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Arts & Culture

San Antonio Native Dubbed 'Miles Davis Of Accordion' Earns National Honor

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Tom Pich
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Conjunto accordionist and bandleader Eva Ybarra, second from left, performs at the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships Concert. Also pictured: Joe Perez, Pedro Lopez, Sandy Rodriguez and Richard Perez.

In the late 1940s, a proud father put a small accordion into the hands of his determined 4-year-old daughter. Little Eva Ybarra doggedly persevered against the naysayers, who told her a female accordionist would never make it — and she rose to conjunto royalty. Now, she’s considered the “queen of the accordion.”

Ybarra is a San Antonio native, hailing from the city’s Westside. She’s one of the few women accordionists in the world performing conjunto music professionally.  Conjunto is that accordion-heavy blend of Mexican, Czech and German polka-style music popular along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ybarra has played the accordion since age 4, and, as one of nine children in a musical family, you’d think her choice of instrument would have been encouraged.   

“My mom never wanted me to be nobody,” Ybarra said. “I told my mom I want to be somebody. I belong to the people. ‘No, you’re going to play for me. Just for us. I don’t want you out there in danger. You’re only a little girl, no.’ I grew up and I told mom, 'I’m a big girl now. I’m short, but I’m a big girl.' ”

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Credit Norma Martinez
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Eva Ybarra, left, and Sandy Rodriguez

The Ybarra household would receive phone calls asking for Eva to play gigs in Michigan and Puerto Rico, but Eva said her mother would just hang up the phone.  

“I cried,” she said. “I feel inside of me that I belong to the people.”  

And her mother never accepted her success. But one member of her family was on her side.

“My dad secretly said, ‘Eva, listen to me. Your key is the accordion. Stick with it,’ ” she said.

And stick with it she did.

Ybarra is renowned for her virtuosity and is often mentioned in the same breath as another San Antonio conjunto legend, Flaco Jimenez. One music critic said Eva’s approach to the accordion can be compared to Miles Davis.

Ybarra has expanded to teaching accordion not just locally, but in other cities in the U.S. But San Antonio always draws her back.

“Sometimes, I go to (New York), Seattle, Washington. I stayed there for one year, I was teaching there, and I was feeling good. But I was missing my San Antonio, Texas, and my comida, my food,” she said.  

“It’s not the same. Frijoles – my pinto beans – but it’s not the same in Seattle.”

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Eva Ybarra and Sandy Rodriguez perform "Un rinconcito en el cielo" in the TPR studios

Sandy Rodriguez, Ybarra’s vocalist and manager, said she would try to send her a taste of home while on the road.  

“I’m from Florida. When I was in Florida, I would send her tortillas,” she said. “I would see her performing, and I’m like, 'You gotta have lots of carbs to work the way she does. What better than a tortilla?' ”

Sandy, who has been singing with Ybarra since 2016, said the accordionist has predictive musical instincts that blow her away.  

“She doesn’t like me to say, but under her voice, you can’t mess up. She covers you. I don’t know how she does it; how she knows I’m fixing to hit a bad note, but she just sings louder,” she said. “It’s just a gift that she has. She guides me in lots of things — as a life coach, a step-in mom. Overall, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

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Credit Tom Pich
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Conjunto accordionist and bandleader Eva Ybarra from San Antonio, Texas, is presented with a medal in honor of her 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowship from NEA Chairman Jane Chu.

This past September, Ybarra received the highest honor she and any other folk musician could ever receive: the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. The award included a $25,000 cash prize and a chance to play in Washington D.C. at George Washington University.

When Ybarra got the call she was getting the award, she thought it was a prank. Rodriguez said Ybarra has been let down many times.  

“She doesn’t believe it until she sees it,” she said. “We’ve been there, done that, came back, and she still don’t believe it. ... She’s so humble, noble y todo.”

Whether playing a backyard barbecue, an event in the nation’s capital, or a radio studio, expect Eva Ybarra to give it her all.

WATCH | Eva Ybarra performs at the NEA National Heritage Fellowship concert: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=10&v=3EeJ_FCqLw4