Friday, May 30, 2014

Paulino Bernal

Paulino Bernal, at his offices on McColl in McAllen, on May 21, 2014.
When talking to different musicians and fans across the Rio Grande Valley, one name tends to be mentioned a lot. It's a name that carries a lot of weight for many in a crowd that tends to be over the age of fifty. To a younger demographic, he's likely known as the local evangelist who they have probably heard on the radio or from their parents. Some up and coming accordionists know him because of the thrilling polkas that he fixed ages ago. To some young people, the name might not even resonate.

However, to folks who witnessed his rise, it's a man who did it all in the Valley music scene. He paid his dues working with regional attractions until he broke out on his own with his bajo-sexto playing brother. He built up his conjunto into possibly the best, most innovative conjunto we've ever seen in the 1960's. When discussing the greatest three-row, button diatonic accordionists of all time, he's one of the few that has an argument for greatest ever.

That would be enough to make one a legend around these parts but that's not all he did. He took part in creating two different record labels in an era that was loaded with local Tejano, conjunto and norteño talent. He released music from Carlos Guzman, Ruben Vela, Ernesto Guerra, Pepe Maldonado and Little Joe Hernandez. He established a weekly Monday night series in McAllen known as El Baile Grande. He discovered and promoted new acts. He scheduled and created his own unique touring system.

To a generation of Valley music fans that were alive in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, he was a cut above the rest.

This man's name is Paulino Bernal.

In 2014, his age hasn't slowed him down. Church gatherings and business engagements keep him traveling on an almost daily basis. The allure of the road is still strong with him. On this particular afternoon, he returned to the Valley and stopped by his Christian radio offices in McAllen to reminisce about his past with me.

He walks in speaking with a remarkably polished voice and exchanges greetings with me. He closes the door, and asks me to speak up since decades of being around loud music has made it difficult for him to hear.

Born in Raymondville on October 18, 1939, Bernal's childhood was far from the world of luxury that he currently lives in. His parents divorced when he was five years old, making life difficult for Guadalupe De Anda Bernal, Bernal's single mother, and her children. The family relocated to Kingsville after the separation.

"We lived in poverty for years," Bernal, 73, said. "My mom used to clean homes, apartments, take care of the family — two brothers, three sisters."

As children, Bernal and his younger brother Eloy worked extra jobs to help their mother out. By the age of ten, Bernal already had plenty of experience working in the fields and polishing shoes.

During the evenings in the barrio, a group of neighbors would mingle in a nearby patio for a guitar jam session. Standing next to a fence, Bernal was captivated by the sound he was listening to.

"I used to love the way they played the guitar," Bernal remembers. "I wanted to know what they are doing, how they are doing (it)."

One day, one of those neighbors stopped by the Bernal residence. He was trying to sell his guitar and Bernal argued his case to his mother.

"I told my mom, 'Buy it, I'm going to learn how to play it and I'm going to help you,'" Bernal promised.

A few weeks later, Bernal was outside his home, picking at his guitar when a stranger stopped by. It was an older man that played the accordion, and he invited Bernal to accompany him at nearby cantinas during the evenings.

"I was a young kid, 10 or 12 years old at that time," Bernal said. "They would give me tips and put coins in my guitar. At midnight I was shaking the guitar to get those coins out and give them to mom."

Bernal observed that man closely and learned how to play the accordion on his own. He says he was a fan of Tony De La Rosa, Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martinez growing up.

"Those were the accordionists of my time, when I started as a little kid," Bernal said. "I would go and hear them play, and they were a great inspiration for me."

Discos Ideal promotional photo of Narciso Martinez, one of Paulino Bernal's inspirations.  
He explored the three-row, button diatonic accordion, studying what it was capable of for eight hours a day. Bernal notes how other accordionists would use several boxes to switch to different keys throughout their live performance. Bernal himself experimented so much with it that he figured out how to find everything he needed on a sole box.

"People used to say that the three-row accordion didn't have all the chords and all the music," Bernal said. "That's not true, I proved it all these years that all the chords are there."

Eloy learned to play the guitar before arriving to the bajo-sexto. The two formed Los Hermanitos Bernal, which would later evolve into the legendary Conjunto Bernal.

