BOOKS & THE CULTURE Accordion Dreams Directed by Hector Galan S an BenitoAustin-based doc umentary filmmaker Hector Galan couldn’t have picked a better backdrop than the his toric La Villita dancehall and the Rio Grande Valleybirthplace of conjunto musicto 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 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. Galan 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 Dallasthat 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 ityou 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 conjuntothe Tejano’s working man bluesa blending of accordion, bajo 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 formances by present-day favorites such as Benny Layton and Ruben Vela. Galan 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,” Galan 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, Galan 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’ musicsomething 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 Accordions Live Again at La Villita BY MELISSA SATTLEY 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/27/01
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