(blog) The Year of the Armadillo

Keeping in tradition of my annual Big Squeeze blog post, I’d like to start this year’s recap by declaring 2014 the Year of the Armadillo. When Austin design firm Frank+Victor revamped our Big Squeeze logo to include the armadill-accordion image, my coworker Michelle mentioned that soon after, many other music programs and festivals were using the armadillo on promotional materials. Of course this is an iconic Texas image, but we decided it must be the Year of the Accordion.

Big Squeeze 2014 came with some enhancements: the addition of categories including zydeco, Conjunto and polka. We also visited some new communities as well as good friends who have been hosting the Big Squeeze for years.  I was joined on the road by 2014 Program Interns Jonathan Cronin (recent graduate of Texas State University) and Iliana Vasquez (Masters candidate at University of Texas at Austin.)

The season kicked off at Houston’s Creole Heritage Festival where 2010 Big Squeeze champion Keyun Dickson played for a crowd of over 1000 people.  We were able to catch Keyun perform earlier that day at Café 4212’s zydeco brunch too. The talented young player, Christopher Lopez, became the brave first contestant of 2014.

My first time in La Joya was a blast. Cecilio Garza, the director of the La Joya High School Conjunto program, was one of the first voices I learned over the phone at Texas Folklife but somehow I had never made it to his school. His school welcomed the Big Squeeze with open arms allowing us to hold a showcase just a couple hours before their Spring concert. We were treated to some delicious barbecue and music at Mr. Garza’s club, Don Chilo’s before hitting the road to Corpus Christi.

Of course the Corpus showcase was an exciting one for me because it is my birthplace! Our good friend Rick Garcia of Hacienda Records helped us put together a great show with the Ben McDonald Library which houses the Musica del Sur de Tejas exhibit. We had Conjunto legend Chano Cadena join us to perform after the young contestants. Over 300 peopl e showed up including TV crews to support Texas traditional music.

The next marathon Big Squeeze weekend after La Joya & Corpus was Schulenburg & Houston. Texas Folklife and Texas Dance Hall Preservation produced the first Texas Polka Symposium & Festival at Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg. It was on the way to Texana Inn B&B in LaGrange the night before that Jonathan, Iliana and I decided this would be the place for a good chupacabra siting. Despite the howling some of us heard, we got a good night’s sleep and got going on a 12 hour long day of celebrating Texas polka music. Cristina Balli curated a series of panels downstairs while I kept the lineup (booked by Steve Dean) moving smoothly upstairs. Big Squeeze contestants in the newly established Polka category impressed the audience while being backed up by the “Big Squeeze House Band”: Clemencia Zapata, Bradley Williams, and Javier Cruz aka Conjunto Clemencia. The dance went late into the evening culminating in a performance by Texas-Czech icon Mark Halata. The “Chupacabra Crew” hit the road early to return to Houston the next morning.

The Houston organization, Multicultural Education and Counseling in the Arts (MECA) agreed to collaborate with us this year and together we brought Houston musician and accordion teacher Roberto Rodriguez on board. We had our 2nd showcase of 2014 in Houston and also a lecture demonstration with Rodriguez, his new apprentice Miguel Chavez, and bajo sexto player Tina Vega. This presentation brought out a moment that for me was a tear jerker. Miguel was explaining why he started an apprenticeship on accordion and how it was a way to connect to his parents and their upbringing in Mexico. Roberto and Tina shared a similar story of how they played this music in order to honor their heritage. I realized that was the true reason for this program, to show the commonality we all have for wanting to celebrate and share the experiences we had at a young age. Community and family are the yarns that weave together the love of this music and the need to share it.

Dallas is another special place to me because most of my family is from there and also because we get to see a lot of our Big Squeeze family now that Dallas is home to TWO Big Squeeze champs: Nachito Morales and Michael Ramos.  After the showcases, both champs performed, opening for Grammy Winner Michael Salgado. We ended the evening with a visit to the Los Morales Boyz rehearsal space where I got a drum lesson by 10 year old Cheque Morales!