"Eloy, in my opinion, is the greatest bajo-sexto player that I have ever known," Bernal reflects on Eloy, who passed away at the age of 61 in 1998. "There is a lot of good musicians out there, but to me, he had the greatest touch to that bajo-sexto. He would spend hours just playing by himself. Until he got the right sound, not only the chords or everything else that goes with it, but the sound on that bajo-sexto. (It was) like nobody else. Not only that, he's a great composer."

Paulino Bernal and Eloy Bernal. 
During those early days, radio personality Domingo Peña of Corpus Christi took a liking to Bernal. He gave Bernal advice that he's eager to share with us.

"He told me, 'Paulino distinguish yourself, even if you distinguish yourself as an idiot,'" laughs Bernal. "He was always joking. Oh man, he was so great."

The two hermanos would indeed stand out, as Peña suggested. They scored the opportunity to record for Discos Ideal in Alice and San Benito as the 1950's unraveled.

"I would skip school and go to (Ideal) or other guys (who were) recording," Bernal said. "One day the accordionist didn't show up and I was there, and I told (Ideal founder) Mr. (Armando) Marroquín, 'I can play the accordion.' He said, 'Well, let's see how you do.' I played it as best as I could so he could like it. From there on, he would go pick me up in Kingsville and take me to play the accordion with other singers. Then he gave us the opportunity to record our first record with my brother and I. It was a hit."

Carmen y Laura are two of those singers that Bernal touched upon.

That first record from 1955 included "Mujer Pasada" on Side A and "Desprecio" on Side B. The bigger hit came later that same year when the duo dropped "Mi Unico Camino". Influenced by Los Panchos and Los Tres Reyes, two popular acts of that era, Bernal introduced three-part harmonies to the conjunto music genre. To pull of this feat, he enlisted vocalist Ruben Perez. The two teenage brothers were starting to be seen as pioneers.

Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, has released three Conjunto Bernal CD's that feature those rare, early recordings from Ideal — 16 Early Hits, Mi Humilde Corazon, and Mi Unico Camino.

One of the Arhoolie re-releases. 
"Bernal is a brilliant musician," Strachwitz said. "Similar to what (Zydeco accordionist) Clifton Chenier was like. He (as in Clifton) was an amazing musician who once told me, 'Chris, you got to be a little bit ahead of the audience, just to have something new all the time.'"

Conjunto Bernal began touring all across Texas after those first hits. They eventually became big enough draws that they started touring throughout the country.

"I was making a lot of money with Conjunto Bernal," Bernal said. "No more picking cotton, no more shoe shining, I'm going to dedicate my life fully to playing music."

Mike Lopez, who once operated a Valley record label titled Mestizo Records, remembers seeing Conjunto Bernal in those days.

"They were incredible," Lopez said. "Widely imitated, never duplicated."

Marroquín started Nopal Records in 1960.
During the 1960's, Bernal introduced the chromatic accordion to his audience after Oscar Hernandez joined the gang. The dynamic of the group progressed with it now featuring two maestros. One day a fan asked Bernal why he invited Hernandez to join his conjunto.

"I said, 'Well I started hearing him, he was a tough musician playing great accordion (music) and if you can't beat him, join him,'" Bernal laughs hard, slapping his thighs. "We did incredible things with those accordions."

Oscar Hernandez, Paulino Bernal and Conjunto Bernal during the 1960's.
Joel Guzman, arguably the most versatile accordionist today, recalls seeing Conjunto Bernal in the Valley and in Washington during the early-to-mid 1960's. While he grew up in the Pacific Northwest, his parents would bring him to South Texas at least once a year to visit family. He projects that the venue he saw the group in for the first time was either Blue Moon in Pharr or Vera's Palladium in Weslaco.

"Bernal was very innovative," Guzman said. "Instead of just playing the accordion, (Bernal) got up and played the bass in a rock and roll tune."

I bring up this story to Bernal, and he notes that he tried to raise the profile of his band by attempting to draw fans from outside regular conjunto followers. To do that, he brought in elements from other styles, like the aforementioned trio style, orquesta, ballroom, various Latin@ forms and rock & roll.

"These guys were dressed like rock stars," Guzman said. "They had something going on. They knew how to market themselves."

