Sunday, September 6, 2015

CumbiaSazo! Tonight

CumbiaSazo! is stopping by tonight (9/6) at Yerberia Cultura in McAllen. They will headlining a line-up that includes The Collective Unconscious. I talked to two members of The Collective Unconscious about tonight's show and what Valley gente can expect from it.

Eduardo Martinez: To those that aren't familiar with CumbiaSazo, how would you describe their sound, aesthetic and philosophy?

Amir Esmaeili: Well they're a Chicago-based collective. The core crew and soundsystem of CumbiaSazo! have a sound which I think they refer to as 'Future Latino'. Their sound is a blend of traditional latin flavors and emerging genres like 'Tropical Bass' and 'Nu Cumbia'. To me it seems that they've gone out of their way to make their shows way more than just dance parties. Their events at Double Door and other venues around Chicago have become a sort of creative arts incubator that focuses on both cultural heritage and club culture. They involve visual artists and vendors contributing everything from food, fashion, and handcrafts to live painting, jewelry, and stage art installation.

Eduardo: What does CumbiaSazo! bring to the Yerberia Cultura that will be special?

Pedro Rodriguez: CumbiaSazo! is bringing to Yerberia Cultura a cumbia-consciousness and revival that's going to penetrate the hearts of cumbianer@s and like-minded individuals who value their indigeneity and culture. They're bringing solidarity to our dancefloor to get us all moving and reconnected with each other. They're bringing sounds and energies to empower our identities, vision, and movement.

Eduardo: How can y'all describe what The Collective Unconscious sets out to do with their performances?

Pedro: We are messengers of sound. Our role is to help heal our community with music that speaks to the heart and soul. To me that means sharing music that empowers and is non-oppressive to your fellow peers. I personally don't feel comfortable playing music that's misogynistic, sexist, or LGBTQ-phobic.

Eduardo: Who will be some of the other acts on this evening and what can you tell us about them?

Pedro: Chale Tamale will be opening up this cumbion. He's an old-time friend that I grew up DJing with during my college years. We spun records together at places like Haute Trash, Ambiente, and way too many house parties to remember. He's got a lot to offer as a local DJ and, not to mention having coolest DJ name ever. I know for a fact he'll deliver.

Eduardo: What type of evening can attendees expect on Sunday night?

Amir: Inclusivity, a safe space for all, and a celebratory atmosphere. While the emphasis of this gathering is on Latin-American culture, art, and music there will be a little something for everyone in terms of musical selections for the evening.

Pedro: Aside from DJs we also have some very important members of the local community collaborating with TCU and CumbiaSazo! for this event. Fellow ARTivists Laura Sofia, Roni Cortez, and Eddie Martinez will be sharing their vision with us on the night of the event. I feel very privileged to be able to work with these individuals because they're so talented and inspiring.

Eduardo: Any other final words that you would like to add?

Pedro: Shout out to family and close friends for supporting us in this dream. And extra thanks to Yerberia Cultura and Patrick Garcia for helping make this event possible.

Amir: Nos vemos este domingo!

The Collective Unconscious is:

Pedro Rodriguez (Inca Princess)
Amir Esmaeili (Kid Citrus)
Patrick Garcia (holdme)

What: CumbiaSazo
Where: Yerberia Cultura in McAllen
Time: 8:00 PM
Date: 9/6
Cost: 18 plus is $7.00, 21 plus is $5.00.
Website: Facebook Event Page

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chulita Vinyl Club

Photo of Claudia Saenz from the Chulita Vinyl Club Facebook fan page.

As the palm trees start to appear, Claudia Saenz begins to feel right at home as she reaches the Rio Grande Valley.

Saenz, the 27-year-old founder of the all-women, all-vinyl, DJ collective known as Chulita Vinyl Club, has been residing in Austin for the last two years, but has long considered the Valley her true home. While she lived a portion of her childhood in Houston, she was born in San Juan, and spent the majority of her youth in el magico Valle.

"I never really say I was raised in Houston," Saenz said. "Most of my childhood that I remember is from the Valley, and all my family is from there, either northern Mexico or the Valley."

Growing up in deep South Texas, Saenz was surrounded by the sounds of racheras, corridos, cumbias and Tejano music.

"At home, my dad would listen to corridos outside, my mom would listen to Los Bukis inside," Saenz said.

During our conversation, Saenz told me she graduated from Johnny G. Economedes High School in Edinburg.

"Oh, Roberto Pulido lives right in front of that high school," I tell her.

"Yeah! I knew that in high school, and of course I was a huge fan of his son, Bobby Pulido," Saenz revealed.

After high school, Saenz left the area to attend the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio for several years, before returning to the Valley and graduating from the then named University of Texas–Pan American in Edinburg.

Saenz would soon find herself out of the Valley again, relocating to Austin. She noticed that the local scene there was not particularly inclusive.

"Nobody ever asks girls to DJ because of the assumption that we don't collect vinyl or don't know about music."

Saenz decided to combat the issues she saw around her.

"I wanted to create a space for other girls that wanted to DJ," Saenz said. "The focus is to get girls to the front, in the male-dominated DJ and club scene. To join, you must identify as a girl and have vinyl to play. No music genre policy; anything goes."

So in 2014 she launched the Chulita Vinyl Club, an all-girl, all-vinyl collective of DJ's. Depending on the event and how she's feeling, Saenz will spin anything from old Chicano soul bands like the Royal Jesters and Sunny and the Sunliners to norteño acts like Ramón Ayala and Los Cadetes de Linares.

Starting this project really turned things around for Saenz, who says she felt like she was beginning to lose hope in Austin.

"It always felt like I was the only brown person in the room," Saenz said. "Only brown person at the bar, only brown person at H-E-B. "

After she created this movement, as she describes it, she discovered the area's Mexican-American and Latino/a community.

"To be brown here is very unique, to be honest," Saenz said. "For Chulita Vinyl Club to exist here, it was really special in that other brown people were excited that this was happening at bars that don't normally carry this kind of stuff."

As Saenz prepares on her upcoming trip to the Valley, outside of spending time with her family and friends and this event, what else is she most excited for?

"I always try to go to the pulga," Saenz said. "The Alamo pulga is like none other. It's a unique representation of the Valley so I always make it a point to visit. It helps me feel at home."

This upcoming event would mark the second appearance of the Chulita Vinyl Club in the Valley. The first appearance was back on January 8 of this year, at an event dubbed "Groove is in the Heart". It was co-hosted with This next outing will be different from that first one, according to promoter Patrick Garcia.

"I don't count that (previous) one as the first full Chulita Vinyl Club experience," Garcia said. "In order for it to be the first Chulita Vinyl Club experience it has to be all women, playing all vinyl."
That first show included men on the line-up, while this one will be all women — Saenz, who goes by DJ Tear Drop (named after the Tear Drop record label), DJ Güerita, DJ Peleonera, and DJ Bequita.

"It's very rare when you have an all-women line-up, anywhere in the Valley," Garcia said. "So that's going to be really neat."

The quartet of DJ's is preparing to spin some great music, which will include regional flavors from the Valley, on Saturday night at Yerberia Cultura in McAllen.

When the weekend is over, and Saenz has to say goodbye to the Valley and its palm trees once again, one thing she won't be leaving behind is her fierce, proud Valley-pride.

"If anyone ever talks bad about the Valley, I'll defend the Valley to the bone," Saenz said. "The 956 is my home."

What: Chulita Vinyl Club
Where: Yerberia Cultura in McAllen
Time: 9:00 PM
Date: 8/29
Cost: Free for anyone 21 years of age or older. $5.00 for minors.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Los Fantasmas del Valle

Los Fantasmas del Valle
Los Fantasmas del Valle have been making appearances in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond since the late 1960's. While other conjunto acts from that era have faded away, this one just keeps floating along, decade after decade.

"This conjunto continues to set the trend for the rest to follow," South Texas Conjunto Association president Lupe Saenz said. "They continue to record new music and evolve into the new era as Rodney, the accordionist, becomes the new lead singer and Bobby Salinas, on bajo, keeps the group moving forward."

From the original line-up, only one member still has a presence on stage.

Hector Barron was born to Rodencia "Lencha" and Alfredo Barron on November 24, 1943 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but was raised in San Benito and Mercedes. His parents separated shortly after he was born. He was raised by his single mother until she passed away in 1949. He would soon find himself living with his grandparents, Jose and Dolores Rivera.

"I remember that when my mom was alive, I used to go (up north for work) with her and a bunch of tios," Barron, band leader, vocalist and bass player, said. "When she passed away, my grandparents started going. They didn't go when me and my mom went (at first)."

First state Barron encountered outside of Texas was Arkansas. Then around 1953, he began traveling farther up north. He migrated to Indiana, Ohio and Michigan to work on the fields.

"I loved to sing while I was working, picking cotton, chopping beets, I was always singing," Barron said. "I used to sing those songs from Elvis Presley." (laughs)

An only child, Barron met lifelong friend Julian Figueroa when his family moved to Mercedes in the mid-1950's. The two bonded over jugando canicas in their barrio. As they got older, they stopped playing with marbles and started playing with musical instruments.

