Accordion superstar Flaco Jiménez brings his signature sound to Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 12 as part of Americanafest NYC. He spoke to us from his home in San Antonio, Texas, about polkas, rock 'n' roll, and musical bilingualism.
Eileen Willis: You're a third-generation accordion player. What is it about the accordion that you think attracted your grandfather, your father, and you?
Flaco Jiménez: My grandfather learned how to play the accordion by learning how to play the European style, like accordionists from Germany, from Poland—the European sound of the polka music. And then my father, Santiago Jiménez Sr., learned from my grandfather, so the tradition kept on going. I started learning accordion when I used to watch my dad, so it was all in the family, I think. I was self-taught because whenever my dad used to play at home I used to just observe what he was playing, so I caught on real fast. The sound of the accordion—it's in our blood, you know?
EW: Throughout your career you've played a lot of different genres—conjunto, jazz, rock. Is the accordion a flexible instrument in terms of what kinds of music you can play with it?
FJ: Yes, nowadays, yes. Many years back it was just known for European polkas, German polkas. And the accordion that came from Italy, it was real symphonic. It was a keyboard accordion, also called a piano accordion. My dad started playing a button accordion, which is really different from a piano accordion. This type of accordion that we play, it's more danceable, more happy sounds.
I started crossing over with the accordion when I met Doug Sahm, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Dylan. I started hanging out with those guys that played rock 'n' roll, and I started listening to country music a lot. So it was like two crossovers. There was a station in New Braunfels that played old-school polka, and there was a country station in San Antonio. I switched between these two stations, so I started learning how to blend in with both styles of playing, and then I started learning how to blend with rock 'n' roll. So it's a very versatile music that we play nowadays. We're bilingual in a lot of stuff, you know?
EW: You're playing at Lincoln Center as part of the Roots of American Music: Americanafest NYC show. How do you see your music in terms of the larger story of American music?
FJ: I think it's good for everybody to understand the translations of different kinds of music. We have bilingual songs, you know, Spanish and English, so actually it's like another crossover.
EW: What would you want New Yorkers to know about Texas music?
FJ: Well, they have to check it out. They have to listen to it. There's a lot of places around the world now that know what the Tex Mex accordion sounds like. There's been involvement of accordion with rock bands—like, for instance, me recording with The Rolling Stones and The Mavericks, or with Ry Cooder. Nowadays the accordion is getting more popular, blending in with different kinds of music. I did another CD with Ibrahim Ferrer, from the Buena Vista Social Club.
The main message I think for Tex Mex, my kind of music—maybe you've heard of the Texas Tornados? That's the kind of music that we mainly play nowadays. It's a mixture of all kinds of music. Not all kinds—it's more like happy music, like a fiesta. People dancing, you know.
EW: Sometimes the songs have heartbreak, too, right?
FJ: Oh, yeah, we have truck-driving songs, we have love songs, we have heart-breaking songs, like country style. But then instead of being sad we change it to another kind of happy song. It's a mixture. Maybe more upbeat music.
EW: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start playing the accordion today?
FJ: Nowadays it's really easy for young kids to listen to all kinds of music. So whoever wants to pick up an accordion and get the feel of it, they can be an accordion player.
EW: How many accordions do you have, and how many do you travel with?
FJ: I've got about 8 or 9. I'm endorsed by Hohner, so I’ve been playing Hohner accordions. Of course, there’s a lot of types of good-sounding accordions, but for me it's been Hohner all the way for four generations. I usually take two—one spare, in case something goes wrong. Sometimes you break some parts of a reed. I've got an accordion shop here at home. I do accordion repairs—just for me, not for business. I tune my own accordions and keep them in shape.
EW: What’s the best way to travel with an accordion?
FJ: As a carry-on. No way I would check in an accordion! You know, like guitars or accordions, you have to take really good care of them so I always carry my accordions on. The type of accordion that I play is just a carry-on size so there's no problem there. I don't know about those big ones, but mine are really compact.
EW: What do you like to do when you visit New York City?
FJ: Well, I've played New York a few times, but being that we play just a one-night stand or two-night stand, I don't have time to check everything out. New York is so huge. But I know musicians from New York. I used to play—there was a place, it was a small place but almost every musician, country guys like Willie Nelson—or you name it—there was a place in New York called the Lone Star Café. I played there a few times. It was like a musicians' hangout. Yeah...I had a lot of fun there.
EW: Does your accordion have an internal pick-up or do you use a clip-on microphone or just a stage mic?
FJ: Well, I usually use a microphone. Sometimes I have a wireless microphone, but nowadays, being that I'm not that young anymore, I can't be running up and down with a wireless like I used to! I'm 78 years old, but I can mobilize myself pretty good, still.
EW: What about the show that you're going to do here at Lincoln Center?
FJ: We do shows with the Texas Tornados sound. Of course we miss a lot Doug [Sahm] and Freddy [Fender], but Doug Sahm's son plays with us now, and the groove is still there. We have a few records out. And I know we're going to do "Que Pasó." We have to do that one, because if not, there's no show! I'm bringing Max Baca of the Texmaniacs, and part of his band, and my son and my drummer. So we'll have a ball.
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.