Interviewed by Enrique Lopetegui
Cathy Ragland, Ph D., is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at UT Pan American in Edinburg, and the author of
Música Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation Between Nations (Temple University Press). She’s also one of the world's foremost authorities on conjunto music, and will be the artistic curator of the 2011 edition of the International Accordion Festival, to be held in October at La Villita.
She sent her answers to the Current
Let’s first talk about Eva Ybarra. What’s so special about her?
What I think people miss about her is that her approach to playing conjunto-style accordion is highly sophisticated and original. This is actually the thing that is celebrated in the tradition. Flaco [Jiménez], Steve Jordan, Mingo [Saldívar], Joel Guzmán, are all known for creating an "individual" accordion style, challenging tradition, but without losing the important musical references that define conjunto accordion style (a "syncopated" polka rhythm, playing around — and not on top of — the strophic song form, adding flourishes and grace-notes at the end of phrases and leading into the next stanza, etc.). But for some reason when Eva does it, she gets some criticism (mostly from other musicians, not fans) for being too "out there." I think part of the issue is that, as a woman, they think she should play more "straight" and not challenge the boys. Who knows.
From a strictly musical, technical standpoint, how would you describe her?
Eva is a consummate musician and she loves to challenge herself. She loves dissonant chord progressions and doesn't resolve them in ways that audiences expect. And they love that. She can also embellish even the simplest melody with fast 16th and 32nd-note chromatic runs and subtle shifts in tempo that are, in my mind, the essence of jazz. Flaco, Mingo, Steve ... those guys are influenced by blues, R&B, and rock, and their experimentations have updated the style but they are predictable, which isn't a bad thing at all — people love that too. But Eva, in my mind, goes deeper and, in many cases, her experiments are more subtle, more nuanced and more difficult, but not always so flashy or in-your-face. Very often it’s on a second or third listening when you "get" her brilliance. Her music remains highly danceable, melodic and accessible. And it is all
original. She rarely does covers (unless requested). Maybe Steve Jordan was the Jimi Hendrix of the Tex-Mex accordion, but Eva's approach can be compared to that of Miles Davis. That's my opinion, of course.
In general terms, I believe the conjunto element is Tejano music's most interesting element. But is it stuck in time? Do you see any innovators? This year's festival honors the old school but it's also an homage to the younger generation. However, most youngsters, in my opinion, are basically staying true to the tradition, which is great, but I don't see new people taking the genre to a different level. Can you give me your take on it?
It is an interesting and rather complicated question. There was a time when, in the ’70s and ’80s, young people didn't want to have anything to do with conjunto and the accordion/bajo sexto. It was old-fashioned and it was too "ethnic." Artists like Flaco Jiménez, Santiago Jr. to a degree, Mingo Saldívar and, a bit later, Jaime De Anda and Albert Zamora, forged a modern sound on the accordion (i.e. simulating blues notes on the accordion, taking influences from rock, jazz, country, etc.) and that made it "sound" modern for a time, even though they kept the bajo sexto, drums, bass lineup. Then modern Tejano artists like Selena, Little Joe y la Familia, Jay Pérez, and others tried to do something even more radical, which was to "replace" the accordion with keyboards, saxophone, etc. That worked for a while, but it didn't last. That is partly due to the "transformation" of the accordion/bajo sexto to the role of "symbol" of Tejano identity and culture (post-Chicano movement and continuing post-Selena). That proved to be more powerful than the push toward a more commercialized Tejano sound that always seemed to be trying to validate itself as crossover music or competing with country, rock, pop ... whatever. In the end, the kind of Tejano that Selena, Mazz, La Mafia, and groups like that were doing and their efforts to compete in the American mainstream did not pan out. On the whole, the rest of the U.S. just didn't get it, plus it was sung in Spanish!! That would never crossover in the end. In the meantime, events like the Conjunto Festival, KEDA radio, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, have helped keep conjunto alive (and in the traditional dancehall form of the late 1950s: accordion, bajo sexto, bass, drums) as a folkloric genre that doesn't try to be anything else except regional and of the people. In order for it to survive as such and for it to remain community-based, it cannot change too radically. Likewise, as music of weddings, quinceañeras
, etc., it has to maintain what is now considered the "traditional" ensemble and be sung in Spanish (even if it is fairly "bad" Spanish) so that it can continue to be "of the people" and, more importantly, a symbol of the Texas-Mexican experience.
Can you elaborate on the fact that Texas accordionists don't use their left hand? Is that a point against the genre or does the bajo sexto plays what the left hand used to play?
Narciso Martínez instituted this practice and that was because, with no bass guitar or drums at the time, he was doing a lot of work playing polkas, mazurkas, waltzes, etc. that he'd heard larger groups with brass instruments play. When he began playing with bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida, he relinquished more of the rhythm (which you would typically play in the left hand with the accordion) to the bajo sexto. This is an interesting instrument, because it is a hybrid bass-guitar and, traditionally, with 12 strings (today they use 10 strings or fewer), so why waste such an instrument on simple harmonic progressions?! OK, so that's my take, but I don't think I'm too far off. The bajo sexto is traditionally made to play leads too ... so, Martínez wisely (and eventually) laid off the left hand completely and focused on the right hand playing intricate melodic runs and phrases. Almeida explored the possibilities of the bajo sexto well beyond the role of rhythm accompaniment (in the lower bass string) while
also playing countermelodies on some upper strings (this is something a bass guitar cannot do!). The style these guys created became indicative of what is now known as "traditional" conjunto style, though many of today's bajo sexto players are much lazier than Almeida since the electric bass and drums came into the picture. No one can play like Almeida anymore, except maybe Max Baca! Max and Joel Guzmán are really the only musicians who can do that older Martínez/Almeida style (which is more complicated!). So, now, people just think it sounds weird to play left-hand bass notes on the accordion, it just isn't Tex-Mex (Tejano) and it distinguishes this style of accordion playing from all others. It also allows the accordionist the opportunity to be more innovative, creative and flashy ... and that is the essence of accordion style, and probably the only place musicians can innovate and still play traditional conjunto style.