International Accordion Festival has more than conjunto on its agenda
Any accordion festival in San Antonio that didn't include a nod to the area's conjunto heritage wouldn't be worth attending. Polka Dawgs, relax: Organizers of the Fourth International Accordion Festival, running Saturday and Sunday at La Villita, have invited El Chaparrito de Oro, veteran musician Rubén Vela y Su Conjunto, to play Saturday night. Tomorrow's rising stars in Conjunto Palo Alto, the only college-based conjunto ensemble in the nation, take the stage Sunday afternoon. The intense, unpredictable, and altogether brilliant Steve Jordan ("Jimi Hendrix of the accordion") y Su Rio Jordan closes out the two-day event with his distinctive blend of blues, jazz and electrified Tex-Mex.
In contrast to the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival, however, the Accordion Festival doesn't focus on any particular musical genre, according to Pat Jasper, festival curator. A quick glance at the weekend's program confirms this. There's a thread linking the eclectic Texas sound of Ponty Bone & the Squeezetones to the Louisiana-based zydeco of CJ Chenier (scion of zydeco originator Clifton Chenier) & the Red Hot Louisiana Band and the Cajun music of the Savoy Family Band.
Instead of tango and merengue, staples of past festivals, this year features the Argentinean chamamé of Rubén Rodriguez and forró, a driving Brazilian dance music, performed by Forró in the Dark. "There is not a soul who hears forró who won't know how to move to it," Jasper says.
Veretski Pass kicks off both days of the festival, playing klezmer (a kind of Jewish-jazz rhythmic combination borne from the diaspora) with a 19th-century European influence, and, although they may be unknown outside of San Antonio's small, closely knit Albanian community, the Merita Halili Ensemble makes their festival debut this year.
While the performances continue to remain the main attraction, Jasper indicates that the workshops best express the Festival's spirit because they allow participants "to interact up close and personal with artists, and communicate across cultural and musical lives." Some of the most exciting moments from years past have been in the workshops, she says, in an environment where the "artists, audiences and instruments come directly into play with each other. It's very exciting, very touching, very sweet - and very challenging."
Whether in workshop or on stage, event organizers, participants and the artists themselves all share in the goal of breaking down barriers. Just ask Ponty Bone, whose gigs this weekend constitute somewhat of a homecoming. This Jefferson High graduate still calls San Antonio his hometown, even though most assume he's from from Lubbock because of all the time he spent there. When he was 5 years old, Bone's father offered him a choice between accordion or violin lessons. Bone picked the squeezebox, and has been playing it ever since. With the Austin-based Squeezetones, he plays music bred in the sonic garden of the region's diverse styles and traditions, what he describes as a cross between Clifton Chenier and Flaco Jiménez "and all my heroes from the Mexican side."
A traditionalist in every sense of the world, Savoy feels modern music - even folk music - has become cold and indifferent, more about glitz and glamour than warmth and heartfelt emotion. He feels his mission is to preserve "the element of humanness" in the music. "We're not performers," he says. "We're family people playing traditional music."
One of the reasons why the accordion plays such a central role in so many forms of music stems from its versatility and accessibility. Accordions are portable and affordable, with an expressive sound ("as my friend says," Bone jokes, "they're the Hammond B-3s of poor people") that can masquerade as any number of instruments, or stand out on their own. During the 1950s, "before television assigned it a role of comic relief," Bone notes, "you were more likely to find an accordion in the house than a guitar." Unfortunately, he laments, "the myth is still in effect."
Fortunately, the artists and aficionados at the International Accordion Festival never stoop to spoof, Jasper asserts. Here, she says, "The accordion is king and queen - combined - of all instruments" •