|Eva Ybarra at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito in 2014.|
Being known throughout the conjunto-loving world as "La Reina del Acordeón" makes Eva Ybarra a bit uneasy.
"It was not me, that's for sure," Eva Ybarra replied, when asked who gave her that nickname. "I'm not the kind of person that wants to be playing themselves up."
She's confident about what she can do on the accordion, but she doesn't want to take anything away from all the other women out there.
"I'm not competing with anybody," Ybarra said. "I'm myself, and I have my own style. Everybody has their own, and I have mine."
Ybarra was born in San Antonio, and raised in the Circle 81 area. She explained to me that it used to be called La Lomita in the past. Brighton Avenue was the barrio she resided in.
I inquired about her birthday early in our conversation.
"That I'm not going to mention," Ybarra said, laughing. "Only thing I'm going to say is that the years are not for counting, they're for living."
She was born into a musical family. Her father Pedro Garza Ybarra was a singer and guitar player. Her mother Maria Eloisa Gonzales Araiza Ybarra composed songs and sang as well.
Ybarra was the fifth child born, in what ended up being nine children in total.
She received her first accordion, a two-row button diatonic Hohner model, when she was just four years old.
"It was like they gave me a doll to play with," Ybarra said.
At that age, Ybarra would turn to her mother and ask, "Mom, turn on the radio, so I could learn some pieces." The radio dial would be turned, while Ybarra sat on a little stool, studying the tunes that spilled out from the speakers.
Ybarra raves about her mom, about how great of a job she did raising her family, but admits that she didn't think the accordion was the right instrument for her daughter.
"My mom, all the time, told me that she was concerned about the push and pull (of the accordion)," Ybarra said. "I don't know if it was that, or that she thought it was a man's instrument. She never told me that, she just said she was concerned about the push and pull, about my lungs. That something could happened."
Nothing ever happened to her lungs, despite her mother's concern. Her father was far more supportive when it came to the accordion.
"My dad, when I was growing up, he said that's my key," Ybarra said, referring to the accordion as the key to her success.
Her madre attempted to push her towards the piano. She took Ybarra to get lessons and bought a piano for the family house. While Ybarra stuck to her squeezebox, she did get plenty of value from those sessions. She learned about music theory, and how to read music. These classes would later help in distinguishing Ybarra's accordion style.
She started playing with the family band at the age of six, where she helped support her parents with her accordion skills and singing.
"(My father) took us to restaurants to baseball fields, and we played there," Ybarra said. "People liked it. We made a lot of money. We put the sombrero out and everybody was putting in one dollar, two dollars."
At eight, she upgraded to a three-row button diatonic accordion. She didn't care when people told her it was too heavy and big for her. That year she outgrew piezas with basic melodies, preferring music that was a bit more complicated.
"I didn't like little, simple polkas," Ybarra said, laughing. "I like to challenge myself."
As a young girl, she dared herself to learn far more difficult polkas like "Polka Monterrey" and the Paulino Bernal arrangement of "Maria Bonita". She's proud that she was able to figure out the accordion on her own.
Her eldest brother formed a group called Pedro Ybarra y Los Chamacones. She started playing the accordion for them around the same time she stopped attending school. One night, the fourteen year old accordionist was performing with this conjunto at a local night club. In walked in Ruben Ruiz, a record producer who owned Rosina Records in San Marcos. He was impressed by what he heard.
"He talked to my dad," Ybarra said. "He gave us a two year contract. We were selling a lot of 45's back then."
Her brother was hoping they would use his band's name, but Ruiz insisted on dubbing them Eva Ybarra y su conjunto. As a courtesy to her brother, the recordings listed, "Accompanied by Pedro Ybarra".
"He believed in me," Ybarra said of Ruiz.
Unfortunately, Ybarra soon realized how hard it was being a female in a male-dominated world. It became difficult for her to find band members that were open-minded.
"A lot of men," Ybarra starts before pausing. "They cannot take it, accept it, that a lady can be a leader. That's the jealousy that came from a lot of musicians that used to play with me."
The opportunities she had to record when she was a teenager disappeared once she became an adult.
"There is a lot of envy," Ybarra said. "I had a hard time. They closed doors (on me). I went to every studio, looking to record, they would say, 'Well, give me your material.' Never called me because of discrimination."
In the 1970's and 1980's, the promoters weren't any better than the sexist musicians Ybarra encountered. Some were professional and respectful. Sadly, there was way too many that weren't. One promoter in Puerto Rico, who Ybarra didn't name, made her very uncomfortable with his unwanted sexual advances. Some didn't pay Ybarra after her gigs were over.
"I had a hard time," Ybarra said of that period.
In her mid-thirties, she fell deeply in love with a luchador. He worked both as a tecnico and a rudo. When they first met, she couldn't stand him. Despite her initial impression, they remained friends and she slowly became enamored with him. They began dating, and planned to get married. But when Ybarra discovered his mentiras, she thought about how a marriage would affect her craft, and she called it off.
"Marriage was not for me," Ybarra said. "My music is my life. I'm a music lover, and nobody was going to take it away from me, and I was concerned about that."
In the 1990's, Ybarra was asked to record with Hacienda Records out of Corpus Christi. While she was originally skeptical at legitimacy of the offer, she eventually found out it was genuine. She recorded two releases for that label.
Her most renowned releases came through Rounder Records — A Mi San Antonio (1993) and Romance Inolvidable (1996). These came after meeting Dr. Catherine Ragland in the early 1990's.
