Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Year of Firsts...and Seconds!

Big Squeeze 2012
By Sarah Rucker
Photos by Michelle Mejia

As I stood in the wings at Miller Outdoor Theatre hearing the name of the 2012 Big Squeeze champion being called, I found myself looking back over the highlights of the last three months.
Rudy Salinas preparing for audition
The search began in February with the first audition in Houston, the city that hosts our Accordion Kings & Queens concert and Big Squeeze finals and is also home to two of our six champions. Our media assistant, Michelle Mejia, and I set off to locally-owned Cactus Music & Record Ranch on Portsmouth. Soon we had some familiar faces arrive to audition and a special performance by a past finalist. 2007 finalist Robert Vega (who can be seen in our documentary) played an electrifying set of “Rockteño” with his band Promesa Mortal who features his sister, Tina Vega on electric bajo sexto, brother on guitar and cousin on drums.

Then in early March it was down to the Rio Grande Valley which has always been a hotbed of great Texas accordion music. Since Michelle and I were tied up with our Board Retreat that weekend we had a good friend organize the audition, 2007 Champion Juan Longoria, Jr.  Hosted by Harlingen Performing Arts Center, this audition made the record for most contestants at a single location. Our friend Mayra Cruz helped wrangle all of the nervous contestants, Juan introduced each one, and his brother Federico Longoria assisted when contestants needed bajo sexto accompaniment.  Then their band Conteño performed. This audition had another special moment and a first for the history of the Big Squeeze contest. Juan’s son, Juan Longoria III, became the first child of a winner to audition for the contest.
Los Texmaniacs with Robert Casillas
on a hot Dallas afternoon
Michelle and I hit the road again to Dallas for our contest auditions and public program at the Latino Cultural Center on Live Oak Street in late March. We were greeted by the amazing LCC staff and our reigning champion, Ignacio “Nachito” Morales and family. There was a special presentation the night before the auditions by Karlos Landin, owner of Karlito’s Way Accordions, on the history of Conjunto music. Sunday we were blown away by the variety of styles the contestants played. After the auditions, Nachito played an opening set for the Grammy-award winning Los Texmaniacs.
Rodolfo Lopez announcing
contestants at Gallista Gallery
For our last audition of 2012 we returned to the Gallista Gallery in San Antonio where we were greeted by our friends and collaborators Conjunto Heritage Taller. Many of the contestants in San Antonio were students of Conjunto Heritage Taller or Teatro de Artes de Juan Seguin in nearby Seguin. CHT founder Rodolfo Lopez helped me introduce the contestants while Bene Medina accompanied them on bajo sexto. We had one of our youngest contestants at the age of 6.
In addition to the auditions, we had many mail-in entries from players from all over the state. In early April, came the nerve-wracking part: a panel of judges had to meet to narrow the dozens of contestants down to eight semi-finalists. The news was released the Monday after Easter. Previous finalists Isaiah Tellez from Houston and Omar Garza from Mission made it.  Candie Cerda from San Benito was chosen as the only female semi-finalist for 2012. Peter Anzaldua, a semi-finalist in 2010, advanced. In the 12 and under category, Zeth Lara and Juan Longoria III were chosen. And Michael Ramos and Luis Gonzalez from the Dallas area made it to the next round.
Joel Guzman autographing
Candie Cerda's accordion
At the semi-finals in Austin on April 28, the judges and audience were in awe of the amount of talent of the eight finalists who were accompanied by a full band at this point – led by Austin drummer and Big Squeeze supporter, Clemencia Zapata. 2010 Finalist Ruben Paul Moreno gave the crowd a taste of his Zydeco revolution. And Grammy-award winner Joel Guzman closed out the afternoon with his group.
Flashing forward to my moment in the wings on June 2 in Houston…
After watching the four finalists, Peter Anzaldua, Omar Garza, Michael Ramos and Luis Gonzalez steal the hearts of nearly 6,000 audience members, the results were being announced by Texas Folklife director, Cristina Balli. Brownsville native Peter Anzaldua took the title, becoming the second of six winners from Brownsville, Texas.  Previous champions Juan Longoria Jr., Johnny Ramirez and Keyun Dickson were there to congratulate him along with Texas Folklife staff and board members and the other finalists and their families.
Board members Armando Sanchez and Gus Voelzel presenting
Peter Anzaldua with his Grand Prize certificate and accordion
Photo by David Dodd
So another great year for the Big Squeeze was coming to an end. We made many new friends, got to see old friends and supporters in each city and made some great memories. Now time to plan the audition dates for 2013 – stay tuned and keep squeezin’!