3:13pm

Fri June 3, 2011
Music News

Texas Gets The Accordion Bug And Never Looks Back

Originally published on Fri June 3, 2011 7:00 pm

It's a well-known story — the one where European conquerors ravaged the New World with disease in the 15th century. That story repeated itself, in a very different way, in the early part of the 20th century in Texas.

Only it wasn't illness that German and Czech settlers were spreading to unsuspecting Hispanics, Creoles and Cajuns. This time, it was a musical instrument from which they would not recover.

It started in the dance halls in the Texas hill country. While German and Czech farmers danced the polka on Saturday nights, their Hispanic farmhands would gather nearby to watch and listen.

It was a mistake. Because they had no immunity, the button accordion began to spread through these Hispanic communities like wildfire.

From New Braunfels and San Antonio, down to Brownsville, back up the coast to Corpus Christi and Houston and then across East Texas like a ladle full of gumbo, the accordion resisted all attempts to control it. And the infection, it seems, is now permanent.

The diatonic button accordion had many qualities that made it attractive to a Texas working-class agrarian community. First, they were cheap and easy to play. The early models had just one row of buttons; later models had two, and in 1906 you could buy one for as little as $3.

Another key to success? They're loud — you don't need an amplifier or electricity. Add a drummer and guitar, washtubs of cold beer and voila, as the Cajuns say. The early Sears catalogs described the accordion as an "orchestra in a box."

Cajun Zydeco, Texas Style

Whether it's a zydeco or conjunto or German and Czech polka band, the accordion player is almost always the bandleader. Step Rideau, the accordion player and lead singer of Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws, was born in southwestern Louisiana, but moved to Houston in the mid-1980s and never looked back.

Rideau's inspiration was the great Boozoo Chavis, but he developed a sound of his own. Young people flocked to hear him.

"People wanted to see someone young and coming into their own style, and still feel the richness of the heritage and the culture in the music," Rideau says.

Conjunto Viva

As popular as zydeco is in Texas, conjunto music is just as popular, and its heritage just as rich.

Santiago and his little brother Flaco Jimenez from San Antonio are two kings of the conjunto. It's music played with a button accordion, a big 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto, bass and drums.

Although the song "Viva Seguin" is clearly Tejano music — music made by Hispanics in Texas — listen carefully and you can hear a polka, with electric bass taking the place of the tuba.

These days, conjunto music, like zydeco, is as popular as ever in Texas. Young accordion stars wield their instruments like lead guitars, spinning, stomping and dancing across the stage.

'Queen Of The Accordion'

While it's mostly men behind the squeeze box, there are female stars, too. One of the first (and still one of the best) is Eva Ybarra, known as "Queen of the Accordion."

Ybarra is just over 5 feet tall, and if you didn't hear it, you'd never believe that such a voice could emerge from such a small package.

Ybarra started singing and playing conjunto in the ice houses of San Antonio when she was just 15. It was shocking: Teenage girls weren't supposed to play the accordion with lusty abandon in the early 1960s; they weren't supposed to play it at all.

On one occasion, after some of the audience shouted out "Eva!," the other members of her band left Ybarra stranded in a dark parking lot. Being a curiosity was one thing; outshining male musicians was another. Her mother had to pick her up.

"My mom said, 'You don't have to play the accordion, I'm going to buy you a piano,' " Ybarra says. "And my dad said, 'Don't listen to your mom. Your key is the accordion.' And, you know, my dad was right."

Polka Today

If conjunto and zydeco are still attracting plenty of talented young Texas accordion players, German and Czech polka, the wellspring, aren't doing quite as well. While there are still German and Czech communities in the Texas hill country, they are no longer bound together by language. Their children and grandchildren mostly listen to rock or country, but there are exceptions.

Fort Worth has a young accordion star named Ginny Mac, and accordionist Chris Rybak hails from Hallettsville, Texas, near Shiner and Yoakum. Rybak is Czech; his family has been in Texas since 1880. He got his first accordion at age 12.

"I never actually took lessons for the accordion," Rybak says. "I started playing by ear. My dad had a polka band and still does, and the biggest training I had was just going to the dances and listening on the sidelines."

A Texan Mix

While a band along the Texas border can make a living playing only conjunto, and a band in Houston can do the same playing only zydeco, a young German or Czech accordion player is wise to play a broad repertoire.

Rybak, a young husband with a 3-month-old baby girl, plays traditional polka, of course. But he also plays zydeco, conjunto and country, multiplying his chances for work. He makes solo albums, spends a few weeks in the summer playing festivals in Italy, Austria and Germany — it's not a bad life.

Rybak plays a Roland digital accordion, a new kind of accordion which allows him to shade the sound in different ways. At times, he can make it sound a little violiny, or fiddly.

This coming weekend in Houston is the biggest accordion festival in the state. Many of the state's best accordion players — young and old, including Rybak — will gather for the Accordion Kings and Queens competition.

Their loyal followers, hundreds of German Texans, Hispanic Texans, Cajun Texans and just plain old Texans, will dance, all together, in front of the stage.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's a well-known story - in the 15th century, European conquerors unwittingly spread disease across the new world. They also spread language, religion, you name it. Well, fast forward to the early part of the 20th Century to Texas where that story repeats itself in a very different way.

It wasn't illness that German and Czech settlers spread to unsuspecting Hispanics, Creoles and Cajuns. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn tells it, it was a musical instrument from which they would never recover.