Los dos amigos picked up the bajo-sexto during their teenage years. Barron would later turned to the bass. Both were self-taught.

In the 1960's, the two teamed up with accordionist Gilberto Rodriguez, another Mercedes musician, to start a band together.

"He was a little older than me," Barron said. "Pero we used to live in the same barrio in Mercedes. We got together and played at the bars."

Rodriguez remembers being introduced to the pair through a friend named Mario Gonzalez.

"I liked the way they sing," Rodriguez said. "We started practicing under my name, which is Gilberto Rodriguez, and I think we made our first record with Discos Ideal from San Benito."

Their next recording was far more significant. They arrived at Gilberto Perez's Nuevo Records studios and recorded "Mis Pasos Andaran", a composition by Julian Garcia, in 1968. This eerie tune tells the tale of a man who died but comes back as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend.

After they finished recording at the studio, Alejandro Perez, Gilberto's brother, asked "¿Por que no les ponemos Los Fantasmas del Valle?" ("How come we don't name y'all The Ghosts of the Valley?") That name stuck for Barron, Rodriguez, Figueroa and Cruz Gonzalez.

"That's the song that the Fantasmas got very famous for," Rodriguez said of "Mis Pasos Andaran". "(After the song's success) I did a couple of tours with them. We went to Chicago, Michigan, Florida. So I went around with them."

The dynamic of the band was altered after one of those tours.

"(Rodriguez) got sick and he quit playing, so I took over the group," Barron said. "Pos yo y Julian los quedamos con Los Fantasmas del Valle." ("Well Julian and myself stayed with Los Fantasmas del Valle.")

Rodriguez says there was a difference of a opinion and he gave his two weeks notice to Barron. He later decided to form Los Originales de Gilberto Rodriguez.

Many different accordionists filled that hole until 1975, when Mike Gonzalez took over that position and made it his own.

With such a crowded conjunto scene here in the Valley, the band was struggling to break through.

"We struggled for a lot of years," Barron said. "'Taba duro porque estas comenzando y nadie te quiere grabrar." ("It was tough because you're starting off and nobody wants to record you.")

Barron was forced to launch Cucuy Records in the 1970's to provide his faction with a platform. At different points in their existence, the group would find themselves recording for Canasta Records, Reloj, Hacienda Records, Joey Records and JB Records. They currently record for Latin World Records. Overall, Barron estimates to have recorded over 60 releases, including 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and CD's.

Barron notes that at first, he would look for inspiration in musicians he admired like Gilberto Perez, Ruben Vela and Tony De La Rosa. After a few years of performing, he was able to branch out and create an original style for his brand of conjunto music. It's a form of music that has strong roots in the culture of South Texas.

Their biggest exito (hit) came in 1991 when they released the album Bellos Recuerdos. The title track, composed by Ramon Medina, became their signature song. The story is about an adult looking back at his migrant worker childhood in the 1940's. Several scenes are illustrated, like picking cotton, the constant traveling, eating a hamburger and going to the movies.

"Esa cancion (That song) really helped us out," Barron said. "La gente grande, yo miraba gente que lloraban. Porque se acordaban de cuando estaban piscando algodon con sus padres." ("The older people, I would see them cry. Because they remembered when they would pick cotton with their parents.")

In 1993, Que Bonitos Años followed, which dealt with a similar theme of nostalgia and migrant work.

After being in the gang for 25 years, Gonzalez had to step away after becoming ill. Rodney "El Cucuy" Rodriguez stepped in for Gonzalez after Barron took a recommendation from his friend Freddie Gonzalez.

Barron would first come face to face with Rodriguez at the Burger King in Pharr on I Road, now called Veterans Road. That day, Rodriguez's father first introduced himself to the musicians.

"The Fantasmas thought that my dad was actually me," Rodriguez said. "That he was the guy that was going to audition. Dice mi apa, 'Pues dejame traer a mi hijo.'" ("My dad said, 'Well let me go get my son.'")

The 15-year old Rodriguez hopped out of the car, surprising the group.

"I'm short, and I look younger than I am," Rodriguez said with a slight laugh.

Barron remembers seeing Rodriguez and thinking,"Esta bien chiquito, I think he weighs about 75 lbs." (laughs) He was curious if Rodriguez could even carry an accordion.

Even though Barron had some doubt, they still went to Gonzalez's house to see what this teenager from Rio Grande City was capable of. Rodriguez strapped on the accordion, Barron grabbed a bajo-sexto, and asked, "Sabes (Do you know) 'Bellos Recuerdos'?" Rodriguez answered, "Pos, si. (Well, yes.)"

"Me arranque con ella," ("I started shredding it,") Rodriguez said. "They were surprised. They were like, 'O lo hizo igualito.' No mas oyeron esa y me dijo Hector, 'Alistate pa' el weekend.' Asi fue la cosa." ("'Oh, he did it exactly the same (as Gonzalez).' They just heard it and Hector told me, 'Get ready for the weekend.' That's how it went down.")

A few weeks later, the conjunto took off to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the Summer of 2000.

"We went to represent the Tejano part (of this country)," Rodriguez said. "There was a lot of cultural stuff, like matachines. It was awesome, all kinds of people. They were all having a ball with the music. It was an awesome experience."

Tragedies arose in the 2000's for Los Fantasmas del Valle. In 2001, Gonzalez passed away and in 2010, Figueroa bowed out from the spotlight after suffering a stroke. Bobby Salinas, a former member of Los Dos Gilbertos, covered the bajo-sexto playing duties.

One day Salinas was called on the phone and asked if he could help out one weekend.

"Dije, 'Yeah'," Salinas said. "They asked, 'How many songs do you know from us.' I said, 'Pos ni una.'" ("'Well none of them.'") (laughs)

Despite Salinas not knowing any of their repertoire, the band liked what they heard from him. He's stuck around for the past five years.

"It feels real good," Salinas said of his time with the group. "I'm thrilled being with Los Fantasmas and I'm glad they enjoy what I'm doing, tocando y cantando (playing and singing)."

Salinas and Rodriguez have helped keep the conjunto crisp in recent años.

"If there is any change (in the style), it's probably un poquito (a little bit more) more progressive," Salinas said. "Figueroa tocaba el bajo en una manera y yo toco el bajo de otra manera." ("Figueroa played the bajo one way and I play it another way.")

The retired Figueroa still keeps up with what his old camaradas (friends) are up to.

"Viene Hector por mi y me lleva a pasear pa' alla," ("Hector comes for me and gives me a ride (to a show),") Figueroa said softly.

Barron and Figueroa. 
Other members of this current incarnation of Los Fantasmas del Valle include Martin Cortez on the drums and Benito Fonseca on the bass guitar.

In their latest album Amplifique Tu Retrato (2014), Rodriguez and Salinas were handed over the vocal reigns from Barron for the title song.

"That's what I wanted to do," Rodriguez said. "I wanted people to hear como iba seguir el grupo (how this group was going to continue). That way if (Hector) ever gets out, they'll be familiar with the sound already. It won't catch (the audience) as much by surprise."

This past week on April 22, Barron celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary with his wife Graciela. He is currently celebrating the occasion in Louisiana. But he's already looking forward to next month, where he will lead his conjunto at shows in McAllen, Pharr, San Benito, Floresville, Sinton, San Antonio, Austin and Monterrey, Nuevo León.

"Because of his leadership in the conjunto, Hector is responsible for most of the success this conjunto has had for many years," Saenz said. "He ensured that the group remained constant and on course.  He never put up with nothing better than the best in his musicians. He pays them well and provides well. That is why this is still today the number one conjunto."

Looking back at the history of his ensemble, the moments that resonate the most with Barron are the difficulties he has faced. Disinterested recording labels, vehicles malfunctioning, losing instruments, the grueling road trips, the hardships that fell on his peers and so much more. He is proud that he's been able to persevere through it all, spirit in hand. While it's bound to happen at some point, he has no plans on disappearing from the stage anytime soon.

"I'm the only one from the original band left," Barron said. "Vamos a seguirle dando, a ver hasta cuando dios los deja." ("We are going to keep going, we'll see until how long God allows us to.")
Los Fantasmas del Valle at the NMCAC in San Benito.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Big Squeeze" Finals Coming Up With Two Valley Natives‏

Josue Garcia.
 On April 3, Texas Folklife announced the finalists for this season's "Big Squeeze" accordion contest. In the Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music) category, four were chosen and two happened to be from the Rio Grande Valley.

Raul Resendez is a 14-year-old accordionist and is currently attending La Joya High School. Residing in Palmview, he's been picking at the accordion for three years.

"Most of my life I have been listening to conjunto music," Resendez said. "Most of my family is Hispanic, so it runs through my family roots."

One of his key inspirations has been accordionist Beto Zapata from Grupo Pesado.

