Flying Balalaika Brothers perform at the Maverick Plaza stage. Photo by Scott Ball.
Flying Balalaika Brothers perform at the Maverick Plaza stage. Photo by Scott Ball.

As soon as I picked it up, I felt a sense of fun and possibility, like I was suddenly in the circus”
– Musette Explosion accordionist Will Holshouser on his instrument of choice.

Strolling up Frio Street as warm trickles of sweat roll down my neck, the sensory experience amplifies as the resonant sounds of the rollicking accordion fill my anticipating eardrums.

While puro San Antonio showed itself in Conjunto cowboy hats and bolo ties, the International Accordion Festival lived up to its name, welcoming ensembles from as far as Colombia and Bulgaria to La Villita and the Arneson River Theater, all free and open to the citizens of the Alamo City on Saturday.

Ambling about with the only accordion player I know in San Antonio, my boy Jaime Mejia of Volcan, I made a beeline for the Arneson River Theater, eager to feel the multicultural colors of the community in full form at this incredible venue on the River Walk. Balkan sounds and embroidered folkloric garb filled the stage, and despite a body of water between the audience and performer, there was no shortage of connection.

Multi-instrumentalist and owner of High Wire Arts, Ray Palmer confessed his purpose for bringing the family out on this bright September afternoon. “I’m thirsty for new sounds,” he said, carefully absorbing the delicacies and intricacies emerging in the air. “I love coming out to experience the Eastern European music, it’s so rich.”

After riffing upon powerful experiences expressing music with other cultures, quickly I was drawn away to the three vivacious souls who had begun doing a little jig to the sounds of this Bulgarian trio. “I’m Estonian,” said one of the three.

“I just love folk dancing,” another said, “I must know dances from at least 40 countries.” The other member just smiled and said, “I love to dance!” So we carried on in a hop and a skip as Mahala closed out their final number.

A full crowd during the Dakha Brakha performance. Photo by Scott Ball.
A crowded Arneson River Theatre during the Dakha Brakha performance. Photo by Scott Ball.

Until this year, I had remained ambivalent to this festival, perceiving it as a celebration of music that was always around San Antonio, just the folksy barbecue or dancehall sounds of the latino culture that I often hear until 2 a.m. on Thursday evenings from my bedroom window. But thankfully I got a call from New York City back in June, from a gentleman representing Musette Explosion, letting me know I should come check out this group in September.

Accordionist Will Holshouser of Musette Explosion moved to the Big Apple to start taking accordion lessons after his friend bought him one at a rummage sale, as a kind of joke. He was trained in jazz piano at the time.

“It had a lot of possibilities for playing folk music, new sounds for playing jazz as opposed to the piano,” Holshouser said.  “Accordion got me out of reading music and into learning by ear – I could now study different types of folk music.”

Musette Explosion began through a friendship on the New York subway platform with guitarist Matt Munisteri, as the two both shared a love for French musettes, and eventually added Marcus Rojas on tuba for the trio San Antonians witnessed on Saturday.

Musette Explosion's tuba player Marcus Rojas picks up his antique instrument. Photo by Scott Ball.
Musette Explosion’s tuba player Marcus Rojas picks up his antique instrument. Photo by Scott Ball.

“These pieces are mostly from the ’30s and ’40s Parisian scene, from individuals making their own hybrid between French music and jazz,” Holshouser said. “Musette is like the French cousin of jazz.”

A beautiful portrait of this description, leader of the Jazz Poets of San Antonio Eduardo Garza was found digging on the swaying soothing sounds of the ensemble as the sun quietly began its descent. He and Sofia were the first of the couples to begin their waltzing along the narrow sidewalk of the River Walk, carefully finding their circle of swing to the rum-pa-pa rum-pa-pa in the sentimental breeziness, easiness of Musette’s careful craft.

Holshouser was the more interactive of the group leaders, taking time throughout the performance to explain the roots of the music and the meaning behind the songs, much as he did when we first spoke over the phone.

“Musette came out of Paris when there was a lot of immigration, influences from Italy, immigrants from other countries, the Roma gypsy population,” Holshouser explained. “It reminds me of what’s going on in New Orleans, people are exchanging ideas which impacts their music. It comes out of this beautiful nostalgia, the urban energy from 100 years ago.”

A wonderful calm before the explosive experience to follow, Musette offered listeners an opportunity to connect with the music on a deeper level and absorb the diversity of sound and life that the accordion can offer to a musical scene.

“We’re very excited to come to San Antonio,” Holshouser relayed a few weeks ago, and from the smile on his face when I shook his hand on Saturday, it appears his first visit to San Antonio won’t be his last.

The smile came after Holshouser, and a packed Arneson River Theater, witnessed the event’s headliners, hailing from the capital of Ukraine. A band that I previously discovered while serving in the Peace Corps there several years ago. I was wonderfully shocked and delighted when I checked the schedule Friday evening to find that Dakha Brakha was bringing their “ethnic-chaos” to San Antonio.

The faces of Eastern Europe mixed proudly with those of South Texas, as a band that had gained recognition stateside through NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series, attempted an inconspicuous entrance to the stage, but their black Cossack hats and chaste white dresses blew their cover quite easily. Udachi, I offered to the beautiful musicians as they proceeded forwarded towards the bridge to the stage, wishing them good luck in Ukrainian.

Dakha Brakha performs at the Arneson River Theatre. Photo by Scott Ball.
Dakha Brakha performs at the Arneson River Theatre. Photo by Scott Ball.

Cellist Nina Garenetska remained on the other side, leaning against the cobblestone walls of the bridge, soaking in the sounds, so I excitedly wasted no time in introducing myself. Her gentle nature and mellifluous voice belied the power we would soon feel from her soul’s depths, as we carried on for a minute or two in Ukrainian about nothing at all, except my thrill at finding the heart of Ukraine here in San Antonio. The connection built, she scurried over to the other side and prepared for what would be a spiritually defining moment for myself, and for many others witnessing this incredible feat of vocal virtuosity and percussive passion.

Three hours and two performances later, Dakha Brakha left the stage to their second standing ovation, a palpable and powerful energy electric in the air. To attempt to recreate the feeling is impossible, safe to say that you’ve never felt it before.

The intensity of the three women’s voices, mixed with the grounding calls and “hup hup” of the bearded one, emerged effortlessly and piercingly from their humble chests. It was melodic folk-singing to village rap falling amidst duck calls and wild animal noise as drum cadence followed cello groan followed accordion moan. The entire audience was transported to the heart of Ukraine, the pastoral paradise where the greatness and beauty of these people is defined.

The breathless bodies and wistful smiles, spirits cleansed, uplifted and speechless are enough of an emotion to capture the defining aura of the International Accordion Festival. An instrument that has brought the world together, brought this city together once again for one fine day of celebration. Dig this music San Antonio, there is plenty of goodness to go around.

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Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.