This recollection from Guzman gives Bernal a flashback to the early part of his career, which gives us a glimpse into the early class divide in the early Tejano and conjunto scene.

Bernal me dice que when he was growing up in Kingsville, there was two patios. One was called Junior's Patio, and it was for conjuntos. The other one was known as El Patio, and it was used for Mexican-American orquestas like Beto Villa and Luis Alcaraz. He described the former as being for “la raza” (his exact phrase), while the latter was for upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans, or jaitones.

"I would see people all dressed up in their suits and everything," Bernal observed of the crowd at El Patio. "Y aqui (en Junior's Patio), pura raza, which was okay but I wanted to (play) over there too."

He impressed fans on the first site but aimed at getting a gig on the upscale stage, which rewarded musicians with more lana. Thanks to that hybrid style that was covered earlier, it didn't take long until he pressed on to the second patio.

Bernal made several key moves that shook up the conjunto business in the 1960's. One of them was when he partnered up with Joseph H. Gonzalez and Lillie A. Gonzalez to form Bego Records.

The Gonzalez's promoted Conjunto Bernal when they performed in Michigan. The married couple were admirers of the way Bernal and his musicians sung. However, Lillie was perplexed by some of the material that they were recording at the time.

"(She) couldn't understand why most of their music was all polkas, huapangos, and things like that," Yolanda Gonzalez, Lillie's daughter, said. "They were such a good band. Paulino (Bernal) told them, 'Well that's what the record labels there in the Valley (want).'"

After listening to Bernal's answer, Joseph asked him how much it would cost to start their own record company.

"They came up with a figure," Yolanda said. "My dad says, 'Okay let's do it.' My mom said, 'Let's get it rolling.' She wrote out the first contracts for those musicians (that night)."

The name of the new company was agreed upon early. "Be" and "go" would stand for the first two letters of the last names involved.

Offices were opened at 415 S. 17th Street in McAllen. Most of the recordings were completed at Jimmy Nichols' studio on Dallas Ave. in the same city. Bob Tanner's TNT (Tanner N Texas), a pressing plant in San Antonio, manufactured the vinyl records.

"My mom and dad were the money people," Yolanda said. "Paulino was doing a lot of the producing. It was him and Armando Hinojosa."

The label became one of the most successful Mexican and Mexican-American record companies in America at the time. Yolanda notes that their only competition was Discos Falcón.

Bernal is credited with discovering several talented artists that recorded for his company. Judging by the excitement in his voice, he seems most proud of two in particular.

Bernal's cuento begins in 1963, at a cantina in Reynosa where two young performers came over to sing for him. After a few songs, Bernal bluntly told them that they were never going to amount to anything. When they asked why, Bernal replied that their act was just canciones from Los Alegres de Terán. That if they wanted to make it big, they needed their own material. The two men fired back saying that they had original work.

The pair started singing, "Ya no llores mujer, ya no estes triste..."

As he heard "Ya No Llores", Bernal saw the future of norteño music before him.

"Cornelio Reyna and Ramon Ayala," Bernal said. "So I told them you go tomorrow to McAllen, I'm going to record you."

In our conversation, Bernal made no reference to Hinojosa. However, others have stated that it was Hinojosa who advised Bernal to go to that bar, to specifically see Ayala and Reyna.

Those early Bego recordings of Los Relámpagos Del Norte can still be seen popping up at second-hand stores in McAllen and Weslaco from time to time.

"He's a brilliant businessman," Strachwitz said. "He really knows how to take care of business and find out where it's at."

Los Relámpagos Del Norte's first release for Bego. 
The two parties officially split off after a financial dispute near the end of the decade. The Gonzalez's bought Bernal's share of the company, and he used that money to launch Bernal Records, which also specialized in the same market.

One successful idea that Bernal came up with is the Bego (or Bernal) Caravana. As he described to me, he would start two separate tours simultaneously in two different cities across the U.S. After a performance, the act(s) would leave one city to go to the next one on the tour. As the journey came to an end, each course would be completed in the other's starting point. He did that both on a national and local level.