"I love the way the guy plays," Resendez said. "I always wanted to learn how to play like that. He got me interested in playing the accordion."

While Resendez learned the accordion on his own, he received guidance from his abuelo Ignacio Resendez.

"He gave me advice to play better and lose my nervousness of playing in front of an audience," Resendez said.

In the conjunto program at La Joya High School, he's also been helped by instructor Cecilio "Chilo" Garza, formely of Los Kasinos.

La Feria High School student Josue Garcia is 15 years old, and has been playing the accordion for the past three years. Growing up in La Feria, he was surrounded by conjunto music.

"It was always about conjunto," Garcia said. "We would go to parties, we were in the car, we were at the house, there was always conjunto. At first, I'm not going to lie, I wasn't a big fan of it. Because it wasn't 'in'. But after a while, it just became a part of me."

When asked if there was one specific person that got him interested in conjunto music, he pointed to his brother Benito.

"I'd always hear him (playing music)," Garcia said. "I just picked (the accordion) up from there."

Garcia is self-taught but credits accordionists Jose Luis Chavez, Joe Sanchez of Los Angeles del Sur and Juan Antonio Tapia with mentoring him.

"They are all great friends to me," Garcia said. "Anything that I am playing, they make sure to guide me in the right direction or give me tips."

Resendez and Garcia performed at the "Big Squeeze" Showcases in La Joya High School and Los Fresnos High School, respectively. Both said they weren't nervous that day.

"I have to say they were all great musicians," Garcia said of those who auditioned. "I guess, in the end, I came out as one of the lucky ones."

These two Valley natives will compete for the grand prize with Brandon Betancourt, 17, from Houston, and Rito Peña, 16, from San Antonio, at the "Big Squeeze" Finals on April 25 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. In the Polka (German, Czech and Polish music) class, the three contestants who advanced are: Brandon Hoddle, 20, from Holland; Rebecca Huck, 21, from Harker Heights; and Chris Trojacek, 20, from Ennis. For Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music), the three nominees are: Donovan Bourque, 14, from Beaumont; Chloe Johnson, age 14, from Moscow; and Elizabeth Kelley, age 16, from Port Neches.

The three champions that will be crowned, one per category, will be awarded with a brand-new Hohner accordion, a cash prize, and career-advancing opportunities.

Both of these young prodigies are eager to make the trip to Austin later this month.

"I've been counting the days, but it seems like each day is going by slower and slower," Garcia said.

Resendez added, "I'm really excited, I've been waiting for a big chance like this."

Raul Resendez.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Day 1 of Fiesta de la Flor

Thousands of fans from all around the world attended the Fiesta de la Flor music festival this past Friday night.

This event celebrated late Tejano icon Selena, on the week where she would have turned 44 if she were still alive today.

One fan in attendance came all the way from Hawaii for this special gathering. Pedro Haro grew up in the island of Maui but now resides in Oahu.

"I was growing up in Hawaii and there is not a lot of Mexican culture over there," Haro said. "When I watched the [Selena] movie it was like, 'Wow I didn't realize this [about the culture].' Because we didn't grow up around it. It made me feel good about my culture and all of those things. She embodies all those positive things about Latino culture."

The festival opened up with Steven James & The Jaded, of Corpus Christi. The indie rock band played some material from their latest album Baby L.A.

Next up was Las Fenix of Houston. This Tejano group consists of the Rodriguez sisters — Nadia, Lesli, Adela, Berna and Anahi.

"Selena is one of a kind," Nadia told me shortly before the event. "She is one in a million, really. Definitely growing up, as sisters, we listened to her music. It's one of the reasons why we did get involved in music."

The quintet played many cumbias throughout their set, including Fito Olivares' classic "Juana La Cubana". They also played some standard rancheras and their versions of popular Selena songs like "Baile Esta Cumbia" and "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom". Before presenting their covers they would say they were "con el sabor de Las Fenix" ("with the flavor of Las Fenix"). They stole the show with their dynamic performance.

Los Lobos were the final act of the evening. They slowed the tempo down early on but warmed up as they moved forward. Some of the songs they performed included "The Neighborhood", "Chuco's Cumbia", "Come On, Let's Go", "Yo Canto", and "Sabor A Mi".

As Los Lobos introduced special guests bajo-sexto maestro Max Baca and his nephew, accordionist Josh Baca, the festival hosts announced that they would be cutting the evening short due to weather concerns. The musicians on stage asked if they could at least play one more song, which ended up being "La Bamba". The Baca duo shined on their respective solos, as lightning lit up the sky and the event came to an early close.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Conversation with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

Beat The Champ (2015)

Earlier this week, Merge Records released The Mountain Goats new album Beat The Champ. This new release from the celebrated indie rock band features songs about professional wrestling, including figures like Chavo Guerrero, Bruiser Brody, Luna Vachon and Bull Ramos. A few weeks ago, I spoke with singer-songwriter John Darnielle about his own personal history with professional wrestling.

Eduardo Martinez: To start things off, "Ox Baker Triumpth" (in the Babylon Springs EP from 2006), was this the first wrestling song you recorded?

John Darnielle: I think that was it. I'm trying to think, I made a lot of references to wrestling stuff in other stuff but I think that was the first one.

EM: He recently passed away not too long ago. What was it that made you want to write that song, and do you have any specific memories of Baker himself?

JD: The deal with me and Ox Baker is when I was growing up watching wrestling on the West Coast, there was no internet, there was no national broadcast. It was all regional, there was no such thing as national wrestling. So you heard about these other dudes through magazines. All the magazines were from the East Coast. The magazines would write about King Kong Brody, Hulk Hogan when he was young, Bob Backlund was the champion. NWA was the South, WWF was the main Eastern territory. The magazines didn't really write about us at all.

So Ox Baker was one of the dudes that you would see. He was the hated villain. You would see pictures of this guy, you'd never see him wrestle. He was just a mean looking bald dude with a mustache. And then one day, I'm watching wrestling on Saturday morning, and there is an interview with Ox Baker because he's coming to town. So here is this wrestler I've seen pictures of, like the Boogeyman. He's going to come and beat on Chavo Guerrero. Whoever the villain was that came to town, he would set his sights on Chavo Guerrero or Al Madril. I was petrified of this dude and he was very violent in talking. He talked about how he was going to make people bleed. That was his whole shtick, him and Greg Valentine. They cared less about winning, they just wanted to hurt their opponent.

It turns out, as in a lot of the heels, they always turn out to be the nicest guys in real life. Ox Baker was a pussycat of a man, a really nice guy who loved people. So that was my one experience, I didn't even ever see him wrestle, I just saw this one interview. I was scared of this guy.

Ox Baker.

EM: Since you mentioned the magazines, these magazines back then really built these guys up as larger than life characters before you even saw them live.

JD: Oh yeah the magazines, the thing is that this is a different world that we get sentimental about now 'cause you don't remember what it was like to not actually be able to have access to information. But it really was the case that you had to use your imagination a lot. You would get a magazine,  I didn't have a subscription, I couldn't get my parents to buy me a magazine every week or anything. You'd get one magazine and you'd read every page of it. (laughs) You read all the ads, pen pal ads, look at all the lists of names, and try to figure out as much as you could. But of course what you figured out, you would have to make up half of it. To me that was really exciting, you were forced to tell stories to yourself. Wrestling magazines were kind of a big deal. They had ads for "Apartment Wrestling". Do you know what I'm talking about?

EM: Yeah I do. (laughs)

JD: That wasn't exactly wrestling, that was an excuse to look at women in bikinis. They said, "Here is this 'Apartment Wrestling' match that was really vicious. You have to see it!" It was just for guys that don't want to be honest with themselves and buy a Playboy. I didn't know that (as a kid), I was, "Oh okay, there is some underground world where people are fighting in apartments. Cool, that's kind of weird." If you were 10, 11 years old, it made adulthood seem like a very weird place, which I think is kind of good.

EM: One thing I found interesting, looking back at some of the old magazine covers, is that some of them were pretty gory, bloody.

JD: Oh yeah the blood sells, man. That's the thing you learn, when you bleed, everyone wants to see you bleed (laughs). There were some bleeders like Abdullah the Butcher, a big villain at that time, he would bleed a lot. If you were in a match with The Sheik then you were going to bleed.

The Sheik carving up one of his opponents.

I saw very little (blood). Before my time, Freddie Blassie was a big bloody guy but he moved East. The scientific matches were a little more popular in L.A. than they were elsewhere 'cause L.A. was lucha territory. Mil Mascaras was really popular and he had a very scientific style. He didn't bleed.

EM: How did you get drawn into wrestling as a child?

JD: It was on TV, it was pre-cable. Cable came to Southern California very late because the TV stations were powerful in California, so they kept cable out until, I want to say, '84. Which was late for cable, everybody else had cable a couple of years before that. We would watch UHF a lot. The UHF stations were the ones higher than 13 and they were usually local stations. They were weirder and also served more specific communities.

