By A.R. Cabral

The sun was hiding behind the clouds, but you couldn’t tell on this 90-degree afternoon in the Lidl parking lot; it was hot. Really hot. About the last place anyone would expect a show. But here he was: Cameron Villanueva, working the bellows of his accordion.

Cameron Villanueva plays for tips outside of Lidl on June 5.
Credit: A.R. Cabral

The 24-year-old College Park resident, who hails from University Place, Wash., has been entertaining guests in the Lidl lot since January of 2021. Villanueva’s talents are impressive, as is his songbook, which includes familiar pop hits, TV soundtracks and world music mainstays. And shoppers know him — he’s a regular.

“Who plays accordion, in the sun, almost every other time I come [to Lidl], but this guy?” said city resident Tony King. “He’s diligent, his enthusiasm… you feel it. And he’s playing [the Super Mario Bros. theme song].”

Villanueva credits his family with his strong musical foundation. His father, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Hawaii, introduced Villanueva to musical instruments when he was young, and he learned musical structures while singing harmonies with his sister. And then he discovered Beirut, an American indie band that showcases the accordion in their world music repertoire.  

“I basically just searched for a while because accordions are hard to find,” Villanueva said of his early days learning the craft. “Before I learned the accordion, I would turn the keyboard sideways and learn to play a few songs, like a song by Macklemore.”

Villanueva found an accordion in a pawn shop and jumped right in. He moved to the D.C. area in 2015, when he was 18. And he brought his musical curiosity along. His first job was as a substitute teacher at a daycare, where he played for some 500 young students over the course of about three years. 

But when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, live classes were canceled, and that number dropped to zero.

Last fall, Villanueva took to street performing to make ends meet. It was a rough start, though — he was arrested for performing outside of Whole Foods without permission. But Villanueva persisted, and his audiences are grateful that he did. 

“I pretend like I am teleporting them,” the accordionist said about playing music from around the world. “That’s the reaction from people in the crowd; they tell me they feel like they are in Europe. And I love that, because that is my goal.”

Then in March of this year, disaster struck: Villanueva’s 18-pound, silver Crucianelli Pancordian accordion broke while he was trying to repair it. That resulted in a GoFundMe page, and Villanueva’s friends and family stepped up; in just two days, the page brought in enough support that Villanueva could replace the broken instrument. His new accordion weighs in at 8 pounds, and Villanueva’s back at the Lidl lot. He’s also charmed folks in Old Town Alexandria and Takoma Park, and he’s bringing music to the youngsters again, too, through online classes.

David Osano, who lives in Greenbelt, is a fan. “He has inspired me, because I was planning on performing … I think he’s very talented,” Osano said, as he watched his 3-year-old son, Blake, enthusiastically filming the accordion player with his father’s cell phone.

As the DMV emerges from the pandemic, Villanueva, with his red and gold accordion, will provide the summer soundtrack everybody’s longing for.