WADE GOODWYN: It started in the dancehalls in the Texas hill country. While German and Czech farmers polkaed away on Saturday nights, their Hispanic farmhands would gather nearby to watch and listen. It was a mistake. Because they had no immunity, the button accordion began to spread through these Hispanic communities like wildfire.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: From New Braunfels and San Antonio, down to Brownsville, back up the coast to Corpus Christi and Houston and then across east Texas like a ladleful of gumbo, the accordion resisted all attempts to control it. And the infection, it seems, is now permanent.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: The diatonic button accordion had many qualities that made it attractive to a Texas working class agrarian community. First, they were cheap and easy to play. The early models had just one row of buttons; later models had two, and in 1906 you could buy one for as little as $3. Another key to success: they are loud - you don't need an amplifier or electricity. Add a drummer and guitar, washtubs of cold beer and voila, as the Cajuns say.

The early Sears catalogue described accordions as, quote "an orchestra in a box".

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Step Rideau is the accordion player and lead singer of Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws in Houston.

(Soundbite of music)

STEP RIDEAU (Singer, Musician): (Singing) You got 'em jumping...

GOODWYN: Whether it's Zydeco or Conjunto or German and Czech polka, the accordion player is almost always the bandleader. Although Rideau was born in southwestern Louisiana, he moved to Houston in the mid-'80s and never looked back. His inspiration was the great Boozoo Chavis but he developed a sound completely his own. And young people flocked to hear him.

Mr. RIDEAU: People wanted to see someone young and coming into their own style and still feel the richness of the heritage and the culture in the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RIDEAU: (Singing) Oh, I (unintelligible) for you, baby, until the clock down...

GOODWYN: But as popular as Zydeco is in Texas, Conjunto music is just as popular and its heritage just as rich.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Santiago and his little brother, Flaco Jimenez, from San Antonio, are two kings of the Conjunto. It is music played with a button accordion, a big 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto, bass and drums. Although this song, "Viva Seguin," is clearly Tejano music - in other words music made by Hispanics in Texas - listen carefully and you'll hear a polka, with electric bass taking the place of the tuba.

(Soundbite of music)

These days, Conjunto music, like Zydeco, is as popular as ever in Texas. Young accordion stars wield their instruments like lead guitars, spinning, stomping, dancing across the stage. And while it's mostly men behind the squeeze box, there are women stars, too.

Ms. EVA YBARRA (Musician): This song is called "Paloma Negra," dedicated to all of you.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: One of the first, and still one of the best, is Eva Ybarra, known as the Queen of the Accordion.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. YBARRA: (Singing in Spanish)

GOODWYN: At just over 5 feet tall, if you didn't hear it you'd never believe such a voice could emerge from such a small package.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. YBARRA: (Singing in Spanish)

GOODWYN: Ybarra started singing and playing Conjunto in the ice houses of San Antonio when she was just 15. It was shocking. Teenage girls weren't supposed to play the accordion with lusty abandon in the early 1960s; they weren't supposed to play it at all.

On one occasion, after some of the audience shouted out Eva, the other members of her band left Ybarra stranded in a dark parking lot. Being a curiosity was one thing, outshining the male musicians was another. Her mother had to pick her up.

Ms. YBARRA: My mom said, you don't have to play the accordion. I'm going to buy you a piano. And my dad said, don't listen to your Mom; your key is the accordion. You know, my Dad was right.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: If Conjunto and Zydeco are still attracting plenty of talented young Texas accordion players, German and Czech polka, the wellspring, are not doing quite as well. While there are still German and Czech communities in the Texas hill country, they are no longer bound together by language. Their children and grandchildren listen to rock and roll or country and western. However, there are exceptions.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Fort Worth has a young accordion star named Ginny Mac. And Chris Rybak is from Hallettsville, Texas, near Shiner and Yoakum. Rybak is Czech; his family has been in Texas since 1880. He got his first accordion at age 12.

Mr. CHRIS RYBAK (Musician): I never actually took lessons for the accordion, I just started playing by ear. My dad did have a polka band and still does. And the biggest training I had was going to the dances and listening on the sidelines. That was my training.

GOODWYN: While a band along the Texas border can make a living playing only Conjunto, and a band in Houston do the same playing only Zydeco, a young German or Czech accordion player is wise to play a broad repertoire, like Rybak, a young husband with a three-month-old baby girl. Of course, he plays traditional polka, but he also plays Zydeco, Conjunto, and country and western, multiplying his chances for work. Make solo albums, a few weeks in the summer playing festivals in Italy, Austria and Germany, not a bad life.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Here's Rybak playing the Bob Wills classic "San Antonio Rose."

(Soundbite of music, "San Antonio Rose")

GOODWYN: Rybak is playing a Roland digital accordion, a new kind of accordion, which allows him to shade the sound in different ways. Here it sounds a little violin-y, or fiddly as Bob Wills would probably say.

(Soundbite of music, "San Antonio Rose")

GOODWYN: This coming weekend in Houston is the biggest accordion festival in the state. Many of the state's best accordion players, young and old, including Chris Rybak, will gather for the Accordion Kings and Queens competition.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Their loyal followers, hundreds of German Texans, Hispanic Texans, Cajun Texans and just plain ole Texans, will all dance together in front of the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Wade Goodwyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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