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Young conjunto accordionists vie for Texas Folklife contest

April 1, 2019

Only one accordionist showed up at Texas Folklife’s Big Squeeze Accordion Contest audition, so the organizers brought the tryout to the heart of where young Houston players are learning the instrument.

A cacophony of conjunto — the roots of Tejano music — permeated Kashmere Gardens on Sunday afternoon as nearly a dozen young musicians showed off their accordion chops for family members, friends and judges. The best of the best will move on to the statewide Big Squeeze semifinals for conjunto music.

The impromptu audition was unusual because it was on a makeshift stage in the backyard where accordion teacher Rodrigo Gonzalez learned to play the boisterous instrument as a kid. His grandfather, Baldemar Elizondo Sr., who operated Balde’s Acordeen Shop out of the Bain Street home until his death in 2002, taught him to play in the same backyard. The home now hosts Gonzalez’s Centro Cultural Viva Mexico classes.

“If it worked with Grandpa teaching us in a backyard, I thought, ‘Why don’t we teach the other kids the same way?’” Gonzalez said. “It morphed into this, the parents coming to see. Sometimes they bring their little ice chest and they just sit back and relax.”

Amid the chatting of parents, their children noodled on their accordions and helped each other perfect their music. The neighbors don’t mind the noise, Gonzalez said.

Contest organizer Sarah Rucker started handing out more audition forms after realizing the weekly Sunday practice was teeming with young accordion players and potential contestants.

Keny Bernal, 10, signed up as Houston’s youngest competitor. At first, he was unsure about the accordion when his father urged him to learn a musical instrument. The only things the boy wanted to play were video games, he recalled.

Then he gave his brother’s untouched accordion a squeeze.

“I started playing all kinds of noises and started liking the songs,” Keny said.

Eight months later, video games now come second to his cherry red and gold Houston-made Gabbanelli accordion.

For 11-year-old Luis Diez, the faster the song, the more he loves it.

“It feels like a video game because of all the buttons,” he said.

The burst of organlike sounds that erupt with each squeeze of the instrument was a curiosity to Alexis Serna when he was 8.

“My dad listens to a lot of Mexican music. I asked what that sound was and he said it was the accordion,” said Alexis, now 12.

Most of the students appear to have mastered within months the art of multitasking the compressions and keys.

“It’s hard, but they’re little and catch on quick,” said Mario Villarreal, whose daughter, 10-year-old Alyssa, was one of two girls to try out. “If we (try), it’s going to be harder.”

Rucker looks for Texas cities and towns that are accordion hotspots to host auditions for players 21 and younger. The youths who make the cut will go to Edinburg on April 27 for the conjunto semifinals. They’re judged on technical proficiency, song interpretation and stage presence.

An abundance of players always turn out in the Rio Grande Valley, Rucker said, but the open-call audition held Sunday afternoon at MECA Houston attracted only one competitor before an audience of about two dozen.

A previous audition on Saturday at Jax Bar & Grill in the Heights brought in four young accordionists — all of whom were Gonzalez’s students.

Nathaniel Ortiz, 14, of Pasadena, was the lone player who walked in a half-hour into Sunday’s audition. He had members of the local band Mas Pulpo to help. Vladimir Castellanos joined the teen on the bajo sexto guitar, while his bandmate, accordionist Roberto Rodriguez, kept the hulking instrument’s straps from falling off of Ortiz’s shoulders.

The lack of applicants at Sunday’s community center auditions led Rucker to fear interest in the accordion was fading.

“We’re trying to make sure the music doesn’t die,” Rucker said. “It’s not a common or an easy instrument to play. It’s not a cheap one either.”

Rodriguez worries a lack of accordion instructors and the fusing of musical genres is putting the instrument and its traditional music on the back burner.

“I think with so much fusion, a lot of people are forgetting the roots. A lot of older songs are being forgotten,” he said.

Despite any concern that interest in accordions is dwindling, the music was alive and well at Gonzalez’s weekly practice.

He cites the support of their parents for allowing the young musicians to quickly learn the challenging instrument.

There have been some distractions.

“When Fortnite came out, I saw a huge drop of interest in music,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve had parents wanting their kids to be interested in something besides video games.”

nicole.hensley@chron.com

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