inspired to start playing accordion at the age of 14 by her older sister, Carmen, a violinist in a Mariachi band.
One of her biggest influences is Paulino Bernal, an accordion recording artist and Christian evangelist.
Accordion-accompanied church services are on the grow in the Rio Grande Valley and there are several groups in her area that perform accordion-based Christian music. Melenie plays her accordion every day and performs with the Roma School conjunto band under the tutelage of Jaime Lozano and Jesus Lozano. On weekends her parents' house is filled with the sound of music from friends coming over to jam.
For the competition, Melenie chose to play Polka Ideala and a Huaponga, a Mexican folk song style that inspired a pair of Los Fresno musicians to start dancing gracefully backstage. She chose these songs for their difficulty. As far as an accordion future, Melenie definitely wants to keep it as a hobby, and keeps an open mind for any opportunities to increase her skills. She is excited to travel the almost 400 miles to Houston, a distinctly different environment for the young lady to experience playing in.
STEVEN WILLIAMS MAKES THE MUSIC ROLL
The Cajun/Zydeco 2018 winner is Steven Williams who is 14, and from Humble, Texas at the edge of the Texas Zydeco Belt. He was born into a family that frequently attended many zydeco events where he listened and learned. His family was so “zydeco” that at the ripe old age of ONE, his godparents gave Steven his first accordion; a toy plastic one that he undoubtably carried with him as he toddled around.
That would explain his ease of squeezebox acrobatics as he performed in Austin. As he grew, Steven graduated to real accordions and would carry the instrument around the house playing it. Around the age of nine he began being mentored by his uncle, J. Paul Jr., and family friend, Keyun Dickson, both prominent in the zydeco world. Keyun is a 2010 Big Squeeze winner. However, Steven never had any formal lessons and is mostly self-taught at home in his room.
After he felt confident to play on stage, his grandmother would drive him to various festivals where he would sit in with his accordion and sometimes play rubboard with other artists. He still practices at least three times a week and is branching out by learning the Cajun style of squeezing. Steven was a finalist in last year’s Big Squeeze and returned to compete this year. For the competition Steven chose Going to See the King, and Get On Boy, both old-school, zydeco-style songs to acknowledge his roots and he likes the way the songs roll.
Steven will take the accordion as far as it will go in his lifetime and looks forward to performing in his home town at the Miller Outdoor Theater in June.
Congratulations from the Texas Polka News to the new Big Squeeze Champs, the finalists, the honorable mentions, and all of this year’s contestants—thank you for keeping the accordion tradition alive in Texas.
The four champs will journey to Houston to perform at the 29th annual Accordion Kings and Queens Concert on June 2, 2018.
They will be sharing the stage with the legends of accordion: Eva Ybarra, Keyun Dickson, Jesse Lege and Czech and Then Some. For more information contact texasfolklife.org. It will be a wonderful night under the stars for some get-down accordion music.