In the second half of the 1960's, he created what is known as "El Baile Grande". He went to the McAllen Civic Center, requesting to book the venue every Saturday night. Bernal tells me that they responded with, "No that's impossible, we have a lot of bookings." When Bernal asked what dates would be available, they replied with Monday. He took all of those dates, placed his deposits, and rented the venue for what would become a weekly extravaganza. He was a frequent headliner at his own dances.

"It was the biggest dance, I'd say, in the state of Texas," claims Bernal. "Monday there was no competition and all the musicians were free (as in, not booked). Nobody would hire them anyway on Monday's. I had the choice of booking whatever I wanted to."

Bego release named after "El Baile Grande". 
In 1968, Conjunto Bernal was invited to Vietnam to entertain the troops as part of the USO. For 21 days they toured with the help of three helicopters. The musicians were in one aircraft, the instruments in another, and the soldiers that were protecting them were in the third.

"We would go down there to sing to those guys," Bernal said. "Guys from the Valley, El Paso, San Diego, California, from all over the United States."

Professionally he was successful as a musician, promoter, and record producer. Personally he describes himself as being "lost" in the late 1960's to the early 1970's. He credits a young person for taking his life and career into a different direction. That new camino led him to becoming a born-again Christian in 1972. Since then, he has dedicated his life to spreading the gospel.

"Everyday we are out," Bernal said. "Going to auditoriums, dance halls, everywhere that we can go. We rent them and we tell people about salvation."

Even though certain aspects have changed, some characteristics have remained the same. He's still playing music, his ensemble is still Conjunto Bernal, and the style he originated has stood strong through generations of fans.

"We sing songs that we used to do before, but now with Christian lyrics," Bernal said. "It's the same trio, the same style, the same everything. Just the lyrics changed. Once in a while, I play them a good polka."

The biggest hit of his Christian-era is "Un Dia A La Vez", which is a Spanish version of "One Day At A Time", written by  Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson.

Paulino Bernal's most popular Christian release. 
While he's been dedicated to his ministry and radio stations for the past 42 years, he's had a few moments where he's returned to the field that made him famous. In December 2007 and February 2008, Bernal visited the Mafia Studios in Houston to record El Maestro Del Acordeon Y Sus Polkas, his first non-Christian recording in 36 years. He doesn't want his conjunto contributions to fade away.

"I did it to bring all those polkas into digital sound," Bernal said. "Also to do some new stuff in there, to leave for the young people."

From those new slick recordings, along with YouTube videos of "Idalia", "Elegancia", "Dolly" and "Morir Soñando" that have popped up online recently, it's clear that he still has first class skills. It's quite the sight seeing his agile, vibrant fingers work their way up and down the three rows on the Dino Baffetti that he is holding on those clips.

"He still plays every bit as good as he ever did," Guzman observes. "He's been somebody that's always been on the top of my list as one of the biggest influences of my life."

Bernal tells me about how he's been watching internet videos as well. He likes seeing young people playing his polkas. I tell Bernal that I recently saw a teenager at La Joya High School perform one of his piezas. He smiles, then starts talking about what surprises him the most is when he sees videos of kids from other countries interpreting his material.

Paulino Bernal's only non-Christian recording in the past 42 years.
As our chat nears its end, he tells me he's going to do service later that day in McAllen at his Valley Worship Center on McColl in McAllen. Then he's back on the road, as he visits Mexico the following day.

Bernal continues to be a mesmerizing character to discuss in 2014. Most people I've talked to, that know his work, have something spirited to say about what he's accomplished over the course of seven decades. A man who has successfully navigated though the life that Bernal has sprinted through is unheard of. One way to get across his unrelenting drive for success, is to point to an answer he gave me when discussing his job as a shoeshiner.

"When I see a young kid with a shoeshine (kit), I go and give him a big tip," Bernal said with a big smile. "I know what it is, you know. I always said to myself (as a kid), 'I'm going to give him the best shine that he has ever seen, because I want him as a client.' When I started playing the accordion, I said, 'I'm not going to be just any accordionist. I'm going to be the best.'"

Friday, April 4, 2014

La Clica

Mando Mejia of Rio Grande City, by way of Comales, Tamaulipas, will be bringing La Clica and his brand of conjunto music to Harlingen on April 13.

Mejia, 59, has gone through a variety of chapters in his 24 year journey as a musician.