We had Channel 18, which (had Maharishi Mahesh) Yogi, who was this guy who did transcendental meditation. He would rent like six hours of time a day on Channel 18 and the rest would be Korean programming. And then it was Channel 34 KMEX, which was and remains the Spanish-language channel, when there weren't Spanish-language channels elsewhere in the country, (at least not) too many of them. KMEX was huge and they would show 90 minutes of wrestling every Saturday morning, and then Channel 56 KDOC would show an hour long broadcast. So I would watch the English broadcast and the full length Spanish broadcast, that would show more matches and had legendary announcers.

EM: At what point, did you think to yourself, "I guess I'm going to make a wrestling album."?

JD: I never say, "I'm gonna write this kind of album." I wrote a song, it was "Southwestern Territory" and then I wrote "Hair Match". It may have been the other way around. I was like, "Wow you have two new songs and they are both about wrestling." So when I went to go write another song, I wrote another song about wrestling. So now I have three. So eventually you start to go, "Well I seem to be writing about something." Then after four or five, (I see) these are all about wrestling so I think that's what we're doing.

It's so risky, it felt like the sort of thing people would go, "Wait really?" You always want to be taking some small risks, you always want to do something that people would go, "Huh?" I still feel inspired thinking about this stuff. When I think about my old heroes, I feel really inspired, I feel really grateful. You grow older and you go, "That was a big thing to give a child hope, that's huge." And also to scare a child. To feel fear like a horror movie but it's fake. You get your experience but it can't actually hurt you. That's fucking awesome.

EM: Your new song ("The Legend of Chavo Guerrero") is not set in the 70's, you're looking back on it now from these days, decades removed. What was it about those days in wrestling and Chavo specifically that has resonated with you to this day?

JD: When I say he was my hero, that was my hero. He really was. My step-father's father had been a wrestling promoter, I knew about kayfabe. I knew that people weren't really getting hurt, although I would sit there like, "Well how much of it is real, how much is fake?" It's a real shame, most of the footage from those days of the Southern California territory was thrown away when Channel 56 changed hands, so you can't see much of it.

But there is an interview where Chavo Guerrero talks to Java Ruuk and he gets really mad. He stood for justice, which was a big deal for me personally but also in Southern California. We observed the grape boycott. I don't know if you know about this but if you were left-wing, you weren't supposed to eat grapes in the 70's because Cesar Chavez asked everybody to stop buying grapes, to support the strike of the grape pickers. And we did that, every right thinking household was like, "Okay we won't buy grapes." Chavo Guerrero was on the side of the people, he was one of those guys. I just loved him. He was scientific, he stood for justice, he always stood up for other people. He also had a strong family, which I was jealous of. He and his brothers, his father, they all appeared together and always had each other's backs. I was pretty envious of that, it looked like a neat way to live (laughs).

He would wrestle fair, the cheater would cheat just enough that Chavo would say, "Fuck this!" (laughs) and start breaking the rules, throwing punches. That was always the most exciting moment when Chavo would fight fire with fire. It was sort of your dream as a kid to be able to say, "Well I played fair until you pushed me too far, now I gotta do what I gotta do."

EM: Did you watch wrestling with your friends or family members, or was it something you did on your own?

JD: My step-father, he was not really a great figure in my family, but at the same time, relationships are complex and one of the things that we did together was go see wrestling. His father had been a wrestling promoter in Indiana in the '50's. So we would go into the Olympic and see the matches. I didn't have any friends who were into it, I had one. This is kind of bittersweet. So growing up in Southern California in the 70's, there was a lot of parents that were concerned about the effects of television on children. My friend, he really wanted to be into wrestling. It seemed cool to him but his parents didn't have a TV. So he didn't see any, he would just look at the magazines and pick his favorite. His favorite was Mil Mascaras. He would ask me questions about it. We went to see the matches together, he went ape, it was totally cool. But yeah, he was the only friend of mine that was into it, wrestling was not cool when I was a kid. (laughs)

EM: There was this great Jerry Lawler interview I once saw from the 1980's. It was after a match with Super Destroyer, where he was talking about how once after losing a match, a fan came up to him to tell him how much it hurt to see him lose. As a child, how did it feel to you when your favorites were in trouble in the ring?

JD: This is a thing in wrestling, I don't know if they do as much of it anymore, but the good guy would get knocked out until he was out, and they'd still be kicking him. That was painful! You were watching them kill your hero. The announcer dude on KMEX, that would be when he would break into English. I was studying Spanish at the time in Jr. High, 7th and 8th grade. I was really good at it, I got straight A's. I would be watching the broadcast, trying to pick up as much as I could but I was not at that level yet. But he would break into English when he got really upset, "Someone should stop him!" I'd be, "Oh my god, he's trying to make sure the word gets out that this has to be stopped." It was always really, really exciting.

The thing is when that would happen, I feel like in the South, they would let that go on longer. I've watched old matches where you'll see the villain was just going off on the good guy and he's out cold. When it would be Chavo, his brother Hector, Mando or Eddy would always come rushing in, the brothers would all show up. Hector had this fury and long hair, he would come running to the side of the ring, like, "Whose ass do I have to kick?" Pretty exciting (laughs).

EM: Do you see some elements of dream in pro wrestling?

JD: Sure, wrestling is like theater. It's live, it takes place where things are scripted. In your day you might have a couple of dramatic things happen but your days don't follow some script where everything that happens is important. Whereas in a play and in wrestling, anything anybody says moves the action along. It's sort of dream-like in that way.

I think things became more dream-like in the '80's. In the 70's, it was kind of more boring in a good way. There was long sections where it's just guys circling each other, getting ready to wrestle. I feel like they would make you wait longer for the payoff. It was less dream-like then. It's weird, wrestling is profoundly weird. You sit watching these guys circle each other and fight for this thing that nobody even really cares about, which was kind of cool. It was very cult.

EM: In "Heel Turn 2", you go over the idea of turning heel, and being out there in front of an audience that hates you and wants to see you dead. Do you feel heels are a lot more fun and needed more to draw and make things interesting?

JD: Well you have to have both, although again the Southern California territory was a little different. There was a heel named Freddie Blassie who was such a popular heel that he became a face. He was so popular in Southern California, so his heel was John Tolos. They had one of the highest gates in the history of Southern California sports when they wrestled at the Coliseum (on 8/27/71). I feel like the wrestling I grew up with was more closely related to Mexican wrestling. The hero is celebrated — El Santo, Blue Demon. These guys are heroes. The villain is great, everyone loves a good villain and hates on him. But I feel like Mil Mascaras, all these guys, people loved the hero in Southern California. The Guerrero family, those guys were all faces, they were all extraordinarily popular. You never saw heat like Guerrero vs (Roddy) Piper. When Piper was just coming up, him and Chavo, that was the rivalry.

EM: Now when you watch Showtime boxing, and see Jimmy Lennon Jr. there, do you ever get flashbacks to seeing Jimmy Lennon Sr. when you saw him live?

JD: Oh yes, I met Jimmy Lennon Sr., he signed my program. He was the announcer at the Olympic. The other thing about the Olympic was boxing. Southern California boxing in the 70's is a giant under story. "Pipino" Cuevas, all these guys, they weren't nationwide names so much but in Southern California they were titans. You can't even imagine how popular they were. And Jimmy Lennon was the man at every one of those matches. So Jimmy Lennon Jr. sounds a lot like his dad but his dad hits this note. If you grew up listening to that stuff, it's just the stuff! It's the sound of excitement.

EM: Did you get into boxing during the same period when you were still regularly watching wrestling?

JD: I enjoyed it but I didn't watch as much of it. Wrestling was the best because boxing, it didn't have the storyline. The storyline is real so if your guy is getting pummeled he can't just all of a sudden dig deep down and rise above it. You can't do that, you're getting your ass beat. Whereas in wrestling you could watch your guy get beaten down to the floor and you go, "Oh my god Chavo is down, he can't get up." But then he can reach down to his gut and find that little extra measure and get up. In boxing you can't do that, you get knocked out. I liked boxing but it didn't have the good and evil that wrestling had. That's the thing about wrestling, especially back then, it was so clear cut. The bad guys didn't even care if they won, they just wanted to beat people up. They are wrong, they are wrong in their minds. The good guys are there to wrestle, to have fun but also to punish the bad guys for being bad. It's a very satisfying sport. When you're a kid, a heel represents everything that is wrong with the world and the face is the guy who is going to set it right.

EM: Do you think a good pro wrestler, a good babyface, probably has to display some self-destructive behavior in the ring, both the character and the real life person?

JD: Yeah, well wrestling is one of those sports like boxing. People talk about it being fake but you know what's not fake? Landing on your neck a bunch of times. You sacrifice your body to be a wrestler. In a sense it's like music. If you tour so much that you can't hold down a regular job, after a certain number of years if you go apply for a job, they say what have you been doing the last 7 years. "Well I was touring." And they go, "Okay what was your band." And you go, "The Mountain Goats." They go, "Well I never heard of you." (laughs) They say, "You don't like to work."

