Sunday, October 14, 2007

International Accordion Festival

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?

Absolutely nothing.

No one was telling accordion jokes at the Arneson River Theatre Friday night in San Antonio at the kickoff event of the three-day International Accordion Festival. Everyone was too busy digging the triple bill of accordion maestros to make fun of their instruments, although laughter was heard throughout the evening. .

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 Veracruz state in Mexico. Although none of Brandon’s material packed quite the emotional punch of “La Bamba,” drummer Siddhartha Carrasco powered the melody with a back beat that made Brandan more than a folk group.

Santiago Jimenez, Jr. y su conjunto performed the hometown sound of conjunto, the polka-centric music of Texas-Mexicans for a hometown crowd that lustily cheered from the first note on his diatonic button accordion and filled the sidewalk by the river at the foot of the seating area with dancers. His quartet featured the bajo sexto twelve string guitar that pushed the rhythm along with the drums and bass, leaving Jimenez to let his fingers do the dancing on his instrument’s buttons. demonstrate his fingerplay on the buttons. Like Brandan, Jimenez is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English but he attempted to explain his music bilingually sometimes trying to make light jokes (“I’m been playing 47 years and I’m just starting, OK?”, “This next song is ‘Los Tres Sabinos’ which in English means the three sabinos, OK?”) as he worked his way through redovas, huapangos, danzon, boleros, and waltzes – musical styles that have all but been abandoned by modern conjuntos in favor of cumbias. Unlike his modernist brother, Flaco Jimenez, best known for his work with the Texas Tornados, Santiago is his father’s son, and honored Senior, one of the pioneers of Texas conjunto accordion by playing several of his originals during the set. He played with drama, often pulling the bellows as wide as his arms would extend while trilling high notes, but not too flashy as is the style of contemporaries such as Mingo Saldivar or Nick Villareal. When he sang, it was gusto, in a full-throated, almost Germanic voice that as muscular and assertive and thoroughly engaging, as if no one could refuse his order to dance. When he played, especially the polkas, pushed by the tight marching cadence of the drums, bass, and bajo setting the pace, he was without peer, acknowledged by the rousing applause from the audience and their voices, singing along to “Volver, Volver.” By the time the slight Jimenez, resplendent in black shirt, blue jeans, and black patent leather cowboy boots, segued into a snippet of the popular Mexican standard that even uneducated gringos recognize “El Rancho Grande” he had the whole house rocking to the accordion.

Chango Spasiuk, the man and the quintet of the same name from the Misiones region of northeastern Argentina showed the future of traditional accordion music. Playing a style called chamamè which is considered the deepest swing music in Argentina, the ensemble, all dressed in black, included a standup bass player, acoustic guitar, a beatbox, and a violin which provided the musical counterpoint to the accordion, which was so large, with an extra long keyboard that from a distance appeared to hold all 88 keys, that Spasiuk the accordionist played sitting down with the instrument resting on a blanket on his lap. Although the five players are all native Argentines and tied to the accordion music of Astor Piazzola, Argentina’s best known accordionist, the leader’s Ukrainian roots showed in his physical presence – he was the one with the wild blond hair in contrast to the dark features of the rest of the group – and in his playing which included hints of Roma, Czech, and other eastern European sounds. The interplay of accordion and violin recalled the passion of mariachi music while their concept of swing summoned sonic images of Texas-rooted western swing with snippets that could have been borrowed from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ “Stay All Night, Stay A Little Longer,” once again proving swing, like polka, transcends language and culture.

Chango Tango

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 San Antonio nights.

dancing to the Chanky0Chank with Pollard-Ardoin

Southern Scratch knows polka

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 Louisiana while local heroes The Texmaniacs featuring bajo sexton guitarist Max Baca and accordionista David Farias presented state-of-the-art conjunto music that showed the music’s future is secure. They had the house singing along to their polka-fied rendition of Bruce Channel’s (and Delbert McClinton’s Made-In-Texas pop-soul classic “Hey Baby.” What little I got to hear of Southern Scratch, the Tohono O’odham Native American group specializing in “chicken scratch” underscored the fact that Tejanos aren’t the only Americans to put some kick into polka music.

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 Clifton of his time or the John Coltrane of Bulgaria, Yuri Yunakov was on another plane compared to the rest of the acts I saw for his passionate stylistic playing and the obvious pleasure he personally derives from it.


mister anchovy said...

We were there too. I've posted a bunch of pictures over at my place too. Drop by and scroll down some and you'll see them. We had the best time at the festival! Great venue, and we thought the overall quality of the bands was very high!

Anonymous said...

Great Review of some of the best of the San Antonio Festival. You kept me spell-bound, fabulous stuff, I felt I was there with you. Please feel free to come and critique our festival anytime.


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Anonymous said...

Todo bien con el Sr Jimenez, and I understand the need to act localist, but Chango Spasiuk did more than "gave him a run for his money with his own riffs". He gave a lesson about the Universality of Music to those who dare to stay and Listen to something new. It is a pity that most of Mr. Jimenez audience left after Jimenez's part. (Talking about Saturday evening by the river. Listen to Chamame. It is also from a Northern region (of Argentina). Viva la buena Musica.