"Cathy put me with Rounder Records," Ybarra said. "She saw me at Juan Tejeda's (Tejano Conjunto) Festival (1991). She believed in me, and she told me, 'You're going to record at Rounder Records.'"
Ragland, currently a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, has been championing Ybarra's auteurship since then.
"I produced those records," Ragland said. "What's unique about Eva is that those two recordings that we did are all her original songs. I love Mingo (Saldivar), Flaco Jimenez too, and all those (conjunto) artists are really great, but few of them write their own songs. They play a lot of songs that are already out there in the tradition."
Most of the lyrics in Tejano and conjunto tend to be catered towards men. The majority of compositions are written from a man's point of view. Ybarra is a major exception to that unfortunate norm.
"Some of those songs were very much from the female perspective," Ragland said. "She was really singing about her own experience and I think those songs weren't really being written."
Ybarra has a large repertoire that includes polkas, huapangos, schottisches, racheras, boleros, cumbias and corridos. She pushes the boundaries with a progressive style yet she still keeps it within the conjunto tradition.
"She's very sophisticated, musically," Ragland said. "She does a lot of inverted chords, so they sound a little bit different. Really just expanding and doing a lot of interesting runs on the accordion."
In 1997, Ybarra was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington's Ethnomusicology Department. Her one year there inspired her release of Space Needle (2008).
"That was good," Ybarra said of her experience there. "I taught accordion, bajo-sexto, bass, and guitarrón."
Susan Torres, an acclaimed accordionist who plays with Conjunto Clemencia in Austin, is an admirer of Ybarra's work.
"I like the joy that she gets out of playing the accordion," Torres said. "You can tell it comes from her heart, and I think that's what I like best about her."
In 2010, a fundraiser was held at Mission Trail's Conjunto Express to assist Ybarra after someone broke into her home. She lost a significant amount of her possessions, including her instruments. Torres was one of the musicians that volunteered to perform that night.
"She's always complimenting me," Torres said. "She goes, 'Mija, you got to take my torch, you got to run with it because when I'm gone, you're going to be the next one in line.' I go, 'No Eva, cause I don't love music as much as you do.' Where that came from was earlier, she was talking about how her sister makes tamales. I was telling her how I like helping my mom make tamales and I asked Eva if she makes tamales. She goes, 'No, I play the accordion!' So when I told her that I'm not going to be the one that takes the torch, I told her, 'Remember, I like making tamales, you don't.' (laughs) That's a story I'm really fond of."
Iliana Vasquez, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and an aspiring accordionist, tabs Ybarra as a key influence.
"She inspired me," Vasquez said. "She's a big influential force in me learning the accordion. I'm sure she's inspired other women to pursue conjunto music, especially the accordion."
Vasquez met the legendary musician during The National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco 2013 conference, at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. Ybarra was scheduled for that event's Noche De Cultura, and a workshop on conjunto music the following day. Vasquez took her guitarra de golpe, and introduced herself to Ybarra before her performance that night. They ended up jamming out, and Vasquez was invited on stage.
"We played 'Paloma Negra' together," Vasquez said. "Then the next day, people were encouraged to take their accordions to the workshop. I was the only one to take an accordion, and I had no clue what I was doing on the accordion. She's very, very welcoming. The way she plays is intimidating, but her demeanor isn't. She was showing me how to play 'La Mucura', cause I had asked her the night before. She showed me a little bit of that. Because she had a gig that same night, she had to rush off to San Antonio. I asked her, 'Can you show me a little bit of 'El Circo'?' And she played 'El Circo' with me, all the way out the door. I had never experienced that with anyone else. It's just a memorable moment for me."
Most recently, Ybarra was part of the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, which took place on September 13. She was part of a line-up that featured Chinese, Vallenato, Urban Finnish Folk, Southern Italian Modern, Czech, Afro-Brazilian Forro, Celtic Folk, conjunto and norteño styles of the accordion.
"I think she's really come into her own," Ragland said. "I've noticed that in the past couple of years, she has really been doing a lot more with her voice. I always thought she had a really great voice. I think part of it is that she's been playing with mariachis, and I think that's influenced her singing. It's very emotional, very expressive. It's been coming out in her performances, more and more."
Her next major festival will be here in the Rio Grande Valley, at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito. This three-day conjunto extravaganza lands on the weekend of October 24, 25, and 26. Ybarra shares the October 25 line-up with La Clica, Mingo Saldivar y sus Tremendos Cuatro Espadas, and Los Monarcas de Pete y Mario Diaz.
"I like to perform there," Ybarra said. "The people in the Valley are very good. One time, we had a good crowd there (at the NMCAC)."
The current members of her conjunto consist of Ybarra on accordion and vocals, her brother David Ybarra on bass guitar, Ramon "Rabbit" Sanchez on bajo-sexto, and Pedro Lopez on the drums.
"We are just four but we make noise," Ybarra said. "The musicians that I have right now are great, and they respect me. They do what I say."
Ybarra likes to joke about this imaginary crown that's been bestowed upon her. She tells me it's okay if someone comes along, and yanks it away from her. She sees so many talented mujeres out there, and she just doesn't like being pitted against her hermanas en musica.
"They say, 'She's the best female accordionist,'" Ybarra said, imitating what men have said about her for decades. "I don't like that. They are putting down other talented ladies. How come they don't say, 'Well, she's one of the best, of the males and females?'"