This is a thing that people give their entire lives to. Which is kind of beautiful. When you look at it, it's kind of cartoonish, but its a cartoon where people are sacrificing their entire bodies and lives. It's like a lot of art, it's a beautiful gift. But it's also a gift that's sort of making sure to meet you at a fun place. It's not trying to bigger than it is. It's a good time.

EM: I was pleasantly surprised to see a song ("The Ballad of Bull Ramos") about Bull Ramos, who is pretty obscure. What was it about what his career, or post-career that made you want to celebrate him?

JD: As always, it turns out it was because of Chavo. Whoever was beating on my dude is a guy I was interested in. For one thing he's a big dude, really huge. He was a terrorizing heel. Bull Ramos would do what was then called an "Indian Rope" match. He would do this rope match where the guys would be tied by the ankle. They can't get away from each other, that's a scary match. He had a look — a pony-tail and a whip! It was a wicked looking thing. He had this whip! Of course you can't actually whip a person, you can't really fake a whipping. But he would crack the whip. I would look at that thing and it's scary as hell.

He's a guy that post-kayfabe, in the age of the internet, you look it up, "Well who was the nicest guy in the world?" "Bull Ramos was." A cool dude, nothing but kind words from everybody. He also found a way out. He ran a wreck yard, he grew old, he got diabetes and lost a leg. It sounds like he made it. Making until the end is a victory. I sort of wanted to celebrate the humanity of this guy.

Bull Ramos.

EM: A lot of fans have these very personal connections to you and your songs. How did it feel to you, as a fan of Chavo Guerrero, seeing him react with so much enthusiasm to your song on Twitter?

JD: It's almost impossible to tell you what that did for my heart. I had a girlfriend from Michoacán in the 80's and one of the things we bonded about was Chavo Guerrero. In our early dates I was like, "I used to be into wrestling." "Oh who did you like?" "Chavo Guerrero." He was a huge deal in my life for a very long time. Then I sort of moved on in my life. Then I write this song, I figured it would get to him. He goes nuts. I was so ... I can't even tell you. I cried. This is my hero and he's a good dude. He is in his mid-60 and he's still a super positive guy. He still works! He's still working cards. I don't know, I cannot tell you what it felt like because it felt so amazing and great. He tweets my stuff, every time he does it it brings a huge a smile to my face.

EM: That's awesome.

JD: I wanted to call my ex, we're not in touch anymore at all. I wanted to call her and tell her, "Chavo Guerrero is writing to me!"

Mando, Gory, Chavo, Hector and Eddy.

Beat The Champ is out now and can be purchased at The Mountain Goats will hit Texas on 6/6-7 in Houston, 6/8 in Dallas, and 6/9 in Austin. For more information on these tour dates visit

Friday, April 3, 2015

Texas Folklife's "Big Squeeze" Finalists Announced!

Congratulations to the "Big Squeeze" Finalists!

Cajun/Zydeco category:

Donovan Bourque, age 14, from Beaumont.
Chloe Johnson, age 14, from Moscow.
Elizabeth Kelley, age 16, from Port Neches.

Polka category:
Brandon Hodde, age 20, from Holland.
Rebecca Huck, age 21, from Harker Heights.
Chris Trojacek, age 20, from Ennis.

Conjunto category:
Brandon Betancourt, age 17, from Houston.
Josue A. Garcia, age 15, from La Feria.
Rito Peña, age 16, from San Antonio.
Raul Resendez, age 14, from Palmview.

The "Grand Prize Winner" for each category will be crowned at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, on April 25.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Feliz cumpleaños to Cali Carranza!

Feliz cumpleaños to the late Cali Carranza. He passed away in 2012, he would have turned 62 years old today. He was part of the St. Anne's Church choir, which is a block away from where I live. He used to be involved with the church's Jamaica festivals for many years.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Johnny Canales

Johnny Canales in Corpus Christi.
On Sundays in the Rio Grande Valley, before the football broadcasts, the barbacoa, and church, "The Johnny Canales Show" would be airing in millions of homes all across South Texas and beyond. The top stars in Tejano, conjunto and norteño music would make their weekly appearances, sharing their latest songs. Canales would then interview them, code-switching between Spanish and English. For that one hour, fans would enjoy some quality Sunday morning music, and the distinct humor that was on display.

In 2015, Canales is still providing a platform for old and new artists alike. I asked him if we can start from the beginning.

"Well that's about 80 years ago..." Canales jokes. "Let's see if I can remember some parts."

Canales was born to Esteban Canales and Maria Hinojosa in General Treviño, Nuevo León, Mexico. He was the 6th child in a family that would eventually include 10 children. When I asked for his birthday, he joked his way around the question, not wanting to reveal his age. He came to the U.S. when he was 40 days old and settled in Robstown, TX with his family.

"We lived in the barrio, with no hot water," Canales said. "We used to take a bath with a hose, cold water only."

At the age of 6, Canales began accompanying his father to parties, cantinas and gatherings throughout his home area.

"We used to sing for 25 cents, 50 cents a song," Canales remembers.

His father taught him how to play the guitar when he turned 10 years old. They would go out together, with Canales on the guitar, and his father playing fiddle.

"Trying to make a living," Canales said. "We grew up like the average South Texas family — picking cotton, working on the fields."

Canales became involved with a Tejano orquesta featuring Albelardo Chavarria when he was 15 years old. Shortly thereafter, he went on the air as a DJ for a local radio station.

During the Vietnam war, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to the 3rd infantry division in Germany. He spent 2 ½ years there before being honorably discharged. When he returned to South Texas, he launched off Johnny Canales y su Orquesta.

"We played everywhere," Canales said. "Texas, California, New Mexico, Michigan, Chicago, Florida. I did that for about 7 years."

Canales points to "El Corrido de Augustine Ramirez" and "Ni el Oro Ni Las Piedras de Colores" as his biggest hits.

He decided to get off the road, since it was "mucha frega" ("too much hassle"), and go back to the radio studio. He was working at KCCT Radio Jalapeño in Corpus Christi when he received an offer to do something different.

"A beer company approached me, asking if it I wanted to do a 30-minute television show, locally in Corpus Christi," Canales said. "They would sponsor it, so I started at half-an-hour in 1983-84. I did my first show on Channel 6, NBC in Corpus Christi. The show did real good so in about 6 months, they gave me the whole hour."

"The Johnny Canales Show" featured the best Tejano, conjunto and norteño musicians of the era. The highlight of his program was usually when Canales would interview his guests. He had so many ways to make you laugh — witty banter, puns, broad humor, Spanglish jokes, amusing observations, obscure references and lighthearted teasing.

In 1985, Selena Quintanilla made her first appearance on his program at the KVEO-TV studios in Brownsville.

"That's where Johnny Canales became known all over the Hispanic world," said Canales of that location.

On that episode, Selena y Los Dinos performed and lip-synced to Ruben Armando’s "Oh Mama", a song she had just released in her album The New Girl In Town earlier that year. The lip-syncing was done for audio-quality purposes, and every recording artist that made an appearance there would do the same.

"I saw a little spark in her, she had something that just certain people got," Canales said.

After they finished the tune, Canales interviewed his first time guests. In Spanish, Canales asked her about the paint-job on the white jumpsuits they were all wearing. Selena responded in English. Canales, teasing her, asked, "Y la gente que los esta escuchando en Mexico?" ("And for the people that are listening to us in Mexico?")

Selena, confused, answered, "Los pintaron?"

They both burst out laughing about her "Pocha Spanish".

"She told me, ‘You know what, I’m going to learn how to speak Spanish,’" Canales said. "10 years later, when she was almost 23 years old, I interviewed her, in what now is called the Selena Auditorium in Corpus. Interview was totally in Spanish. That’s why I think she was big, because everything she wanted to do, she would do it."

In 1988, Univision contacted Canales about broadcasting his program on their network. Canales, who already had his show on 25 different markets, jumped on board.

"I was very excited," Canales said. "That was national and international. Univision went into South America, Central America, the United States and Mexico. So that's where I started again."

Jaime y Los Chamacos was one act that appeared regularly in the 1980's and 1990's.

"It was amazing what Johnny Canales did for all the Tejano, norteño and conjunto musicians," Jaime De Anda said. "He's gotten people to watch us from across the world, from all over the United States, that didn't know about us. But through TV, he helped us get the exposure we needed. That's what got us recognized all over the United States, across the country, and Mexico."

Some other acts that got early exposure on this platform were La Sombra, Elida y Avante, Bobby Pulido, Intocable, Duelo, and Emilio Navaira.

"I never say that I made anybody, because they made themselves," Canales said. "But I think we had something to do to get them where they are right now."

In 1996, he made the move from Univision to Telemundo, where he stuck around until 2005.

The show hit the road, going far beyond South Texas. He traveled all over the United States and even had tapings in Monterrey, Nuevo León.

"In one year, I put a million miles on American Airlines!" Canales claimed.

