EDINBURG — As Manuel Cantu swiftly maneuvers his hands through the buttons on his blue accordion, he breaks eye contact with his instrument only to look at his parents, who made up part of the roughly 60-person crowd at the Texas Folklife Big Squeeze semifinals.
Cantu, an 18-year-old from Houston, was one of over 12 accordionists who advanced from their respective competitions. Only six would make it to the state finals in Austin.
He feels confident, however. He’s been playing since he was 10 years old and the crowd cheered loudly once he finished his set on the patio of the Museum of South Texas History. Both his dad and grandpa, as well of several of his cousins, play the accordion.
“After seeing them at parties playing the same songs over and over again, I thought ‘I want to do it too,’” Cantu said.
Unlike the Valley, it’s less common for schools in Houston to have programs where they can learn to play accordion or any conjunto music. He took private lessons and learned from observing others at a bar that his family owns.
Perla Hernandez, however, comes from a school program known for producing good accordionists. The Roma High School junior was one of several Starr County participants to make it to the finals, and for her, this will be the second time.
“This year I played more complicated songs so I was a bit nervous,” the 16-year-old said.
Like Cantu, she started learning to play accordion because her family encouraged her. She said her father would show her videos of little girls playing the accordion and suggested she try it out. Though her father wasn’t able to take the day off to see her perform, her mother FaceTimed him both while she was performing and when they announced the finalists.
“I wanted to start playing because it seemed like a really cool instrument,” she said. “But mostly, I just really wanted to make my dad proud.”
One of the judges who decided who the finalists would be was conjunto legend Gilberto Perez.
Born in Mercedes in 1935, by the 1950s he began recording music under his name and Gilberto Perez y Sus Compadres. Both Perla and Cantu described him as “one of (their) idols,” and rushed to take photos with him as he walked the halls of the museum.
Perez said in his day, schools were the last place you would learn to play accordion. He learned from observing others, and of course, hours of practice. After 60 years in the music business, he said he was impressed with all the competitors he judged.
The only he sees stopping them from making it big is perhaps their studies, which he admits “is pretty smart of them” anyways.
“I don’t have any words to describe how I feel seeing these young guys playing,” Perez said. “All of them are great. They’re pretty well educated… We used to learn from seeing somebody else, and they get to learn in school; it’s an advantage.”
Perez enjoyed the most about Saturday’s competition happens to be exactly what the goal of Texas Folklife is in the first place: seeing traditions stay alive.
“The only thing I hope is that all these new guys keep our music going,” he said. “That would make me proud.”