Friday, May 2, 2014

Three New Champions

Sarah Rucker, Aaron Salinas, Garrett Neubauer, Randall Jackson II, and Cristina Balli.
This past Saturday afternoon, Texas Folklife hosted their statewide "Big Squeeze" finals and concert at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX.

The band line-up included last years winner Michael Ramos, Fabulous Polkasonics, Sunny Sauceda, and Curtis Poullard & the Creole Zydeco Band.

This year saw a new change with the "Big Squeeze" format. The nine finalist were divided by three different categories — "Polka" (German, Czech and Polish music), "Zydeco" (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and "Conjunto" (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).

The person crowned as "Polka" champion hails from Altair, TX. Garrett Neubauer, 23, first got interested in the accordion when he saw his late father playing it.

"After he passed away, I just wanted to pick it up," Neubauer said. "You know, make him proud."

He was eight years old when he first started squeezing. While his grandfather taught him a little bit, he is for the most part self-taught. He was pretty excited when he found out he advanced to the finals, he said.

When he was announced as the winner, he was stunned.

"I can't even describe the feeling," Neubauer said. "I didn't know what to think, I had really never won anything in my life."

Later that night, he went back to his hotel and jammed out with his friends until 2 AM.

Born and raised in Deep East Texas, Randall Jackson II became the first ever "Zydeco" champion. Currently living in Weatherford, he grew up surrounded by Zydeco and Creole music. As he entered his teens, he decided it was time to pick up the accordion.

"I liked the music," Jackson, 20, said. "I am Creole and I do have (family) roots in Louisiana."

His main influences are Keith Frank, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Clifton Chenier. From being a keen listener, he taught himself how to play the accordion. He took some time away from his music studies and homework to show the Texas Folklife judges what he was capable of on Saturday.

With his mom and aunt in attendance, Jackson was announced as the new kingpin of the "Zydeco" division.

"It felt pretty good," Jackson said. "It feels good to be with other musicians."

One of Jackson's highlights of his weekend was seeing Je'an-Trel Jolivette and DeJe'an Jolivette perform in the same category as him. He hopes that they, along with himself, move forward in keeping Zydeco and Creole music alive.

San Antonio's Aaron Salinas walked away with the "Conjunto" title. The 19-year-old credits his grandfather for introducing him to the accordion at the age of 8.

"He basically told me and showed me what it was," Salinas said, after one day he stumbled across his grandfather's accordion. "He sat me down and put on an instructional video."

Shortly thereafter, his grandfather started taking him to get lessons and got him involved with the local conjunto scene. In 2011 he auditioned for his first "Big Squeeze" contest but he didn't advance. He decided to give it another shot in 2014.

Salinas played "Maria Bonita" and a paso doble on Saturday. Noticing who was one of the judges made him a bit anxious.

"It was exciting," Salinas said. "On the panel of judges, one of them was Sunny Sauceda. Just having a two-time Grammy award winner there judging was a little nerve-racking."

When he found out they ruled in his favor, he was relieved.

"I felt very happy to have been there with my family," Salinas said. "Especially my grandfather, I was just happy that I could win it. Not just for me, but for him, because he's been the biggest supporter and influence for me."

The three champions received a brand-new Hohner accordion, a cash prize, and will have their careers advanced with a variety of opportunities.

Accordion aficionados interested in seeing a performance featuring all three "Big Squeeze" champions are invited to this year's "Accordion Kings and Queens" event. The squeeze-box celebration is scheduled to be on June 7, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston, TX. More details will be available soon at

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