You’ve heard the accordion jokes:
What did people say when the ship loaded with accordions sank in the ocean?
Well, it's a start.
The song most requested of accordionists?
Can you play Far, Far Away.
What do a true music lover and an accordionist have in common?
No one was telling accordion jokes at the Arneson River Theatre Friday night in
This was an evening of accordion artistry, with San Antonio as the musical as well as physical centerpiece of the night’s music, small wonder since the accordion is regarded as the National Instrument of Texas, played by a number of different cultures and accompanied by voices singing in English, Spanish, French, Czech, and German.
San Antonio was founded more in the 1700s at La Villita, the site of the accordion festival, by immigrants from the Canary Islands, the home of opening act Brandan, a young under-40 sextet formed around a timple, a stringed instrument that looks like a ukulele but sounds like a mandolin, played by Benito Cabrera and the piano keyboard accordion played by Jeremias Martin. The group’s emphasis was on traditional sounds with hints of Irish reels and gypsy swing creeping into the lilting instrumental melodies that had me wondering if they were about to break into “Stairway to Heaven.” There was no Led Zeppelin quoted, however, nor much showmanship and even less patter from the stage other than an apology in broken English for not speaking English well – much of the crowd of 1,000 perfectly understood their more detailed explanation in Spanish. But the timple-accordion combo did sometimes recalled the harp-guitar blending of son jarocho music from
Chango Spasiuk, the man and the quintet of the same name from the Misiones region of northeastern
The last song of the set was a tango, the national sound of Argentina, and the reason one couple showed up at the Arneson. The couple seethed sexuality (the man, dressed in black, wore a black fedora with a Royal Flush of playing cards in his hat band) and their dance by the riverside drew as many cheers from the audience as the band did, with cameras flashing to capture their dramatic, passionate syncopated moves.
The evening concluded with all three accordionists taking the stage to play a huapango, rooted in Mexican traditions and concluding with “Viva Seguin” the instrumental polka written by Santiago Jimenez, Jr.’s father more than seventy years ago. If Jimenez had an edge over the other accordionists, Spasiuk gave him a run for his money with his own riffs.
There isn’t a prettier venue in Texas for hearing music than the Arneson River Theatre with the San Antonio River separating the stage from the audience and a backdrop of mission-style stone arches flanked by ancient palms, despite the steady procession of passing tourist barges and the tacky banners advertising Bud Light and other sponsors draped at the foot of the stage, behind it, and on both sides. Those drawbacks were trumped by the sight of ducks on the water and a small Great Blue Heron winging past. Between those visuals and the sounds pouring from the stage Friday night, it was one of those Nowhere Else but
dancing to the Chanky0Chank with Pollard-Ardoin
The festival continued through the weekend on three stages around La Villita. On Saturday the Cajun-Creole ensemble led by Ed Pollard and Lawrence Ardoin had the crowds rocking with infectious “chanky-chank” music from southwest
Yuri Yunakov Ensemble smokin'
But for me, the biggest revelation of the festival was the Roma music and dance of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble. Playing what the great unwashed would describe as gypsy music and what began as Bulgarian wedding music, leader Yunakov fused his tenor sax with a cornet and a piano key accordion into a wicked harmony that whipped the band and the audience into an intense frenzy. Yunakov built on that collaborative energy to launch into extraterrestrial free jazz riffs that entered the realm of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman while physically demonstrating the joy of music in a way that my wife says she hadn’t seen since Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band ruled the planet. Whether he’s the