Eva Ybarra is willpower personified, with the added benefit of pure talent. She is an underdog champion. She is a role model for females. She is tough and relentless and a free spirit. She is the people’s Reina del Acordeón, or Queen of the Accordion, though the title is a bit sexist considering many regard her on par with the brothers Jiménez, Flaco and Santiago Jr., as well as Esteban “Steve” Jordan and Mingo Saldivar, in the pantheon of Texas conjunto accordionists. On Tuesday, she will perform at the Briscoe Western Art Museum for the second part of “Sounds of the West,” a three-part series in its inaugural year.
Ybarra grew up in south San Antonio and began playing a two-row accordion at age four. Her immediate and extended family, a mix of Spanish, German, and Mexican ancestry, played a full range of instruments. Music was in her blood. She taught herself by listening to the radio. She didn’t have any instructors; her ear was all she needed. When she heard popular songs like “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” made famous by Perry Como, she immediately understood the melodies, the buttons, the notes. By the time she was six, she was playing at bars and restaurants. “I was making more money than now,” Ybarra jokes. But once she reached nine years old, she faced opposition from some in her family.
“My mom didn’t want me to play the accordion,” Ybarra says. “She wanted me to play the piano. She bought me a piano and took me to piano lessons—to read music. My mom said, ‘I want you to learn the right way, not just by ear.’ I don’t want you to play the accordion because you’re going to hurt yourself. I guess she thought it was a man’s instrument.”
Fortunately, Ybarra’s father pulled her aside and encouraged her. He said, “Don’t listen to your mom,” Ybarra recounts. “The key for you is the accordion. That’s your key. You don’t have any competition, Eva.”
As a teenager in the early sixties, Ybarra became a recording artist and a bandleader, cutting 45s for Rosina Records, in San Marcos, and gigging throughout the state as Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto. Her dad was her manager in the early days. But as she got older, Ybarra called the shots and was met with another round of opposition, this time from male musicians. Men in conjunto bands simply didn’t want to listen to a woman tell them to turn down the drums because they were covering up the sound of her accordion. This isn’t as much of a problem for Ybarra these days, but in the nineties, when she was recording for Hacienda Records, in Corpus Christi, and the venerable Rounder Records, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she experienced relentless discrimination—but only from Latino men, not Anglos.
“It’s not easy being a lady bandleader,” Ybarra says. “It’s more complicated than when it’s a man. Because they ignore the women. And they don’t want to be led by a woman in a band.”
But despite it all, Ybarra has prevailed. She has honed a distinctive style and has a reputation for playing varied genres of music, sometimes within the same composition, while incorporating interesting time changes and enterprising chord progressions. She is known for her own original songs, when a lot of accordionists favor standards. She has unwavering love for her hometown, with her most acclaimed song, “A Mi San Antonio,” sharing the same name as her most acclaimed album, A Mi San Antonio, released in 1994 by Rounder. She has had only two real contemporaries: fellow Texan Lupita Rodela and the late Chavela, a Southern Californian known as La Dama del Acordeón, or the Lady of the Accordion.
Though Ybarra was a big fan of German-made Hohner accordions, the company wouldn’t give her a signature line like Flaco Jiménez and Steve Jordan, she says, so she plays Gabbanelli accordions, out of Houston, for the most part. “Sometimes people think I’m playing two accordions, or three, because it makes a lot of sounds, a lot of noise,” Ybarra says. “And it makes you happy. And it wakes you up.”
Ybarra’s program at the Briscoe Western Art Museum—a mecca to Western art that opened in 2013 in the former San Antonio Public Library building and includes artifacts from the late Texas governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr.—is entitled “Conjunto Meets Country Western.” Ybarra and her accompanists will take to the library’s old reading room, filled with more than two hundred works of art and objects that capture the diversity of the Western experience, from contemporary pueblo pottery to a Selena Barbie doll, to play polkas, cumbias, zydeco, conjunto, and some good old country music.
The male guitarist in her band will sing a cover of George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” and, along with a female vocalist, Ybarra will sing “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” recorded by Freddy Fender of the Texas Tornados, and “I Fall to Pieces,” by Patsy Cline. “The accordion is not the same as the steel guitar, but you can hear the country style,” Ybarra says.
Ybarra released the EP Al Caer la Tarde last year with Lourdes Pérez and has plans to record again sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, she is busy passing down her gift to a new generation of Texas accordionists. In 2016 she was a master teacher to conjunto accordion apprentice Iliana Vasquez, of Austin, as part of the Texas Folklife Apprenticeships in the Folk & Traditional Arts program. She also teaches weekly group lessons at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, in San Antonio, which in 2015 produced the play “La Reina del Acordeón: Eva Ybarra’s Life on Stage.”
“I love the accordion,” Ybarra says. “I sleep with the accordion. Sometimes I’m writing songs or practicing my songs and I fall asleep with it. And I wake up snoring and still playing with my fingers. I play in my dreams.”
Briscoe Western Art Museum, February 21, 6:30 p.m., briscoemuseum.org
(For more in the Texas Monthly archives on Eva Ybarra, click here.)
Other Events Across Texas
AUSTIN / DALLAS
Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World
Neil Young is such a generous musician, operating his Bridge School Benefit Concert to help individuals with severe speech and physical impairments annually since 1986, that it only makes sense to return the favor. That’s the spirit of Neil Fest, an impeccably curated lineup of largely Texan musicians, including Norah Jones, Shakey Graves, and the Flatlanders, paying tribute to their musical hero, while benefitting the Refuge Foundation for the Arts.
Paramount Theatre, February 18, 7 p.m. & Granada Theater, February 19, 7 p.m., thebestfest.com
The Sound and the Silence
Pulitzer Prize–winner Kevin Puts, a former composer-in-residence for the Fort Worth Symphony, returns in spirit to Texas with a performance by the Dallas Chamber Symphony of his piece “Seven Seascapes,” to be preceded by Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes.” Those performances represent two-thirds of the program by the symphony, which will be topped off by a screening of the classic Charlie Chaplin silent film The Kid, set to a new score by well-known composer Craig Safan, its world premiere.
Dallas City Performance Hall, February 21, 8 p.m., dcsymphony.org
Building Blocks of Freedom.
Based on the numbers of people taking to the streets in protest of the current administration, it seems tourism to the nation’s capital could be headed for a downward trend. But if you find yourself in need of a patriotic sightseeing fix, a more pleasing alternative might be the Lego Americana Roadshow, featuring oversized Lego reproductions of iconic structures such as the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Capitol, among others.
Stonebriar Centre, shopstonebriar.com
Bon Ton Roula
The Zaniest Golf Cart Parade, a scaled-back version of the Houston Art Car Parade, and the Funky Uptown Umbrella Brigade, in which lavishly decorated umbrellas are wielded in mass unison, are but a couple of the many parades you can revel in perched on a rented balcony or nestled down on the historic streets among the throngs at Mardi Gras Galveston, one of the largest celebrations of its kind, spanning twelve days with more than a quarter of a million attendees.
Various locations, mardigrasgalveston.com
Never Forget the Alamo
You’re a proud Texan and have visited the Alamo enough times to justify a season pass. But the true test of your Texaness is whether you have gone there during the annual anniversary celebration of the Battle of the Alamo, this year with an after-hours candlelit tour of the grounds and a special fiddle festival featuring players who have supported first-class acts including Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait, and Willie Nelson.
The Alamo, February 23 to March 6, thealamo.org