In 1990, Mejia started playing guitar and keyboard for his local church. Three years later, Mejia picked up the bass guitar, and launched a Tejano band with his own children. They were known as Mejia y Compañia.

"Cuando ya crecieron mis hijos, y vimos el talento que ellos tenian de voces y instrumentos, comenzamos, (When my children grew up, and we saw what talent they had in their voices and instruments, we started [to play],)" Mejia said.

They performed together until his children moved on to different stages in their lives in the late 1990's. Mejia's interest in music picked up again when he noticed that his nephew, Jerry Mejia, was interested in the accordion.

"Se miraba que le gustaba mucho la acordeon, y le regalo una acordeoncita, y dormia con que ella abrazada, (It looked like he liked the accordion a lot, so I gave him one for a gift, and he would fall asleep hugging it,)" Mejia laughs. "El comenzo a oir mucho a Ruben Vela, y como iba creciendo, iba aprendiendo, y se aprendia todos los discos de Don Ruben. (He started listening to Ruben Vela a lot, and as he was growing, he was learning, and he was learning all of Don Ruben's albums.)"

Jerry asked his tio if they could start their own group. That's when the band that came to be known as La Clica first started to take shape. Mejia explained to me that the group's name originates from Rock N Roll James' "Eres Clica" radio shtick.

From 2006 to 2010, uncle and nephew played together until Jerry joined Ruben Vela Jr. y Sus Muchachos.

La Clica previously recorded at a home studio in Roma, and that's where Mejia first met accordionist Boy Lozano, 43.

"He asked me if I could play with him (after Jerry left)," Lozano said. "I told him, 'No, not right now, I'm not playing with anyone. Maybe later.'"

Lozano picked up the accordion when he was 10, but had stopped playing in the early 2000's. After a couple of months, Mejia called Lozano again to ask if he was interested. This time Lozano decided to take a chance with one condition.

"The only way I can get in on the group, is to include my father," Lozano said. "Because we were recording a CD with my father in my studio. I wanted to do that, to have a memory of him, that's what my idea (was). To have memories of (my father Chuy) singing."

Mejia agreed to have both Lozano men join his group in 2011.

"Very, very emotional," Lozano describing how it feels to be playing in a band with his father.

The current line-up of La Clica includes: Mejia on the bass; Boy Lozano as the accordionist and segunda voz; Chuy Lozano as primera voz; Rolando Flores on the bajo-sexto; Victor Flores on the drums; Demetrio Peña on percussion.

"Un estilo unico que tiene mi acordeonista y que no se oye igual a otros, (A unique style that my accordionist has that doesn't sound like anyone else,)" Mejia said of Lozano and La Clica's style. "Un estilo personal, bien bonito. Conjunto bien bailable. (A personal style, very pretty. Very danceable conjunto.)"

La Clica just finished recording their second album, titled El Amor De Mi Vida. Mejia received his first batch of CD's a few weeks ago, and he will be selling copies of them at upcoming gigs. A third release is something that is being planned for down the line.

"Los tardamos un poquito, porque habiamos comenzado con otro drummer (It took us a while, because we [initially] started with another drummer)," Mejia said. "Tuvimos que comenzar de nuevo otra vez. Los llevamos casi el año para completar el disco (We had to start all over again [after we got our new drummer]. It took us over a year to complete the album)."

Mejia has seen an increase in popularity in the past several years. He hopes that trend will continue as he moves forward in 2014.

"Nos a ido muy bien, (It's gone real good for us,)" Mejia said. "Es un segunda trabajo. En el ultimo año, hemos sacado doble de gigs. (It's a second job [for us]. In the past year, we've been getting double the gigs [that we used to get]."

Who: La Clica
Time: 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Date: 4/13
Cost: $2.00 per person
Phone Number: 956-423-1699
Bands Facebook:
Location: American Legion Post 205, in Harlingen

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Texas Sweethearts

Diana De Hoyos, Elisa De Hoyos, Minnie Loredo, and Mari De Hoyos.
The Texas Sweethearts is an all-female band that plays music that is made up of a variety of influences that come from both sides of the border. It's a mixture of many key ingredients, including Tejano, conjunto, country and ranchera music.