Canales took a break for about 4 years after some health concerns before returning with El Show de Johnny y Nora Canales in 2012.

"I felt there is a need for this," Canales stated as his reason for returning. "It's like musicians, the guys that get out for a while but they can't stay out because they love it. They come back and play. We can't live without it."

Canales and his wife Nora are now approaching their 20th wedding anniversary. The pair married one another on March 31, 1995.

"20 years, they went by fast," Nora said. "It feels very, very awesome. I think that like with every marriage, we make it work. We love each other every day. We support each other."

How does she feel working alongside her husband?

"That's a blessing," Nora said. "At first, I was very nervous. It's not easy being a co-host. But he's a wonderful husband, and now co-hosting with him, it's an amazing experience because he is beyond the best."

The current incarnation of the show is syndicated throughout several markets. Some of the cities where the show can be seen include Laredo, Corpus Christi, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, Amarillo, and San Angelo. They are currently working on getting the program back on the air in the Rio Grande Valley.

Canales was recently one of the featured guests at HESTEC 2014 at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. It was a vintage Canales performance. After a set by Ruben Ramos, Canales and Nora interviewed NASA astronaut Jeannete J. Epps. She said she was born in Syracuse, New York, and Johnny replied, "Is that near La Grulla?" Later he told her, "Back in the day, only Wally Gonzalez could fly." He concluded the interview by recommending that she take tamales and chorizo into outer-space.

The married couple will be hosting a line-up at the Texas Onion Fest in Weslaco that will showcase Mario Aleman, Grupo Mixxto, Veronique Medrano, Lucky Joe, Desatados, Tr3n, Roble, and Intrusso de Nuevo Leon. It starts at 5 PM at the Weslaco City Park.

"I want to invite all my friends, from all over the Valley to come over," Canales said.

When Canales isn't working, he enjoys spending time with his daughters Seleste and Miroslava. He says he might have to do a book one day to get his complete life story out to the world. He has no plans of putting down the microphone anytime soon.

"Thank you everybody," Canales said. "When I thank my fans and friends that I have made throughout my career, I thank them also for supporting our music, musicians y grupos. Because if you don't support the groups, they will end. Se los acaba todo (Everything will be finished). You got it, take it away! And that's it!"

Friday, March 20, 2015

Five Historical Corridos of the Rio Grande Valley

One of the many reasons I fell in love with regional music was because of the local history it sometimes recounted in its verses. It went both ways as I also discovered many musicians and songs through looking for information about historical, or at times, infamous events in Rio Grande Valley history. These songs each explore different situations that have occurred here at la frontera.

These are five examples of local songs that illustrate events of past years.

-- "Tragedia En Matamoros" by Los Suspiros de Salamanca - This corrido narrates the tale of what Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo and Sara Aldrete did in the late 1980's near the border. The song points to those two as being the main people responsible for what occurred, which was ultimately reported to be at least 15 people killed and found at Rancho Santo Elena.

-- "Las Crescientes de Beulah" by Gilberto Perez - This starts off with some running water sounds, then immediately sets the date of September 19, 1967. It goes into the effects of Hurricane Beulah in South Texas and North Mexico. Perez specifically name drops various cities that were affected by this major hurricane. Perez concludes the song by saying that a tragedy like this makes him sad while he sings about it.

-- "Corrido de Pharr, Texas" by Rumel Fuentes - This powerful song brings to light accusations of police brutality in Pharr, corruption and the horrifying murder of Alfonso Loredo Flores on February 6, 1971, by deputy sheriff Robert Johnson. In a ABC news report titled Strangers in Their Own Land, it’s mentioned that eye witnesses saw Johnson aiming directly at Flores that evening. This tragic event has become know as the "Pharr Riot" to many in the Valley.

-- "La Marcha del Campesino" by Esteban Jordan - This song tells the story of the famous 420-mile march that was led by Antonio Orendain and the Texas Farm Workers Union. It started in San Juan and ended in Austin. The march launched off on February 26, 1977 and was completed on April 2, 1977. Whenever I want to introduce someone to this event, I usually start by showing them this song.

 -- "Rinches de Texas" by Dueto Reynosa - This was written by Willie Lopez, who used to host an old Valley AM radio show titled Chulas Fronteras. This piece covers a story in Starr County of Texas Rangers assaulting farm workers during a melon strike on June 1, 1967. The corrido is critical of then Texas governor John Connally, accusing him of being responsible for what happened that day.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wally Gonzalez

Wally Gonzalez in his home in McAllen.
Conjunto comic Wally Gonzalez resides on 25th ½ Street in McAllen, an area of the city he's called home since the 1940's. Gonzalez and his wife Rosa were on the side of the house when I dropped by one Thursday afternoon. Gonzalez greeted me and lead me to a room that was filled with photographs, posters, a few accordions, a keyboard, and recordings that touched many hearts.

"Le doy gracias a dios," ("I give my thanks to God,") Gonzalez told me when looking at what he's accomplished in his life.

Behind Gonzalez, a poster on his wall noted that he was born on February 17, 1940 in McAllen. I asked to confirm if he had just turned 75.

"Tres pesetas, three quarters, 75," Gonzalez said, confirming and laughing.

While some friends suggested a fiesta to celebrate, Gonzalez decided not to do anything special for the occasion.

When Gonzalez attended a local store in his barrio, instead of buying dulces like his two younger brothers and sister, he used the few coins his parents gave him to listen to music on a coin-operated pianola. In his youth, he fell in love with music and became a fan of conjunto accordionists Pedro Ayala, Tony De La Rosa and Valerio Longoria. He got his hands on his first accordion through his friend Mel Villarreal.

"We started learning to play the accordion, both of us," Villarreal said. "We were just children, we used to go to the same school."

One day, Gonzalez went to visit his classmate on his bike. He saw Villarreal throw away an old, two-row button diatonic accordion in the trash. He questioned why he was throwing it away when he went up to his buddy.

"Yo necesito una acordeon, pa' tocar yo," ("I need an accordion, to play myself,") Gonzalez remembers telling him.

"Pos mira, llevate esta," ("Well look, take this one,") Villarreal replied.

"Le di un dolar," ("I gave him one dollar,") Gonzalez told me.

When Gonzalez got home, he soon found out why it was being thrown away. The accordion was a mess, and when he opened it up, a rat leaped out!

"Honest to God!" Gonzalez claims. "He had a nest inside!"

I asked Villarreal if he remembered this story. He recalls getting $2.00 as opposed to just $1.00. When I brought up the rat, he just started laughing.

"I wouldn't doubt it, (the accordion) was all torn up," Villarreal said after he collected himself from laughing. "Back then, we used to live in frame houses, no dry walls or anything. They were on concrete blocks, there was all kinds of animals there."

The accordion was patched up, tinkered around with and used until Gonzalez's mom bought him a three row, button diatonic accordion when he reach his teens. A photo of him and that second accordion is displayed on his wall, next to a bed.

Gonzalez credits Lupe Cabrera and Rumaldo Zapata for teaching him the accordion during those early years. His first experience playing in front of an audience came at school assemblies at the now demolished Sam Houston Elementary school in McAllen. Eventually he left school as a teenager, and went up north to work as a migrant worker. When he wasn't picking cotton, he would be playing his accordion on the side for extra money.

"Tocaba alla y le mandaba feria a mi mama," ("I would play over there and send money back home to my mom,") Gonzalez said.

One of the first public places he performed at in the Rio Grande Valley was La Concordia in McAllen. His conjunto consisted of him on the accordion, Roberto Mata on bajo-sexto, Israel Segura on bass, and Gilberto Garza on drums.

Why did he use the name Wally instead of his real birth name of Guadalupe Gonzalez Jr.?

"Porque yo compongo mis canciones en ingles  y español," ("Because I compose my songs in English and Spanish,") Gonzalez said. "Por eso le puce Wally, porque Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?" ("That's why I made it Wally, because Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?")

What Gonzalez was showing me was that "Gua" and "Wa" sound the same in their respective languages. He moved forward with his new name in his 20's.

Gonzalez points to a photo of the late bajo-sexto player Mario Saenz up on his wall and says, "See that right there..." He then begins to tell me the story of him and Saenz.

In the mid-1960's, the two teamed up to form Los Gavilanes de Mario Saenz y Wally Gonzalez. Gonzalez estimates that they recorded 4 LP's for Falcón Records. Their repertoire carried "El Riky Riky", "Del Moño Colorado", "Frijolitos Pintos", "La Minifalda De Reynalda" and "La Triste Gata".

"Lo fuimos en gira," ("We went on tour,") Gonzalez said after their recordings got positive response on the radio.

They spent five years together before they went their separate ways. In 2011, they reunited at La Joya High School for a conjunto workshop and as part of the district’s third annual Conjunto Festival. Gonzalez described that experience as beautiful. Saenz would pass away in 2014 at the age of 87.

"A good man, a real good friend," Gonzalez said of his late partner. "We helped each other out. When we were in las giras, we took care of each other."

