Some are shy on stage; others are natural performers. Some feature technical playing; others draw on their emotions. They’re all budding accordion slingers aiming for the title in this year’s Big Squeeze competition.
Eight of the state’s best young accordionists are traveling to Austin this weekend for the semifinals of the Big Squeeze. The semifinalists, ranging in age from 11 to 18, will perform a free show at Lonestar Plaza of the Bullock Museum from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Johnny Ramirez, the 2008 Big Squeeze champ, and Keyun Dickson, the 2010 winner, jam together at a Houston show.
Texas Folklife, an Austin-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and showcasing Lone Star culture, started the accordion competition in 2007 as an educational arm of its annual Accordion Kings & Queens concert in Houston (June 1 at Miller Outdoor Theatre).
“We’re interested in preserving the traditional music of Texas, and we wanted to make sure the younger generations were picking up the accordion, so we set out to see how many young people we could find,” says Sarah Rucker, program and events manager for Texas Folklife. “We figured the most fun way to do that would be a contest, and through that we found the most talented young players in Texas in a range of musical genres, including conjunto, zydeco, Tejano, polka.”
This year’s competition, which is limited to players 21 and younger, started in February with opening-round performances in Houston, Edinburg, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Tomball, Dallas, and Los Fresnos. Other interested contestants had the option of sending in videotapes of their playing.
The judging panel that selected eight semifinalists from the field of 33 entries was made up of a big-name list of professional accordionists, including Joel Guzman, Sunny Sauceda, Anthony Trevino and Juan Tejeda.
At the semifinals, Susan Torres, accordionist for the Austin band Susan Torres y Conjunto Clemencia, will help select the four finalists who will compete for the championship at the June 1 Accordion Kings & Queens concert. Torres and her band will also perform at the Saturday show.
So who qualified for the semifinals? The accordionists are Juan Longoria, III (12) and Juan Dueñes (11), both of Brownsville; Yesenia Garcia (17) of Houston; Rito Peña (14) of San Antonio; Michael Ramos (17) of Dallas; Luis Gonzalez (17) of Grand Prairie; Oscar Gomez (14) of Elsa; and Juan Antonio Garcia (18) of Mission.
Ignacio “Nachito” Morales of Dallas, the 2011 Big Squeeze champion, shows how it’s done.
The Big Squeeze has fostered a network of up-and-coming accordion players across Texas. In some cases, competitors have ended up forming groups together.
“We want to create a community of this music,” Rucker says. “When they meet these other kids that are playing in other parts of the state, it’s a bonding experience. … It’s building not only a network of family and friendships, but eventually a network of performing musicians.”
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Saturday show, or the finals in Houston. There’s also a 2009 documentary by filmmaker Hector Galán about the Big Squeeze, featuring contestants from the 2007 and 2008 Big Squeeze competitions.
The success of past Big Squeeze champions affirms the competition’s purpose of promoting the young accordionists. “I’m proud to say that all of them are performing musicians, and almost all have released CDs of their own at this point,” Rucker says.
No doubt, these young accordionists can play, and it’s a joy to watch them take the spotlight.
Photos by David Dodd, Courtesy of Texas Folklife.