Although La Joya came in a very close 2nd, Los Fresnos broke the record again for most participants at a single showcase: 16 young accordion players! The 2007 Big Squeeze champion Juan Longoria, Jr. started the Conjunto class at Los Fresnos High School in 2013 and it has already become a thriving program. The LFHS students performed after the showcase with the 30 minute show that got them a 1 rating at the UIL Mariachi* Competition earlier this year (*there currently is no Conjunto category for UIL level so Longoria rewrote the charts to Mariachi guidelines.) I got an extra perk that night with a visit to San Benito dance hall, La Villita.

San Antonio was the perfect place to close out the 2014 Big Squeeze showcases because of our longtime collaborative relationship with Conjunto Heritage Taller. Hosted by Joe Lopez at his Gallista Gallery, the San Antonio showcase is a great snapshot of the way the sense of community can enrich one’s life at any age. Mr. Rodolfo Lopez invites the board members, students, and supporters out each year to the gallery to celebrate Conjunto music in a city that has been home to countless legends including Esteban Jordan, Valerio Longoria, and Santiago Jimenez and his sons, Santiago Jr. and Flaco.

Though we had a record breaking 49 contestants between the eight showcases and mail-in entries, we unfortunately could only have 3 finalists move on in each genre category. On April 26, the 8th Annual Big Squeeze Finals included Randall Jackson, DeJ’ean Jolivette, and J’eanTrel Jolivette in the zydeco category; Garrett Neubauer, Chris Trojacek, and Rebecca Huck in the polka category; and Mariano Resendez, Luis Gonzalez and Aaron Salinas in the Conjunto category. Again backed by the Big Squeeze House Band. Performances by the Fabulous Polkasonics, reigning Big Squeeze champion Michael Ramos, Curtis Poullard & the Creole Zydeco Band and Grammy Winner Sunny Sauceda were to follow. The most nerve wracking part of the year (for me at least) came next: the announcement of the 2014 Big Squeeze champions. Aaron Salinas became the first champion from San Antonio, Randall Jackson became the third champion from Dallas, and Garrett Neubaer became the first polka player to win the title.

June brought an end to the 2014 Big Squeeze season with the 25th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens. Michael Ramos, 2013 Big Squeeze champion and the three newly crowned winners got to perform in a lineup that included Mark Halata, Ginny Mac, Rio Jordan, Flavio Longoria, Conteno with Los Halcones, and CJ Chenier. It was my great privilege to get to know Ms. Mary Thomas, a zydeco promoter in Houston, over the last few years and Texas Folklife awarded Ms. Thomas with the Star of Texas Folklife Award this year at AKQ to thank her for her work in preserving the music. She was joined by family members including her nephew CJ Chenier. Her brother Clifton Chenier, was known as the King of Zydeco - one of my all time favorite accordion players.  

As a side note to the Big Squeeze, our staff had a great time at this year’s Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio in May where we got to see many of the program’s previous contestants. A highlight for me was when someone came up to me and said I was famous because I worked at Texas Folklife! I immediately told Iliana the story and how shocked I was and she simply said, “You’re not just famous, you’re Conjunto famous.” Wow.

Although I included mostly personal highlights and “inside stories” in this blog post, I want to stress that the Big Squeeze program has done so much to prove to the rest of the state and country that traditional music is alive and well in Texas and is torch is being carried with honor by the younger generations. I have been continually in awe of the passion of the participants, whose ages range from 6 to 21. The parents, teachers, and community organizers deserve a huge round of applause for coming together to make sure there are spaces for the young musicians to learn, practice and showcase their talent.

Finally, I’d like to end this recap by announcing the conclusion to my time as Program & Events Manager at Texas Folklife. I like to go out with a bang and this year was more than I could ask for. I will always continue to help the world see the diverse music, dance and art the Lone Star State has to offer and I promise you’ll keep seeing me at shows. Thank you all for the great memories over the last 7 ½ years! Abrazos!