In the 1970's, Gonzalez went on his own as Wally Gonzalez y su conjunto. He became known for his comedic compositions that covered everything from local cultural observations, to parodies of mainstream hits, to whatever was being discussed in the news at the time.

"Something funny," Gonzalez said was his mission. "Not like a clown (laughs), funny like in songs and the way I am."

Gonzalez started by poking fun at himself. His short height and lack of hair became his favorite targets. He began drawing ideas from listening to people talk and observing what was going on around him.

"Platicando con la gente, se vinieron las canciones," ("Talking with the people is how the songs came to me,") Gonzalez said.

Director and actor Pedro Garcia first met Gonzalez during this time frame.

"It was 1973," Garcia said. "He played at a 'Political Pachanga' for my dad's campaign in Hidalgo, when he was running for City Commissioner as Pedro Pirucha Garcia. I remember Wally energetically setting up his instruments and cables with a couple of his bandmates. I'd be running around excitedly anticipating the music and dancing that would come that evening. He was funny, cheerful and when he played, it was magic. Everyone loved him and my dad knew he would draw a large crowd, so more people could hear his political speech."

Some of Gonzalez's most popular hits were released during this period. They include "El Taco Kid", "El Tiquetito", "Las Mujeres y Las Novelas", "Traigo Un Hickey", and "La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante".

"Wally is an awesome talent," Garcia said. "I believe lots of his songs can be like good medicine, as they cheer you up."

"La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante" is about the legend of the giant bird who supposedly haunted the Valley in the mid-1970's. Nano Ramirez of Falcón Records asked Gonzalez to write a song about this mysterious creature after four weeks of local buzz.

"Tuve que ir al Monitor," ("I had to go to The Monitor,") Gonzalez said, explaining he used the newspaper coverage to do research on this bizzare tale.

Near Gonzalez's door, he has a promotional photo of himself wearing a full-body bird suit, and his friend Carlos Guzmán yanking off the head of the costume.

"Me quito la cabeza del pajaro, eso no estaba planeado," ("He took away my bird head, that wasn't planned,") Gonzalez said smiling.

"I do remember que se vistio de pajaro," ("that he dressed up like a bird," ) Guzmán said.

Guzmán praised Gonzalez's success and concluded his thoughts by saying, "Wally and I have been friends for the last 100 years and when I get older, I want to look just like Wally."

The popularity of his work led him to tour outside of the Valley in the 1970's and 1980's, and even landed him on a December 1983 issue of the Texas Monthly.

Sandra Ortega, Gonzalez's granddaughter, has been enjoying her abuelo's comedic spirit since she was a little girl.

"Growing up with someone like my grandfather was always interesting and there was never a dull moment," Ortega said.  "I'd come home from school and my grandfather would be rehearsing his funny songs with my uncle Abel. I'd forget about my homework and just watch them. Now those were the good ole days!"

He continued into the 1990's, although now with a Yamaha keyboard at his helm instead of a conjunto. He delivered amusing tunes like "El Chupacabra", a parody of "El Coco Rayado" and a playful take on the chupacabra craze, and "Que Me Entierren En Walmart", a cult classic about how he wants to be buried at Walmart, so his wife could at least see him regularly.

Gonzalez credits the idea of the Walmart song to a late friend of his, whose name he can't recall. By the time he finished recording it, his friend had unfortunately passed away. For publicity, he would often perform this number at local Walmart locations.

"They didn't pay me," Gonzalez said. When he asked the manager permission to showcase his music at stores, he remembers them saying, "Orale ta' bueno, no mas no muy recio." ("Alright, just don't play too loud.")

In 2011 and 2012, Gonzalez was inducted into both the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice and the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito. Ortega accompanied him to one of those ceremonies.

"When I attended his induction into the Hall of Fame in San Benito, I felt amazingly proud of him," Ortega said. "He's accomplished so much in his life with his musical talents and now he's being honored for it. All his music, his hard work, and his contribution to the Tejano music industry, everything he's done with so much passion and enthusiasm. Seeing him on stage being recognized was inspiring and emotional. He's an amazing individual."

Gonzalez considers himself retired now, but will still take the occasional, rare gig if it's during the day and nearby. No more performing in the evenings or in distant locations for him. He likes to relax at home with his wife of 53 years and spend time with his family. When he is near his instruments, he enjoys challenging himself on a 7 button, toy accordion. He has been experimenting by going from using all 7 buttons to slowly working his way down to just using 3 of them. He tells me proudly that he figured out how to play a vals using 3 buttons.

A few times during our meeting, Gonzalez recited excepts from his funniest songs. While spitting out wild verses about chupacabras and el pajaro gigante, he had this giant smile on his face. The self-described 'Short-Legged Texan' is most at home when he's making people happy.

"Toque muchos corazones," ("I touched a lot of hearts,") Gonzalez said. "No mas con comedy entre las canciones y el amor mio. It's just the way I am." ("Just with the comedy through my songs and the love I shared. It's just the way I am.")

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Big Squeeze" Showcase Recap

Post-event jam session.
This past Saturday morning, Texas Folklife opened their 2015 "Big Squeeze" season at La Joya High School. The first round of this statewide accordion competition for players under 21 includes seven showcases, held throughout Texas. 

"Being an arts administrator, there is lots to do," Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli said. "Paperwork, fundraising, budgeting, and we get stressed out. When we finally got in the car to drive down here, I thought, 'Tomorrow I'm going to listen to good music all day long.' And that felt great." 

The musicians are divided into three separate categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music). Nine finalists, three per division, will be announced on April 3 on Those finalists will then compete in Austin on April 25, with a champion being crowned per category. 

The following La Joya High School students entered the contest: Roel Sandoval, 16; Elvis Covarrubias, 17; Armando Gonzalez, 15; Raul Resendez, 14; Marco Ramos, 18. 

The five students performed a variety of pieces that included "Acordeones De Oro", "El Sube y Baja", "La Curva", "La Repetida", "El Circo", and a few huapangos. 

"This time around we didn't have as big a turnout of contestants," Balli said of this showcase, as the previous year's event featured eight participants. "We were actually competing with ACT testing. There were far more students that wanted to compete."

Hopefuls that still want to be included can do so by sending in their recordings via email or mail to Texas Folklife, no later than March 30. 

After the auditions were done, Tejano and conjunto icon Carlos Guzmán was introduced to the audience.  

"I'm very excited to be a part of this function," Guzmán said. "I've recorded over 400 songs in my career, in different genres. I try to integrate the accordion on most of my recordings. I've been so blessed because I get recognized everywhere because there is a little sound of the accordion on the accompaniment (of my songs)."

Guzmán was the special guest for the annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival, which took place later in the day at the La Joya ISD Performing Arts Center. 

An impromptu jam session broke out to close off this morning gathering. When the students collaborated on "Palabra de Hombre", a tololoche (upright bass) made an appearance. It was a nice surprise for fans of traditional border music. 

"I've seen these kids jam all the time," Balli said. "They are great musicians. All you have to do is prod them a little bit, and encourage them. We had a little bit of extra time, so that's why I said, 'Come on guys, lets jam.'" 

Balli also asked the first ever "Big Squeeze" champion Juan Longoria, Jr. to perform. He played a waltz, polka, and schottische (aka chotiz). Conjunto event regulars Amelia and Raul Martinez started dancing during his brief set. 

I asked Longoria about his "Big Squeeze" experience in 2007.

"You're excited, but you're also nervous," Longoria said about how he felt when he tried out. "I felt good about it (afterwards). I did mess up but it was just the nerves kicking in."

The former champion had some advice for the performers that will attempt to walk away with a "Big Squeeze" title in 2015. 

"Play with passion," Longoria said. "Play with originality as well. Play as clean as you can. Have a stage presence, look comfortable. Enjoy what you're doing and have fun with it." 

The next showcase stops are in Houston on February 15 and 28, Los Fresnos on March 7, Corpus Christi on March 8, Dallas on March 21, and San Antonio on March 27. Balli tells me that this isn't just a competition, but also a way to bring all these talented young musicians together. It's a great learning experience for all those who are involved in the "Big Squeeze" program. 

"I always just love hearing these kids," Balli said. "We see them repeat, we see them graduate, we see the new ones come in, we remember things about them, they get to know us, and we get to know them." 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Heriberto Rodríguez and his "Big Squeeze" win in 2009‏

Heriberto Rodriguez
Heriberto Rodríguez was a freshman attending Edcouch-Elsa High School when he participated for the 2nd annual "Big Squeeze" showdown in 2008.

"It was nerve-wrecking," Rodríguez said about his semi-finals appearance. "It was one of my first times performing in front of people."

While out in the spotlight, with his button diatonic accordion strapped on, he saw his family out there in the audience. The judges in front of him were accordionist David Farias and bajo-sexto player Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs.

Rodríguez began playing the redova "El Porrón" and the polka "Idalia".

