Eva Ybarra rehearses "A Mi San Antonio" at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, preparing for a tribute performance in her honor. Photo by Amanda Lozano.
Eva Ybarra rehearses "A Mi San Antonio" at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, preparing for a tribute performance in her honor in 2015. Credit: Amanda Lozano for the San Antonio Report

Regarding conjunto music and accordion, names like Flaco Jiménez and Ramón Ayala come to mind before the few-and-far-between recognized female artists in the industry.

Time to change that tune. Make way for royalty when la Reina Del Acordeón, or the Queen of Accordion, steps into the fray. Eva Ybarra is one of the few females in the industry that gives the boys a run for their money – a true mastermind of the craft.

To highlight the music of Eva Ybarra and her powerful personal story, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center will present “La Reina del Acordeón: Eva Ybarra’s Life on Stage,” at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, and Sunday, March 22, at 3 p.m.

Eva Ybarra during a recent performance. Courtesy photo.
Eva Ybarra during a recent performance. Courtesy photo.

In a genre where most are content to perform the standard conjunto songs, Ybarra plays her own. She composes and writes her own pieces, and is the leader of her own conjunto: Eva Ybarra Y Su Conjunto. She is one of few female bandleaders in the conjunto world.

Hay mucho envida, a lot of jealousy,” Ybarra said. “I had a hard time. A lot of men, they can’t take that a woman can take charge. They didn’t want to be led by a woman. Many of them were jealous.”

Unlike the simple chords used in conjunto, Ybarra defies the norm. She isn’t afraid to dabble with scales and chords, which distinguishes her sound most. Her rich melodies and powerful voice capture the spirit of a conjunto dance hall. Also, her shifts in tempo and unorthodox chord progressions have characterized her style and playful approach to composing – something only the finest of musicians can boast.

Her embellishments vary from classical and tango to mariachi. Her chord improvisations can even border on jazz, yet she manages to keep it conjunto. The simplest melody is transformed into a barrage of 16th and 32nd notes, transitioning from a slow huapango, or waltz, to a bouncy polka without skipping a beat.

Ybarra has always been confident in her abilities, but never puts anyone down and remains humble. She is quick to recognize the talent of others.

“I’m not competing with anyone,” Ybarra said. “I play my own style, as others do theirs.”

Ybarra’s playing lives up to the lofty title she has received. She is one of the most respected or scrutinized artists in the industry.

“I never gave myself that name. I’m not the type to play myself up like that,” Ybarra said. “I don’t mind that they call me ‘Queen of Accordion’, but many consider me the best female accordion player. I don’t like that. Just acknowledge me as a good accordion player, like you would a man. There is no need to categorize females.”

Despite her squeeze box prowess, Ybarra faces many challenges. She’s played in obscurity for more than 40 years in San Antonio. Even then, she continues to perform because of her passion for the music.

Historia de Una Reina: The History of a Queen

Ybarra is a homegrown treasure. Born and raised on the Westside of town, Ybarra was reared in a musical family. She was the fifth of nine children, whom also played instruments. Her dad, Pedro, played guitar and sang. Her mom, Maria Elosa, sang and composed music. While not professional, her family performed at many backyard parties and made a lot of friends smile.

“We were poor but happy,” Ybarra said.

Eva Ybarra, born in San Antonio, started playing the accordion as a young woman. Courtesy photo (undated).
Eva Ybarra, born in San Antonio, started playing the accordion as a young woman. Courtesy photo (undated).

Ybarra found her calling for the accordion at the tender age of four, when she was given a small accordion like a doll. She was self taught – listening to the radio, old 45 LP’s, and her older brother. By six, was performing at dance halls, restaurants, and cantinas around the city.

“I started by listening to the radio, and I learnt by ear, copying what I heard. But I didn’t want to copy anyone, I wanted my own style,” Ybarra said.

To this day, many find the accordion an unconventional instrument for a female to play, and was even considered improper for women to play in past times. Her mother encouraged her to play other instruments. She learned to play guitarron, bajo sexto, piano, guitar, and vihuela, amongst others.

Her father was the one that encouraged her to play accordion, accompanying her to performances and supporting her passion. He continued to do so as she grew into an adult, until his death in 1991.

“Mom took me to piano lessons, and that’s where I learned the technical stuff – reading music, notes, chords,” Ybarra said. “But I knew in my heart that accordion was always my instrument of choice.”

A young Eva Ybarra poses for a promotional poster. Courtesy photo.
A young Eva Ybarra poses for a promotional poster. Courtesy photo.

Originally, Ybarra played in her older brother’s group, Pedro Ybarra y Los Chamacones. She was 14 years old when producer Ruben Ruiz discovered the band and scored them a two year record deal with Rosina Records in San Marcos. Regarding advice from Ruiz, the band’s name was changed to Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto.

Throughout the years, Ybarra has recorded many albums. She gained more recognition in the ’90s. Ybarra recorded two albums with Hacienda Records, based out of Corpus Christi, but her most renowned albums were recorded at Rounder Records: “A Mi San Antonio (For My San Antonio),” which was released in 1993, and Romance InolvidableUnforgettable Romance, in 1996.

Push and Pull of Life: Evas Inspiration for Her Music

“I write songs about so many things,” Ybarra said. “From the hardships I’ve had in life to the couple I saw in love. My accordion can capture every feeling, and that’s what’s beautiful about it. You can get lost in it.”

One of her most famous songs, and albums, is “A Mi San Antonio,” dedicated to her beloved city.

“I love San Antonio. I love the people, my audience. I love performing out of town, but this is my hometown, and this is where I’ll die,” Ybarra said.

Ybarra played “A Mi San Antonio” for me as we sat at the Guadalupe. Ybarra’s love for the instrument shows in her playing. Her nimble fingers effortlessly glide over the white keys of the accordion. Eyes closed, swaying to the rhythm, Ybarra performs a minor-sounding waltz. As if in a different world, her song finishes with a grand crescendo. She opens her eyes and smiles, retuning back to earth.

Ybarra is on a mission to prove that she is more than just a novelty. Her love for accordion, her persistence, and her charisma has made a mark on conjunto music and on the people for whom she performs.

Despite the many songs Ybarra has written about love and heartbreak, she has never been married or engaged. She has devoted her life to the accordion.

“I’m married to music,” Ybarra said. “If (I) get married, they’ll take it away. They’ll get jealous. I belong to the music. I’m going to die with an accordion in my hands.”

*Featured/top image: Eva Ybarra rehearses “A Mi San Antonio” at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, preparing for a tribute performance in her honor. Photo by Amanda Lozano.

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Amanda Lozano is the editor-in-chief of Texas A&M University-San Antonio's student-run publication, The Mesquite. When she's not writing, she plays mariachi all over town.