Conjunto music has deep roots in Texas. The style knowns as Texas-Mexican conjunto came from a culture of Mexican working-class musicians who adopted the accordion from German settlers in northern Mexico in the 19th century and turned the Germans’ traditional polka into something of their own.
Narciso Martinez, who died in 1992, is considered the father of modern conjunto music. He and San Antonio’s Flaco Jimenez are probably the best-known Tex-Mex and Tejano accordionists and singers. But the role of women in the genre was mostly been limited to singing – at least until Eva Ybarra came along.
The “Queen of conjunto” is being honored this year with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. The award ceremony takes place in September.
“I can’t believe it,” Ybarra says. “Tears in my eyes.”
Ybarra’s parents were musicians themselves, but the love of the accordion, Ybarra says, came from her older brother who also played the bellows-driven instrument. And Ybarra was young when she literally picked it up for the first time – all 20 to 30 pounds of it.
Hear Eva Ybarra and Sandy Rodriguez play “Tango Miedo” in the player on the right.
“I started to play the accordion when I was four years old,” Ybarra says. “It was bigger than me.”
A self-taught accordionist, Ybarra as a young child sat on a stool near her family’s radio, imitating 1950s tunes like “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” Ybarra demonstrates by playing a few bars of the lively song.
Making the leap to professional accordion playing was easy for Ybarra, because she says she welcomed the challenge of the more difficult polkas. She played her first paid gig at the age of six, having been discovered in a unique way.
“We went to Arizona as migrants – my family, we were working in the fields,” Ybarra says. “Somebody heard me – a guy says, ‘This little girl is not able to go to the fields, just to play the accordion.'”
Ybarra’s mother had tried to dissuade her from playing the accordion, saying the instrument was best suited for a man. But Ybarra’s father saw an opening for her.
“My dad said, ‘Eva, there’s no competition. Your key is the accordion – stick with it,'” Ybarra says.
Ybarra became so adept at the accordion that in 1992 every member of her all-male band quit out of jealousy, she says.
“They don’t like a lady being the leader of the conjuntos,” Ybarra says.
Recognizing her unparalleled talent and the sexism inherent in conjunto culture, Ybarra yearns to be called the best accordionist, period, rather than the best female accordionist.
Conjunto music is “never gonna die,” Ybarra says, because the music is so beloved.
“I know my people,” she says. “They like the sound of the accordion and the bajo sexto.”
Right now, Ybarra carries on the tradition of conjunto accordion playing through teaching a new generation of students how to play.
Written by Louise Rodriguez.