Welcome to hell: here's your senator

“Welcome to Heaven. Here’s your harp,” reads the text on the top half of the classic Far Side cartoon. At the bottom: “Welcome to Hell. Here’s your accordion.” (Shoot me; I find it very funny.)

Few instruments are as maligned as the accordion, which is loved by enthusiasts but despised by practically everyone else. Fortunately for Pat Jasper, there are enough people (in the world, not only San Antonio) who love it.

For the past eight years, Jasper has run the International Accordion Festival with a simple formula: mostly free events and top-quality talent. Since 2001 thousands of fans from all backgrounds have taken over La Villita to enjoy an eclectic mix of world accordion music. Everything seemed to be in order, until the economy collapsed and some conservatives (including Texas Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who both oppose federal stimulus for the arts) began bitching about $25,000, out of $427,300 awarded Texas arts organizations, given to the IAF in July by the National Endowment of the Arts.

“To think that the arts should not be part of the stimulus package overlooks basic reason and logic,” Jasper told the Current on the phone from Austin. “Artists are workers, just like auto workers and anybody else, and festivals like these contribute to the economy.”

Figures released by San Antonio’s Office of Cultural Affairs and a visit to the businesses at La Villita prove that Jasper is not just pushing PR BS. The figures published in a 2006 OCA study reveal that “the creative economy in San Antonio generates $3.38 billion dollars in economic activity,” of which $379,309,133 came from the performing arts alone, third in a list of seven categories.

And the merchants at La Villita are excited for this year’s IAF.

“Is it happening this weekend?” a wide-eyed Kathy Alonso, from the Bolívar Café, asked. “I’m looking forward to `the IAF`. It’s a good time for us, because we sell a lot of beer.”

“It’s good for business,” added Salvador Negrete, owner of the Copper Gallery. “We don’t have spectacular sales, but `when the IAF is in town` it’s definitely better than a regular weekend.”

“It’s one of the best events of the year for us,” said Marlene Hinson, owner of the Starving Artist Art Gallery. “I love it, especially for the workshops. We have people from all over, not only locals.”

“We love them,” said Patty Henry, from Casa Manos Alegres. “On a regular `festival` day we do pretty good business.”

“This is going to be my first `IAF`, but whenever there is a festival, we do good business,” said Sharee Neff, manager of Mustang Grey’s. “I like events at La Villita, because people usually go to the River Walk and only come here if they’re told to.”

“Of course we love the festival,” said Willie Montero, manager of the Guadalajara Grill. “And if you have a Tejano band to play here at our restaurant, right in front of those tables, please bring it. It’s great business for us, and the hotels are packed. Even people from San Antonio book hotels.”

At the Hilton, next door to La Villita, a source that wanted to remain anonymous said “We’re mostly a conventions hotel, and we don’t usually have people staying here when there are Latino events.” But Jasper said the Sheraton Four Points, which hosts the IAF artists and is located a block and a half from La Villita, “makes about $12,000 from us every year.”

Unlike many similar free festivals nationwide that offer one or two top-notch headliners and a lot of affordable second- or third-rate (at best) talent, throughout the years the IAF has consistently offered top-quality artistry ranging from conjunto to Cajun zydeko, from Eastern European wedding music to tango and Tejano. Even if unknown outside of their local markets, most of the artists featured are in their prime and/or have an active recording career.

Argentina’s chamamé star Chango Spasiuk, for example, who came in 2007, has been a folk-fusion hero for 20 years in Argentine folk and Latin American serious-music circles, and was a Latin Grammy nominee when he came to San Antonio. Other previous top-notch acts include Serbia’s Kal and Brazil’s Renato Borghetti, but those acts don’t come cheap.

“We were faced with either not paying the people who work year-round for the festival, or don’t pay the artists and lower the quality of the event,” Jasper said. Thanks to NEA’s help, Jasper didn’t have to do either.

The NEA funds helped the IAF secure key full-time staff positions (not including Jasper herself) so that the 2009 and 2010 editions (the 10th anniversary) could happen, but 2011 is another matter.

“That’s always a question,” said Jasper. “In the non-profit world, we’re always running to keep up.”

This year the festival features Louisiana’s Buckwheat Zydeko (arguably the greatest living legend of Louisiana’s zydeko music), Argentine bandoneón player Daniel Díaz with pianist Lia Davis (performing tango duets), Taiwan’s Chai Found Music Workshop (which includes the sheng, a free-reed wind instrument that predates the accordion), Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera (a last-minute addition Jasper worked tirelessly to secure), and Lebanon’s Georges Lammam Ensemble, which could be one of this year’s many highlights (they play Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Maverick stage and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Arneson stage).

“They’re as famous in Lebanon as Chango Spasiuk is in Argentina,” said Jasper. “In fact, I think they’ll be this year’s Chango Spasiuk. They’re amazing artists nobody knew before they came, but they’re amazing artists you won’t forget.”

All the IAF events are free, except for Friday’s Squeezebox Mania workshop at the Arneson River Theatre with Joel Guzmán and Sarah Fox, Mingo Saldivar y Los Tremendos Cuatro Espadas, Jaime y los Chamacos, and others. Admission is $10, and the doors open at 7 p.m. •

The 9th annual edition of the International Accordion Festival will take place at the Arneson River Theater on October 9 at 7 p.m. ($10), and October 10-11 at La Villita from noon to 9 p.m. (free). Complete lineup and schedule can be found at internationalaccordionfestival.org/schedule.html and a special four-page insert, page 39 of this week's print issue.

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