Ybarra: Accordion Has Been Her Main Squeeze

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Eva Ybarra and Choi Moon-Jin, Tuesday at 8 p.m., Meany Theater; $7; 543-4880.

When Eva Ybarra was 4 years old, her parents bought her an accordion with two rows of buttons.

It was love at first squeeze.

Ear glued to the radio, she spent every waking hour trying to imitate the sprightly lines of the polkas and huapangos and boleros that blared over the San Antonio airwaves. Soon, with her father as chaperone, she was playing for parties, dances and quinceaneras, that special celebration for 15-year-old girls, which marks their entry into adulthood.

People in the neighborhood, an outlying "colonia" with unpaved streets and the unlikely name of Von Army, began to talk. Professional musicians came to hear the decorative and highly sophisticated style she had crafted.

What they said was not always kind.

"What's a nice girl like that doing playing the accordion in a cantina, for all those borrachos (drunks)?" raved outraged mothers. "Squeezing that thing all night makes a lady sweat. It isn't dignified."

"Aw, she's not all that good," sniffed the jealous male accordion players, who dominated - and continue to dominate - Tex/Mex music, as they scurried home to practice.

No one had told Eva that little girls weren't supposed to play the accordion. But she didn't care. The accordion was her life.

There is a certain poetic justice, then, that Ybarra, now in her late 40s, is getting paid a professor's salary to teach young people - many of them women - to play the accordion.

Along with Choi Moon-Jin, a Korean master of the 12-string kagayum, Ybarra is a visiting artist this year in the University of Washington's Ethnomusicology Department. The two master musicians showcase their traditions at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Meany Theater.

Ybarra is the first visiting artist from inside the U.S. in the history of the 36-year-old UW program.

"I wrote a letter," explained Cathy Ragland, who earned her master's degree at the UW with a speciality in Tex/Mex music, and now is program director at Northwest Folklife. "I said I thought it was time to recognize some of the traditions here in the U.S."

Ybarra is one of the most popular teachers the program has ever had. She has 37 students - including the well-known Seattle artist Carl Chew - and is teaching not only accordion but bass, guitarron (four-string bass guitar) and bajo sexto (12-string bass guitar).

"They love her," says Ragland. "She's a very good teacher. And student conjuntos (groups) are forming."

Ragland has produced three albums by Ybarra for Rounder Records: "A Mi San Antonio" (1994), "Romance Inolvidable (Unforgettable Romance)" (1996), and an as-yet-untitled one that will be released this summer.

Even if you don't know the first thing about Tex/Mex music - or the accordion, for that matter - you can hear that Ybarra is a virtuoso. The turns and runs she inserts between phrases are incredibly fast, and she often uses sophisticated, chromatic harmonies. Yet she is never far from the joyous simplicity of the tradition.

"I took lessons on piano with a classical teacher for one year," explains Ybarra. "I am self-taught, but I put together what was in the books with what I heard. Some people told me, `Don't be playing those scales, it's going to throw you off your traditional style.' But I didn't listen, because I know that to get some recognition, you have to be a little different."

More recognition may be coming. Ybarra is performing at the international WOMAD festival this summer, in Redmond's Marymoor Park, and has her eye on a European tour.

Before she becomes too famous, though, Ybarra plans to immortalize her enjoyable sojourn in Seattle. To the scores of original songs she has written, she recently added the Space Needle Polka, which she will play on her show tomorrow and plans to put on her next album.

Ybarra performs in a trio, singing harmony with vocalist Gloria Garcia and Garcia's 14-year-old daughter, Darlene. Ybarra also will play with her student conjunto.

If you can't make the show, you can catch her May 7 at the Tractor, or every Friday at Ortega's, on Capitol Hill. She also plays at a Mexican bar in Bellevue, patronized mostly by men, called Casa Vallarta.

Ybarra says likes the atmosphere there, perhaps because it reminds her of the cantinas she played in her youth.

"Those men, they make us feel happy, and make us want to sing. They shout and give us a lot of power to play."

Sometimes customers ask, "What are you doing in a place like that? You're a famous lady, and a music teacher!"

Eva just laughs and starts another polka.