"That first year was a little rough," Rodríguez said. "My mechanics were very frigid, very stiff. I didn't really move a lot, I was just playing, looking at my fingers. Just trying to concentrate on my playing and not really entertaining the people."

Despite what Rodríguez thought about his self-admitted flaws, the judges were impressed, and advanced him to the finals that year.

"David Farias came up to me right after that," Rodríguez said. "He said, 'I really like your style of playing, it's very clean.' He told me that I needed to loosen up a little more. Enjoy the music, feel the music. I just kept that in mind."

Rodríguez feels that it was the challenging nature of his pieces that sent him to the finals, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.

"There was even way more people," Rodríguez said. "I was even more nervous that time around. I just remember playing my stuff, bowing and moving on."

Later that night, Johnny Ramirez of Houston was announced as the winner.

"I wasn't too disappointed," Rodríguez said. "Obviously I was sad, but I told (then Texas Folklife executive director) Nancy Bless that I am going to come back next year and hopefully win it all."

The following year he sent a recording for his audition that was produced at the home studio of his teacher and mentor Benny Layton. The two tracks were "Maria Bonita" and a potpourri of polkas that included "Viva Seguin", "Atotonilco", "La Piedrera" and "Dolly".

After his audition was reviewed, he was called up and returned to Austin for the semi-finals. From there, only two Rio Grande Valley natives advanced to the finals in Houston — Rodríguez and Gloria Jean Cantu.

To the observers at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in 2009, Rodríguez looked like a totally different performer.

"It was a big difference," Rodríguez said, compared to his first year. "I had more fun performing. I had a whole year to prepare for this again. I worked on my dancing skills while I was playing. I was smiling, giving the crowd something to feed off of."

Towards the middle of his potpourri, a loose screw caused a leak in the accordion's air flow. Rodríguez was forced to improvise on the spot. He signaled to the rest of the band, and rushed towards the final pasada (run) of his medley.

"That had never happened to me before," Rodríguez said. "I was so mad, I looked at Mr. Layton, and I said, 'I can't believe that happened. I'm so mad at this accordion!' (laughs) He's like, 'It's okay, don't worry about it. I'm glad you finished the song off, you just didn't run off stage or make it obvious.'"

Even though Layton was trying his best to cheer him up, Rodríguez couldn't help but feel disappointed at that moment.

"My performance is ruined," Rodríguez said. "I'm not going to win, I came all the way over here for nothing. That's what was going through my head."

When the award ceremony came up, Rodríguez says his heart was racing. Rodríguez points out that Cantu, his fellow Valley accordionist, did a great job that night.

The winner was going to be announced next.

"'And our grand champion...'," Rodríguez remembers of that moment. "'Heriberto Rodríguez!' Wow, I can't believe I won. It was a heartwarming experience, one of the best experiences I've ever had.

With that win, Rodríguez became the second Valley native to be crowned "Big Squeeze" champion. The first was Juan Longoria, Jr. at the inaugural "Big Squeeze" competition in 2007. The third locally produced title holder was Peter Anzaldua in 2012.

The 2015 "Big Squeeze" season will officially start on Saturday morning at La Joya High School. A "Showcase" will be held where local accordionists who are 21 years of age or younger are welcomed to audition, so they could have their opportunity to advance to the finals of the "Conjunto" category, which was created last year. As someone who has participated in two "Big Squeeze" seasons, what advice does Rodríguez have for young accordionists who will be performing this year?

"Honestly there is nothing to be nervous about," Rodríguez said. "Practice, practice, practice. That's the biggest thing. Get those songs down and enjoy the music. In the words of David Farias, 'Feel the music.' And just have fun out there. I can say that after this competition, it made me a more confident person and musician."

What: Texas Folklife's "Big Squeeze" Showcase and annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival. Bands include La Joya High School Conjunto "Los Diamantes", J.V. Conjunto "Acordeones de Oro", Palmview High School Conjunto "La Tradicion & the Silver Bullet Band". and Juarez Lincoln High School Conjunto "Sol".
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM for the showcase and 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM for the festival.
Date: 2/7
Cost: Free for the showcase, $6.00 per person for the festival.
Phone Number: 956-580-5160
Location: La Joya High School, 604 North Coyote Avenue in La Joya, Texas.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Nopal Love

Nopal Love

I took a lot of photos this year, but this is my favorite of them all. I was at Rancho El Charco in La Joya, and noticed there was a lot of nopales around in the area. My eyesight isn’t very good yet I still spotted this heart-shaped nopal from a pretty long distance. I didn’t have any camera on me, and my phone is del año del caldo, so the quality of the photo would have been pretty bad. Luckily my friend Jose Luis had a small camera with him, and I asked him to borrow it. I quickly ran up to this area of the rancho, and snapped this photo. Really happy I was able to photograph it, because I may have never been able to find it again.

A Look Back at 2014

Diana De Hoyos . Photo by Elisa De Hoyos.
 As one of the founding members of the Texas Sweethearts, Diana De Hoyos had a great year, full of all types of musical highlights. As a fan, she saw it as a great year of live metal music.

"I saw several metal acts such as Carcass, Origin, Morbid Angel, Pig Destroyer, D.R.I and more," De Hoyos said. "What amazes me about these bands is they have been around for decades yet it does not affect their performance."

Her metal music highlight goes was seeing Dead Horse at Harlingen in May.

"It was an amazing show," De Hoyos said. "There wasn't a huge crowd but the people that were there were obvious Dead Horse fans who sang every lyric to all their songs."

Another great moment for her was performing at the 33rd annual Tejano Conjunto Festival at San Antonio in May, and seeing the Texas Tornados there live.

"It was an amazing experience because of how much Texas Tornados are a part of my life," De Hoyos said. "I grew up on them, listening to my parents sing and play their songs. Now that I'm in a band, our favorite songs to cover are Texas Tornado songs like 'Who Were You Thinking Of' and 'Mentiras'.  So I went from listening to their music as a child to playing their songs in our band to seeing them live."

De Hoyos says that that same day, her and her sister Elisa met Flaco Jimenez.

I asked her what plans she had for 2015.

"Next year I hope to try and make it out to more non-metal shows," De Hoyos said. "I like all kinds of music but I mostly attend metal shows which I would like to change."

She is also part of an instrumental rock band named Verena Serene. She says the band has a lot of new material that will most likely be released in 2015.

Lupe Saenz at the Conjunto of the Year award show.

I caught up with South Texas Conjunto Association president Lupe Saenz, and asked him what were some of his favorite conjunto-related moments of the year. One of them was Lazaro Perez y su conjunto winning at the 16th annual Conjunto of the Year award show at Mercedes in June.

"A young conjunto who is having a big impact on the genre," Saenz said of that group.

Other events that he praised include the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival at San Benito in October, and the "Mi Vida, Mi Musica" Pepe Maldonado recognition event that was held recently at La Lomita Park in November.

What does Saenz have planned for 2015?

"We, of course, are looking to the return of most of these events again this year and hopefully a conjunto radio station in the Valley," Saenz said. "We also are hoping to bring back another conjunto music television show like the 'Acordeones de Tejas' TV show we had on KMBH-TV."

Cristina Balli at the NMCAC Conjunto Festival.
Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli had another year that was full of major events throughout the Lone Star State. The annual "Big Squeeze" statewide accordion contest was now divided into three different categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).

"It was our biggest yet, each year it keeps growing," Balli said. "In 2014, we had 55 kids, and of those 55, 25 were from the Valley. This contest is dominated by conjunto, so we really wanted to make sure that we had more participation and that we highlighted other genres."

The "Big Squeeze" Finals at Austin in April delivered in a different way, from past years.

"It was nice because we had diversity," Balli said. "The 'Big Squeeze' had been great, but it was all conjunto. It was really nice seeing young people playing the polka music, and then to hear the zydeco music. It is true that diversity makes our lives richer, and it was a much richer experience hearing all these genres of music instead of just one. As much as I love conjunto because that's my thing, I think people enjoyed themselves more."

Other major events that Balli and Texas Folklife were involved in were the 25th annual Accordion Kings & Queens Festival at Houston in June, Texas Folklife's 30th Anniversary Celebration at Austin in September, and the inaugural "Festival of Texas Fiddling" at Blanco in December. Also in December, Texas Folklife released a CD titled Traditional Music of Texas, Volume 1: Fiddle Recordings from the Texas Folklife Archives.

"We ended the year with a bang," Balli said of that fiddle festival. "It was a lot of fun. The concept again was to present all the different genres of music in Texas that include the fiddle."

Outside of Texas Folklife, Balli returned to the Rio Grande Valley to MC Day 3 of the NMCAC Conjunto Festival.

Just like we saw changes in 2014, we'll be seeing something new at the 2015 "Big Squeeze" Showcases here in the Valley.

"We are doing live judging," Balli said. "So we'll get the top three, right then and there. It's going to give it a little more excitement."

The 2015 "Big Squeeze" Showcases in the Valley will take place at La Joya High School on February 7, and Los Fresnos High School on date that has yet to be finalized.