Before the formation of the Texas Sweethearts, three members of this group were part of their own family band called Mari and Her Spanish Angels.

Mari De Hoyos, 45, was born in Reynosa, which is where her love of music first started.

"We lived very close to the bull fighting ring," Mari said. "Every morning they had speakers full blast, the whole city can hear it. I would wake up very early, sit by the door and listen to all the songs that were coming up. I'd sing right along with them too."

Mari took a liking to the guitar after seeing her mother and father performing. She learned how to play in secret.

"He was very particular about us touching his guitars so he would hide them," Mari said. " I figured a way of getting inside the walk in closet. I'd put the flashlight on, take out his charts, his guitar and I would practice that way."

It wasn't until she learned "Cariño" that she revealed to her parents that she knew how to play.

"I played it for him, he was like, 'When did this happen?'," Mari laughs. "So he gave me his guitar. Very nice, black, shiny guitar. He says, 'You can have that one.'"

When Mari became a mother, she took her children to church often. Two of those seven children are Elisa De Hoyos, 26, and Diana De Hoyos, 25. Both were raised in Weslaco.

"I gave them small rhythm instruments so that they could behave at church," Mari said. "I had a church choir, they were running all over the place. I'm singing, I'm like, 'Where are they?'"

The two daughters played tambourine and maracas. Mari and Her Spanish Angels began to take shape. After a few years, the two moved on to different instruments.

"I started playing the accordion," Elisa said. "I figured since it's a piano accordion, I can play the keyboard so I asked my parents for a keyboard and they got me a keyboard."

At the age of 11, Elisa went from a piano accordion to a button diatonic accordion when she received a Hohner Corona II. Later she was given a Gabbanelli accordion as her regalo de sorpresa (surprise gift) at her quinceañera.

"The first song that I figured out on the piano accordion was 'Atotonilco'," Elisa said. "When I got to the Hohner, I did meet up with (Juan Lugo) in San Benito, who works at Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center. They give lessons once a week. My mom's like, 'Why don't you go learn a song or two.' So I started going there. The next polkitas I learned were, "La Nona", "La Sicodélica", "Los Cardenales". Certain old polkas 'cause he was very traditional. Later I met up with Gilberto Perez and he showed me some other polkas."

Diana briefly played guitar with her mother, giving the group a two-guitar sound. However that didn't last long.

"I wanted something else," Diana said. "My dad was the bass player, he would let me play, he would show me some things, and at the end of a show, he would let me play the last song. From there I just started playing (the bass)."

The country element to their style came from a certain demographic.

"Winter Texans were our fan base," Elisa said. "They would bring us cassette tapes, and they were like, 'Listen to this song, figure this song out.' We started listening to whatever they were giving us. I probably know more country artists off the top of my head than any other genre and it's because of that."

Through networking with their Winter Texan audience, they found themselves performing outside of Texas. They ventured out three times, playing throughout the central states. They even went to Maine at one point.

Elisa and Diana's participation dwindled as they got older. Elisa moved away briefly, and had a daughter of her own. Diana went a different direction.

"I was like, this is not cool, I want to play rock and roll," Diana said. "I started leaving the family band behind. I wanted to go explore other things."

Diana started performing for heavy metal and rock bands. She currently plays with another group, an instrumental rock band named Verena Serene. Her perspective has changed in recent years.

"You grow up, you get out of that phase," Diana said, about how she's grown to appreciate the local culture and performing with her family.

"You go back to your roots," Elisa adds.

About a year ago, Diana talked to her mother about starting a new band.

"I told my mom, this is what I really want to do," Diana said. "I want to play again. So I told my mom, we should just do this again, when I graduate, I'll have all the time in the world. So I graduated and we started it. That's pretty much where I stand."

Mari was thrilled to hear that her daughters were interested in pursuing a new project with her. While she had missed playing with them, she didn't want to push them into doing something that they didn't want to do.

While all three were ready to start their new ensemble, one thing was missing.

"We always said we need a drummer, cause it was just us three," Mari said. "Elisa playing the keyboard, the accordion. (Diana) would play the bass. I'd play the guitar and the lead vocalist. Elisa (would) harmonize with me. It was like, 'We need a drummer, man. If we can find a drummer, it'll sound complete.'"

