If you talk to a few accordionists, you’ll start noticing a common trait.
“My dad plays accordion,” some say.
“I remember watching my grandpa play accordion,” say others.
For many of the up-and-coming accordionists in the Rio Grande Valley, the accordion wasn’t a choice or a skill they were forced to master. It’s an inheritance. Playing the squeezebox is in their blood, and that tradition has once again catapulted young accordionists from across the Valley to the finals of Texas Folklife’s Big Squeeze.
Nominally a statewide competition, skimming over the list of finalists shows that the only real hotbed of fine young accordionists in the state come from the Valley.
Over half of the finalists are from the Valley: Yarely Gomez, Jorge Ramirez and Jose Angel Torres of Roma; Johnny Joe Gutierrez, Nathan Gonzalez and Roberto Flores of Mission; and Manuel Tovar of Brownsville.
They dominate the conjunto category; out of the eight finalists slotted to compete in that bracket Friday, only one hails from north of the Valley.
“It’s really competitive, especially down here in the Valley,” Nathan Gonzalez of Mission, one of this year’s finalists, said.
Gonzalez, 19, is competing in the Big Squeeze for the fourth time this year. It’s his first year as a finalist.
“That’s what I like about the Valley. I like competition, I don’t like to have anything easy, I like to work for it. I start practicing early, from December or January, till March or April, when the competition is, because I want to have everything perfected,” he said.
Like many Valley accordionists, Gonzalez started playing at a young age. He was 10 when he got his first accordion, a toy, and 12 when he started playing a real one.
“The music’s in our blood, it’s in our culture,” he said. “I’m the kind of person that likes to dance on stage, so when I’m playing the accordion I feel my music. When I’m up there, the music goes all through my body, it’s like a fever I get.”
This year Gonzalez won’t be able to get on stage. He likes performing in front of a crowd, where he can dance and wiggle and show off his accordion, feeding off the energy from the audience. Because of the pandemic, this year’s competition will hinge on a video he submitted to Texas Folklife of him playing a huapango and a polka.
“This year, with all this coronavirus going on, they used the same video you auditioned with,” Gonzalez said. “You couldn’t really move, because if you move the mic won’t really pick up the accordion.”
Johnny Joe Gutierrez, also from Mission, is another of this year’s Big Squeeze finalists. The 17-year-old musician sent in a waltz as one of his songs, an unusual choice.
“I wanted to do something different, something that caught the judges’ eyes. For the past years I’ve seen that everyone does polkas, and I did polkas as well,” he said.
Gutierrez says he spent two months perfecting the song.
“I had never struggled that much with a song. Hopefully it was worth it, hopefully I win,” he said.
Gutierrez is also disappointed he won’t get to perform in Austin. He didn’t know the video he submitted for the first round would be his performance for the finals.
“It wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be,” he said. “I would’ve tried so much harder if I was in the final, if I was there live with all the people.”
Ultimately though, Gutierrez doesn’t play the accordion to win trophies. Like Gonzalez, he plays because it’s in his blood.
Guttierez’s family tree is lined with accordionists and musicians. His father taught him his first song when he was 8 and he learned it uncannily fast.
From there, Gutierrez taught himself, for the most part.
“Just by Youtube, I learned through slow tutorials. I would just be there all day, learning the music, the songs. It would be frustrating at first because I didn’t really know how to play, but once I got the hang of it, it was something really easy,” he said. “Especially now, I can learn a song in like 20, 30 seconds.”
Watching his relatives and his father play, Guttierez said, inspired him to continue the tradition.
“When you see someone do something so passionately and a lot of people do it, you want to do it as well,” he said. “That’s why I like to play the accordion.”
Tomorrow afternoon, Guttierez, Gonzalez and the other Big Squeeze finalists from the Valley will find out who this year’s best young accordionist for the Lone Star State is. The winners will be announced during a Facebook Live event featuring performances from past champions from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday afternoon.
The event can be watched at https://www.facebook.com/events/204048651016293/.