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Accordion Dreams

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San Benito-Austin-based documentary filmmaker Hector Galan couldn’t have picked a better backdrop than the historic La Villita dancehall and the Rio Grande Valley-birthplace of conjunto music-to present Accordion Dreams, his latest documentary. The film traces the arc of conjunto’s history from the early legends of the 1930s to the innovative young musicians who are keeping the art form alive today. In its heyday, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, La Villita was the heart of conjunto music in the Rio Grande Valley, the place to hear squeezebox super-stars Valerio Longoria, Narciso Martinez (“El Huracan del Valle”), and Santiago Jimenez. In the late ’70s the dancehall closed because of dwindling audiences and economic decline in the neighborhood. Now city officials want to rehab the building and turn it into a conjunto museum. But on the night of the Valley premier, La Villita’s deceased owner, Don Fernando Sanchez, seemed to be playing a practical joke. An hour before the film was supposed to begin, the power went out in half of San Benito, including La Villita. “Don Fernando turned the power off because the dance floor is too small,” an elderly audience member confided to her friend.

City officials quickly pulled out their cell phones. Gal?n and his wife, Evy Ledesma, lit luminarias on the sidewalk to prove to hundreds of conjunto fans-many of whom had driven from as far away as Houston and Dallas-that the show would go on. Across the street, cantina regulars carried their drinks out to the sidewalk and wondered aloud about all of the commotion at the old dancehall. Out front, conjunto fans in their sixties and seventies waxed nostalgic about La Villita and the days when they could hear hits like Valerio Longoria’s “El Rosalito” from blocks away, long before they reached the dancehall. San Benito native Manuel Gonzalez, 65, had driven about 300 miles, all the way from Buda, to witness La Villita’s brief revival. “This brings back so many memories,” he said, recalling his days at La Villita in the 1950s. “You would work all week and on the weekends this place was it-you couldn’t believe the musicians you could see here.”

In little less than a half hour, the city’s fire department provided a generator for the film projector and emergency lights to illuminate the dance floor. Even more miraculously, the film started on time at 8:00 p.m.-unusual even in normal circumstances for the Valley.

The documentary film, second in a planned trilogy on the history of Tejano music, follows the travels of the three-row button accordion from its arrival in central Texas with German and Czech immigrants in the early 19th century. The catchy polkas caught the ear of Texas Mexicans, or Tejanos, in the Rio Grande Valley. They adapted the polka into conjunto-the Tejano’s working man blues-a blending of accordion, bajo sexto (12-string guitar), and drums.

Accordion Dreams intermixes the biographies of legendary performers such as Narciso Martinez and Flaco Jimenez (probably the most familiar crossover performer to those not well versed in the music), with footage of live performances by present-day favorites such as Benny Layton and Ruben Vela. Gal?n then takes a detour to the small, central Texas town of New Braunfels, where Texans of German descent still play the traditional polkas and waltzes that intrigued Tejanos in the last century. But traditional accordion music is slowly dying out among people of German descent in Texas, and now is only occasionally played in retirement communities and at church parties. “Accordion music is being lost throughout the United States and Europe,” Gal?n explained before the film’s premiere. “There are only small pockets where the traditional music is surviving in places like Louisiana and Texas.”

Austin singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa narrates the hour-long documentary and Kathy Ragland, a New York-based ethnomusicologist, provides a historical perspective. Conjunto historians, including Amadeo Flores, 68, an accordionist who played with legendary players like Valerio Longoria and Tony de la Rosa, add personal perspectives on the music’s social and cultural roles in the Mexican-American community. From the opening scene, Gal?n emphasizes that conjunto is still very much alive among music fans. The film begins with 17-year-old Jesse Turner of the small Valley town of Santa Rosa, playing at a high school dance with his band, Estilo. Now 23, Turner is just one of many young accordionists who have taken conjunto, added some rock ‘n’ roll twists and slick dance moves, and made the music more accessible to a younger audience. At the high school dance in Accordion Dreams, the young girls go wild at Turner’s pelvic thrusts and skittering feet. Suddenly the accordion is sexy, and conjunto is no longer just your grandparents’ music-something to be shunned at all costs.

“When I was a kid accordion music was embarrassing,” Ledesma, a Harlingen native, told me. “I’m 41. I grew up in the ’70s and we were into rock ‘n’ roll music in English and trying to fit into the larger culture. Now these kids are into conjunto and they’ve found a way to be true to their own culture and still be Americans.” In the film, older conjunto musicians like Amadeo Flores are pleased that the younger generation has taken an interest in the music. “We teach them and they teach us,” says Flores, of the new conjunto players. “In the old days we played, stopped then sang. Now they do everything all at once.”

Refreshingly, Galan also focuses on the struggle of women pioneers in conjunto music. Eva Ibarra, now in her late ’50s, rips it up in an impromptu performance, as Hinojosa narrates the difficulties Ibarra faced when she was the only woman in a macho musical world. Ibarra started playing conjunto accordion at six; her father would book her in dancehalls around South Texas as a novelty act. As she grew older, however, she was often criticized for playing conjunto accordion, which was viewed as being strictly for men. The bars and nightclubs where she played were considered unseemly for a woman, but Ibarra ignored the naysayers and continued to make records and perform. Today she plays and tours with Hinojosa in the all-woman group, Las Super Tejanas. In Accordion Dreams, musicians Cecilia Saenz, 17, and Victoria Galvan, 15, show that attitudes have progressed greatly since Ibarra was their age, and that conjunto has finally opened up as a viable avenue for young women performers.

Hector Galan is a San Angelo native who has deep roots in the Rio Grande Valley. For decades, he’s focused his lens on the Texas-Mexico border. The first film in his music documentary trilogy, Songs of the Homeland, which won the Top Juror Award at CineFestival in San Antonio in 1995, also focused on the border. Another documentary, The Forgotten Americans, which aired on PBS last fall, portrayed the plight of poverty-stricken families along the border. (Accordion Dreams will also be picked up by PBS, and is slated to air in September.) At first it can be difficult to explain the importance of conjunto to people outside of the border region, says Galan. “People in Washington, D.C. and New York are like, ‘What’s conjunto?’” he says wryly. “It’s the cultural legacy of this region and a significant contribution to American music-even if it is in Spanish.”

At the Valley premier it was obvious that conjunto meant so much more to the audience. The event had an intimate family feel, and there were murmurs of recognition as black-and-white photos of musicians from yesteryear appeared on screen. Older audience members laughed at old dancehall photos and at the outfits and hairstyles that seemed hopelessly outdated. After the premier, several musicians featured in the film performed on La Villita’s stage-the same stage where accordionist Amadeo Flores performed more than 50 years ago. “Back then the dancehall didn’t have a roof,” he recalled. “I remember one night it rained and everyone kept dancing; they didn’t care.” (The roof was added in the late ’60s to make La Villita more comfortable for receptions and weddings, much to the dismay of Flores, who thinks it affects the quality of the sound.)

For Jesse Turner, playing there at the Valley premier with some of the legends of conjunto music was an opportunity to pay homage to his heroes and to his father, a lifelong conjunto fan. But once again, Don Fernando seemed to be playing tricks. The night of the premier Turner had a bad cold and said he wouldn’t sing. But as he launched into his second song and couples began to hit the dance floor, he was carried away by the evening and changed his mind. “I couldn’t help it,” he later explained. “It’s an honor to be here.”

Melissa Sattley is a reporter at The Monitor in McAllen. Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Vela and other accordion wizards can also be heard at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, May 9-13.