|Alan Guerra on the accordion.|
"What surprised me was the audience, there were a lot of people here," Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli said. "It was packed, there was a lot of Winter Texans. It just shows you how much they appreciate the local culture."
Choosing this destination as one of their talent search stops was a natural choice for Balli.
"The organized conjunto education program that's here is what brought us down here," Balli said. "This is a very unique program in the country. It's so big because of it's size, and the fact that it teaches something like conjunto music as a fine art credit. It's not an after school program, it's during school like choir, band, or any of those. So that's pretty astonishing. I don't know if there are any other programs like this in the country. The only conjunto programs in the school districts that I know of are here in the Valley. So it's La Joya, San Benito, now Los Fresnos has one. Edcouch-Elsa used to have one."
Sarah Rucker, Texas Folkife's program and events manager, introduced the up-and-coming musicians to the audience. The following entered the contest and showcased their squeezebox playing skills: Marco Ramos, 17, student at La Joya High School; Miguel Peña, 17, student at Palmview High School; Alan Guerra, 17, student at Palmview High School; Jose Lopez Jr., 20, graduate of Mission High School; Alberto "Ranger" Rangel, 17, student at La Joya High School; Roel Sandoval, 15, student at La Joya High School; Alberto Rios Jr., 17, student at Palmview High School; Mariano Resendez, 14, student at Palmview High School.
It was a delightful morning of great music, and a reminder of how much talent we have here in the Valley. Some of the pieces that were performed include "La Grulla", "Idalia", "Viva Seguin", "Atotonilco", "El Oso Negro", "Nievitas", "Accordiones de Oro", "La Repetida", "La Naranjal" and even an instrumental version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'".
The love for this music started at home for many that auditioned. Rangel, who has been playing the accordion for close to five years, credits his family for introducing him to this music.
"My grandpa, my uncles, all my family (got me into this)," Rangel said. "My grandpa tunes accordions, his name is Nafael Rangel, he lives here in Peñitas."
This year we saw a new change with the "Big Squeeze" format. The accordionists competing will now be divided into three different categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).
While Tejano, conjunto and norteño music has remained strong within the state of Texas, that has not been the case for the other accordion genres.
"We've discovered there really aren't that many kids in the state that are playing (those other styles)," Balli said. "We realized that we had to give more attention to the other genres, and have them compete in their own category because it's kind of tough to compete with a different genre because there is different styles, different technical skills. They are not the same so that's why we decided to try (separate them)."
Nine finalists, three in each of the categories, will be announced on April 11. They will then compete at the "Big Squeeze" finals on April 26 in Austin, where one champion will be crowned per category. The three grand prize winners will then perform at the Accordion Kings & Queens Festival in Houston on June 7.
To any accordionists, 21 years of age or younger, that missed this event but want an opportunity to enter this contest, Texas Folklife will return to the Valley with another talent showcase on March 29 at Los Fresnos High School. There is also the option of mailing or emailing a video entry for consideration. For more information, please visit www.texasfolklife.org.
As far as what Balli thought of the young accordionists that performed on Saturday morning, she couldn't be happier.
"Nombre, they are just great," Balli said. "I'm almost speechless with how good they are."