"A girl drummer!" Elisa adds.

"My husband was like, 'I can try," laughs Mari. "You stay home, take care of the kids."

Mari went on Craigslist and saw a post that read, "Where are all the female musicians?" Mari replied and the person on the other end was Minnie Loredo, 28.

Minnie grew up in Edinburg, and dabbled with the accordion before deciding it wasn't for her. She started playing drums when was 19 years old.

"When I heard about these girls, I was like, 'I'm going to try it, see what happens'," Minnie said. "First day we were practicing, it just flowed like we'd playing for a while."

Minnie brings to the group a deep appreciation of older conjunto stars like Paulino Bernal, Tony De La Rosa, Valerio Longoria and Oscar Hernandez. In the past, she's jammed out with Mel Villarreal and Jesse Gomez y Los Nuevo Chachos. She feels like she has improved a lot over the past year.

"(This is) where I'm growing up," Minnie said of the Texas Sweethearts. "It's making me a better drummer."

One day at Melharts Music Center, they came across a flyer promoting "Chingona Fest 2013", a women's empowerment festival in McAllen.

"I told mom, 'Maybe they have a slot open and we can play there'," Elisa said.

"Cause we're chingonas," Mari said, laughing.

Mari contacted the festival's organizer and the band was booked for the May 4, 2013 event. Mari tells me they quickly named themselves the Texas Sweethearts after securing that first gig.

Diana was a bit nervous about how the crowd would respond.

"I was worried because I know all the bands that went to play there," Diana said. "There were a lot of punk bands from the McAllen area, I was like, 'Oh they are coming here to see all these rock bands and we're a Tejano band, no one is going to like us.' Then it turned out a lot of people really enjoyed it. So I know that was a success."

"It was awesome, I was very happy (with how it turned out)," Elisa added.

Since then, Texas Sweethearts has kept themselves busy by performing all throughout the Valley. Recently they were invited to the 33rd annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. They will perform on a bill that includes an impressive line-up of musicians — Miguel A. Pérez (Spain), Dwayne Verheyden (Netherlends), Los Texmaniacs (San Antonio), Joel Guzman (Austin) and The Texas Tornados (Austin/San Antonio). The group plans to have some recordings completed soon to sell there on May 16.

Gloria E. Anzaldua once described this area as a mix of cultures coming together to create a new one. When discussing her life and musical style, Mari has a very similar philosophy.

"I feel like where we're at, it is a blend," Mari said. "I feel that I am a result of being born in Mexico, coming here, being influenced by Tejano music, the ranchera music that my parents would listen to. Then the country music that exists here. So we are a blend."

Learn more about the Texas Sweethearts at

Friday, January 24, 2014

TV-DX'ing II

From Wiki: TV DX and FM DX is the active search for distant radio or television stations received during unusual atmospheric conditions. The term DX is an old telegraphic term meaning “long distance.”

Back in 1999, I used to mess around with antennas and get a signal from a station in Corpus Christi on Saturday nights. I would do this to record some professional wrestling programming that aired there but didn’t air here — ECW Hardcore TV and old 1980’s episodes of CWA/USWA (Memphis, Tennessee promotion).

That was just a 100-plus miles. Some TV-DX’ers gets signals from 1000-plus miles away. Most of these screen shots come from someone who recorded them off their TV in Florida.

Credit: oldfldxer and wa5iyx.

Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr.

Oscar Ramirez, Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr. and Jerry Mejia.
When Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr. steps out of his house, and looks around at his neighborhood, it's a reminder of who he is and where he comes from.

"Right now I live a block away from where my father used to live," Rabbit, 50, said as he talked about his father Ruben Vela, the legendary conjunto accordionist. "Actually the street where I live on is named (after) my dad. So I live on Ruben Vela Sr. Avenue in Santa Rosa."

He first shared the stage with his father in the 1980's. It all started when Amalia Vela, his mother, disciplined him by sending him off to California, where his father was touring.

"I guess I was messing up in school," Rabbit said. "Nombre to me it was a vacation, I loved it bro!"

Initially he started working as the band's driver and roadie. One day during a tour, Vela gave his son and ahijado (Godson) Chalito Zapata permission to perform during intermission.

