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Squeeze City

Mark Halata hopes his Texavian strains can be heard in a town full of accordions

Hike to the top of Hippie Hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre and, once you've established a base camp by the funky sculpture and gotten over your flatlander-induced altitude sickness, survey the city from your lofty vantage point.

To the north is the Fifth Ward, and its Frenchtown enclave, where many music scholars believe zydeco was truly born. Nearby to the east is the Third Ward, another zydeco hotbed, with the eastside barrio not too far beyond. Farther still lies "Greater Acadia," the part of southeast Texas that the Cajuns and Creoles consider almost as much theirs as southwest Louisiana. To the south and southwest lies the coastal plain that extends deep into Mexico.

Now scan the west. Just beyond Brookshire and visible only to the mind's eye are the South's richest Czech and German homelands. The people who live there introduced to the area the polkas and waltzes that the Cajuns/Creoles and Tejanos would retrofit to suit their own tastes.

The Gabbanellis of Meyerland have this town in a squeeze.
The Gabbanellis of Meyerland have this town in a squeeze.

All of these people have three things in common. One is spiritual: Roman Catholicism. Two are musical: They all like waltzes, and they all like accordions.

It takes a sheltered life to escape squeezebox strains in the Bayou City. If you go to a Mexican restaurant, you're gonna hear accordions. If you go to a Cajun or Creole eatery, you're gonna hear accordions. If you live in, or even drive through, a neighborhood populated by Mexican-Americans, you're gonna hear accordions. And even if you don't, chances are you will hear them billowing forth from someone's car stereo in your own area. The city supports two exclusive accordion shops, as well as two companies that fix busted squeezeboxes. Add these to the music stores that do accordion sidelines, and you've got quite an accordion infrastructure.

You'll hear accordions in other nearby cities, but nowhere else will you get the variety that you find here. San Antonio is Tex-Mex central, and in New Orleans, the French Quarter tourist traps are eager to promote the lie that zydeco is a Big Easy phenomenon. In nowhere else but Houston, however, will you hear both Tex-Mex andzydeco.

The accordion is not generally considered a sexy instrument, but then neither is Houston a sexy city. We don't possess Austin's hipness quotient, New Orleans' voodoo vibe or Nashville's status as Hillbilly Hollywood. Instead, we are the 21st century's City of Big Shoulders, where some of the country's most unglamorous but essential work is done. While Rust Belt cities may have rollicked to "The Beer Barrel Polka" in their heydays, "The Light Sweet Crude Barrel Two-Step" is yet unrecorded, though such a song could well be the signature tune for a city that sorely lacks one -- but only if it is led by an accordion, and sung in French, Spanish, Czech and English.

It's a concept not lost on Texas Folklife Resources of Austin, which for 11 years has been presenting the Accordion Kings concerts at Miller Outdoor Theatre. See page 114 for the full lineup.

Houston is the only place on earth where almost all of these styles can be heard on any given night. The exception, ironically, is Czech-Texan music, and since its original devotees were situated closest to Houston, one might think that there would be polka bars scattered around town. There aren't. Yet.

Thirty-three-year-old Halata is out to change all that. "The Czechs and Germans my age, they are not into it as much as the Cajuns and zydeco folks," he says of the music he has played since he was a child. "Maybe it was [compared to Hispanics and Creoles] a -- and I hate to say this -- a skin color thing. Since Czechs are white, we blended in easier. Since Mexican- and African-Americans were discriminated against, maybe that's why their music stayed popular within the younger generations."

Halata, who used to play with the Rounders and the Romeo Dogs and has jammed with Dave Alvin and Los Lobos, sees a resurgence on the horizon and cites Halletsville's young Chris Rybak (pronounced "Ree-bok") as one example of polka's endurance well into the new millennium.

Growing up in southeast Houston, Halata lived in a little Czech bubble, augmented with trips to the Czech enclave around Halletsville. "The only reason I'm in it is because I grew up liking and playing Czech music," he says. "It's all my dad listened to at home, and out in the country at Moravia near Halletsville, it was all they listened to. And I loved it. We always had an accordion around the house, and that's how I got into it. Wasn't through radio, TV, whatever…"

Halata had never heard other strains of squeezebox sounds until he was a teen. "It was [KPFT's ex-Telephone Road Show host] Frank Motley who told me, 'Hey, there's more than one type of accordion music.' He turned me on to Clifton Chenier and Flaco [Jimenez]. To be honest, until he showed me that stuff, I couldn't imagine an African-American playing an accordion." He recalls sneaking into clubs to see the ailing Chenier play some of his last Houston shows. "But this Czech-Moravian music is my specialty," he adds. "I pretty much learned it by ear."

Halata's first album, Texavia, has just hit the streets, and Halata is hoping for a revival of the Texas-style polka he calls his own. Halata doesn't speak Czech, but does sing it. "I work very hard at the pronunciation," he says, with pride. While much of the material is traditional, the "Tex" half of the Texavian equation often comes to the fore. Songs like "Your Looks, My Luck" and "Crazy Arms" are 100 percent Czexan honky-tonk.

The cover of Texavia sports Halata's beautiful cobalt, red and white Gabbanelli piano accordion. A trip to the Italian company's Meyerland emporium revealed much about what binds Czechs, Germans, Creoles, Mexican-Americans and Cajuns together. While the staff wasn't all that informative (they declined an interview request), a look at the store's inventory was. Along with two walls of breathtaking accordions (piano, button and chromatic) of every imaginable color, the store also trades heavily in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religious art. Where there are accordions, there are also likely to be rosary beads and icons (not to mention beer, wine and/or vodka) not too far off, and nary a teetotaling Church of Christ-er in the house.

"Frank Motley used to always say, 'Man, Catholics have the coolest music,' " Halata recalls with a laugh.

Since Houston is one of the few cities south of Maryland with anything approaching a Catholic majority, it's no surprise that we've got the most accordion players. "Definitely," Halata goes on. "Houston is the king city of the accordion. Czechs, Germans, African-Americans, Mexicans, Cajuns, this is where it all comes together."

So get used to it, Houstonians. Austin is a guitar town. Nashville is all about the pedal steel. New Orleans -- in real life -- is ruled by pianists and trumpeters. Houston has been a tenor sax Valhalla and a blues guitar mecca, and was once memorably (if musically inaccurately) described as "a whiskey and trombone town," but is now, undoubtedly, Squeezebox City.

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