Friday, February 13, 2015

"Big Squeeze" Showcase Recap

Post-event jam session.
This past Saturday morning, Texas Folklife opened their 2015 "Big Squeeze" season at La Joya High School. The first round of this statewide accordion competition for players under 21 includes seven showcases, held throughout Texas. 

"Being an arts administrator, there is lots to do," Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli said. "Paperwork, fundraising, budgeting, and we get stressed out. When we finally got in the car to drive down here, I thought, 'Tomorrow I'm going to listen to good music all day long.' And that felt great." 

The musicians are divided into three separate categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music). Nine finalists, three per division, will be announced on April 3 on www.texasfolklife.org. Those finalists will then compete in Austin on April 25, with a champion being crowned per category. 

The following La Joya High School students entered the contest: Roel Sandoval, 16; Elvis Covarrubias, 17; Armando Gonzalez, 15; Raul Resendez, 14; Marco Ramos, 18. 

The five students performed a variety of pieces that included "Acordeones De Oro", "El Sube y Baja", "La Curva", "La Repetida", "El Circo", and a few huapangos. 

"This time around we didn't have as big a turnout of contestants," Balli said of this showcase, as the previous year's event featured eight participants. "We were actually competing with ACT testing. There were far more students that wanted to compete."

Hopefuls that still want to be included can do so by sending in their recordings via email or mail to Texas Folklife, no later than March 30. 

After the auditions were done, Tejano and conjunto icon Carlos Guzmán was introduced to the audience.  

"I'm very excited to be a part of this function," Guzmán said. "I've recorded over 400 songs in my career, in different genres. I try to integrate the accordion on most of my recordings. I've been so blessed because I get recognized everywhere because there is a little sound of the accordion on the accompaniment (of my songs)."

Guzmán was the special guest for the annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival, which took place later in the day at the La Joya ISD Performing Arts Center. 

An impromptu jam session broke out to close off this morning gathering. When the students collaborated on "Palabra de Hombre", a tololoche (upright bass) made an appearance. It was a nice surprise for fans of traditional border music. 

"I've seen these kids jam all the time," Balli said. "They are great musicians. All you have to do is prod them a little bit, and encourage them. We had a little bit of extra time, so that's why I said, 'Come on guys, lets jam.'" 

Balli also asked the first ever "Big Squeeze" champion Juan Longoria, Jr. to perform. He played a waltz, polka, and schottische (aka chotiz). Conjunto event regulars Amelia and Raul Martinez started dancing during his brief set. 

I asked Longoria about his "Big Squeeze" experience in 2007.

"You're excited, but you're also nervous," Longoria said about how he felt when he tried out. "I felt good about it (afterwards). I did mess up but it was just the nerves kicking in."

The former champion had some advice for the performers that will attempt to walk away with a "Big Squeeze" title in 2015. 

"Play with passion," Longoria said. "Play with originality as well. Play as clean as you can. Have a stage presence, look comfortable. Enjoy what you're doing and have fun with it." 

The next showcase stops are in Houston on February 15 and 28, Los Fresnos on March 7, Corpus Christi on March 8, Dallas on March 21, and San Antonio on March 27. Balli tells me that this isn't just a competition, but also a way to bring all these talented young musicians together. It's a great learning experience for all those who are involved in the "Big Squeeze" program. 

"I always just love hearing these kids," Balli said. "We see them repeat, we see them graduate, we see the new ones come in, we remember things about them, they get to know us, and we get to know them." 

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