"So we would do a little show," Rabbit remembers of his teenage days. "People would start throwing money cause (Chalito) would play the accordion, and I would play the drums."

Rabbit had played before at the Mercedes Livestock Show but this was a totally different experience. He estimates that he and Chalito would walk away with $15 to $20 dollars each after performing.

Enrique "Flaco" Naranjo joined the young musicians, becoming a part of their mid-show act. Later on Naranjo secured the role of Vela's lead singer while Rabbit became his father's drummer, a position he held for 26 years. The glory period of the 1990's followed as Vela and Naranjo hit the jackpot with a pair of hits in the form of cumbias — "El Coco Rayado Power Mix" (1996) and it's sequel "La Papaya" (1997).

"Coco Rayado brought him back to life," Rabbit said about his father's career resurgence."When my dad would play out of state, I (would) see how much the people loved him."

For the years that followed, Rabbit worked closely with his father, hoping he could take him to the next level.

"My goal was to make his music hit one more time before he died," Rabbit said. "I noticed that we were climbing the ladder again, he was going back up."

Sadly, Vela passed away at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen on March 9, 2010. He was 72.

"When he passed away, I didn't know what to do," Rabbit said. "Man, my world's over, I got so sad."

It was a very difficult time for Rabbit. He said that knowing he had his own family to take care of helped him deal with the pain that he was going through.

Before he passed away, Vela was already booked for the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio on May 15, 2010. Juan Tejeda, the festival's organizer, decided to keep the booking as a tribute to him. Who would play the accordion that night with the band?

Rabbit got a hold of an 18-year-old accordionist from Rio Grande City named Jerry Mejia. What made this young kid stand out was that his style was very much influenced by Vela and Naranjo. Mejia joined the Vela family on-stage that night to pay tribute to a legend.

"I felt nervous at first, because I never performed in front of so many people," Mejia, 22, said. "At the same time, (I was) very excited because I was given the opportunity by Ruben Jr. to participate in giving this tribute to his dad. To me it was an honor."

The Vela family was very impressed by Mejia's style.

"I told him, I think you're very close to playing like my dad," Rabbit said. "How weird that this young kid that I have playing the accordion, he's 22-years-old (now), but yet he plays like my father, and he sings like Flaco (Naranjo)."

With his father gone, Rabbit was unsure about his future and considered leaving the music business altogether. After hearing a lot of encouragement from Mejia and his band-mates, Rabbit decided to stick around.

The current line-up of Ruben Vela Jr. y Sus Muchachos includes: Rabbit on the drums; Mejia on the accordion and vocals; Jaime "El Serrucho" Solis on bass and vocals; Alex Delgado on bajo-sexto. The band continues to play songs that Vela made famous.

"I feel so fortunate to carry on Mr. Vela's music, it is a great honor to me," Mejia said. "I will try my best to keep that traditional Texas conjunto sound from El Valle that Mr. Vela developed and that all of us fanatics and followers enjoyed so much."

The group just completed a 12-track album for Latin World Records titled Corazon Magico. It will feature rancheras, cumbias, a huapango, and a polka. Rabbit describes it as being "a little more progressive". He hopes to attract a new, fresh audience with this release.

Sunday night's gig at La Lomita Park will be the CD release party. It will also serve as a birthday celebration for Rabbit and Serrucho. Rabbit tells me that if you can't make it, he plans to return to McAllen next month for an event that is yet to be scheduled.

One reason why Rabbit is performing at La Lomita Park was that it was the last venue his father performed at. Preserving the memory of his late father is a must.

"If I can do it, and God gives me the chance to keep his music going, well why not," Rabbit said. "I just want all his fans to know that we are going to try to keep his music alive. We're giving it a shot, we're trying our best."

Who: Ruben Vela Jr. y Sus Muchachos and Herencia 4.
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 1/26
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Bands Facebook:
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jesus "Chuy" De Leon at the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame in San Benito

Lupe Saenz, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, presented me with this video that he produced. In this video, we hear from Jesus "Chuy" De Leon, his family, and his fans. A corrido is also featured that tells the tale of "El Gallito Madrugador". Enjoy!

To read more on Jesus "Chuy" De Leon, check out this article I wrote on the legendary radio broadcaster.