Youth accordion finals return to Austin to promote Texas history

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nine finalists from across the state will strap on their accordions this weekend and squeeze out songs as they compete for prizes in the 13th annual Big Squeeze competition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

The contest, hosted by Texas Folklife, is a celebration of the musical styles that make up the symphony of Texas history. 

“We want to foster and present and promote this music that was really born in Texas,” Big Squeeze program director Sarah Rucker said. “And make sure that it stays alive and that the next generation is also celebrating music that their parents grew up with.”

Four winners will take home new accordions and other prizes in four musical categories: polka, Cajun and zydeco, and two age groups of conjunto.

Texas Folklife auditioned 50 accordion players under the age of 21 across the state to come up with the nine finalists who will compete Saturday.

Ricardo Cabrera, 11, is the only finalist from the Austin area. “That was really amazing to make it to the finals,” he said.

His parents bought him a toy accordion for his eighth birthday, and he didn’t pick up a real accordion until a year and a half ago. Seven months later, he made the Big Squeeze finals for the first time, in 2018, and he’s trying again for the top prize this year. 

His two competitors in the 17-and-under conjunto category this year are 12 and 16 years old. Playing with older competitors can be intimidating, he said. “Sometimes I feel kind of nervous, embarrassed because I feel small.”

But he makes a big sound, amplified by the echo in the massive rotunda at the entrance to the Bullock Museum. It’s the perfect venue for the contest, and the museum jumped at the chance to be part of it.

“Texas music is such a huge part of the overall Texas story,” Kate Betz, the museum’s deputy director, said. “The incredible talent that they have is such a great testament to what our state is all about.”

The finalists come from across south and east Texas and play a diverse range of musical styles that represent the cultures that come together to make the state what it is.

“These traditions, these cultural forms of heritage music are still thriving, are still strong,” said Charlie Lockwood, executive director of Texas Folklife.

Over the course of the contest’s life, more than 300 young accordion players have tried out for the finals. Each style uses a different kind of accordion, some with buttons, some with keyboards, some smaller than others. But all are important to different, intertwining Texas traditions.

“The accordion’s been central to the story in conjunto music, zydeco music in the Houston area and East Texas, Cajun music in east Texas, and then German and Czech polka across the state,” Lockwood said. “This, for me, represents kind of a symbol and a tool that a lot of communities across the state embrace.”

The Big Squeeze aims to promote that history and encourage the next generation of accordion players.

“We have seen some new bands form out of it,” Rucker said. “Some of the winners have become touring musicians.”

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Ricardo will keep playing, imitating his conjunto idols like Joel Guzman and the legendary Flaco Jimenez.

“I love to play accordion,” he said. “It’s kind of like my life.”

The Big Squeeze is free and open to the public. It includes the accordion finals and a concert from 1-5 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

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