I recently had the chance to talk to Emilio Ayala (the son of Pedro Ayala) and Esperanza Benitez Ayala (widow of Pedro Ayala). I went to go visit them at their home in Donna, they had a so much great Pedro Ayala items that they showed me. I had a great time talking about the history of Pedro's work, along with the history of conjunto music. Both Emilio (who used to play bass for Los Hermanos Ayala) and Esperanza have a level of music knowledge that is amazing. I had a wonderful time talking to them, and I hope to continue talking with them about conjunto music.
One thing that Emilio showed me that I thought was really neat was this letter that his father received. As you can see, it is actually signed by President Ronald Reagan. Check out the letter.
Here is an article I wrote about Pedro Ayala y Los Hermanos Ayala for the May 6, 2012 edition of The Monitor.
"All three of them had their own style," said Emilio Ayala, son of Pedro Ayala. "My dad actually drifted more into the progressive side, although they didn't call it progressive at the time."
Pedro Ayala was born to Emilio and Carlota Ayala on June 29, 1911 in General Terán, Nuevo León. Pedro's father was actually named Emilio Ayala Ayala, as he came from two families that had the last name Ayala. Pedro was born into a musical family, his father was an accordionist, guitarist and clarinet player. Pedro's siblings would include Ramiro (guitarist and banjo player), Santiago (drummer), Felipa (violinist), and Francisco (accordionist, guitarist and clarinet player). Pedro would first learn how to play the drums when he was only 6 years old.
"My father-in-law would play with Los Montañeses Del Alamo, so they would lift Pedro on a horse there and he would play the snare drums with them," said Esperanza Benitez Ayala, Pedro's widow, in Spanish.
When Pedro was 8 years old, the Ayala family would make its move to the Rio Grande Valley in 1919. They ended up establishing permanent residence in Donna. Thanks to his older brother Francisco, Pedro would go on to play the guitar next and then eventually pick up the accordion. He would start playing music professionally in the 1920's along with his brother Francisco. After the sudden death of Francisco in 1928, Pedro started making a name for himself as an accordionist in the 1930's. Pedro would marry the love of his life, Esperanza Benitez at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Donna on February 3, 1935. Midnight Serenade (which featured Pedro's brother-in-law Jesus Herrera) was the band that performed at the dance after the wedding. They would have seven children: Anita, Elia, Emilio, Maria Magdalena, Maria Olga, Pedro Jr., and Ramon.
During the late 1930's, Pedro composed several pieces including a polka titled "La Curva" that he recorded around 1938-39. Pedro would go on to join Midnight Serenade as a guitarist and use this experience to get more familiar with orchestras.
In 1947, Pedro started recording for Mira Records, a record company headed by Arnaldo Ramirez. The tunes he recorded for Mira include "La Burrita", "La Pajarera", and "Se Me Atasco Mi Carro" (a composition by Pedro that was named by Ramirez). Emilio informs us that the latter is a redova that has been stolen from his father and renamed "El Porron" without crediting his father for the composition. While recording for Mira, Ramirez named them Pedro Ayala y su Conjunto del Rio. Within the next year, Arnaldo Ramirez would form Discos Falcón and start recording in Mission, TX. Pedro teamed up with his cousin-in-law Eugenio Gutierrez and his orchestra to record the dazzling hit "El Naranjal". It was named that due to a major freeze in the winter of 1948-49 that destroyed a large percentage of oranges in Texas. This recording of "El Naranjal" was significant because it marked Pedro as the first person to introduce the button accordion to an orchestra.
"Back then the accordion was not appreciated much, it was kind of considered a low-level instrument," Emilio said. "That would worry him very much, so little by little, he started raising the value of the accordion."
After becoming the house accordionist for Falcón, Ramirez gave him the moniker that everyone remembers to this day - "El Monarca Del Acordeon". As a well-respected studio musician for Falcón, Ramirez (aka Mr. Falcón) trusted Pedro to accompany many different artists throughout his long tenure there.
"He accompanied Juanita Garcia, Luis Pérez Meza, Luis Aguilar, Chelelo, Los Hermanos Yanez, Lydia Mendoza and many more," Esperanza remembers.
Pedro along with legendary guitarist Lorenzo Caballero and the rest of his conjunto would make their television debut in 1953 for a program in Ft. Worth, TX. Later in his career, he would make appearances on "Fanfarria Falcón", "El Valle Alegre Show", "The Domingo Peña Show", and "The Paulino Bernal Show". They would also regularly appear on the radio.
By the early 1950's, the next generation would start playing professionally as Pedro Jr. would start playing the accordion and Ramon would pick up the bajosexto. They made their first recording as Los Hermanos Ayala for Bronco Records (a subsidiary of Falcón) in 1959. While they were their own conjunto with their own recordings, they would also accompany their father on both recordings and live performances. By the early 1960's, they would be joined by their electric bass playing little brother Emilio. So by then all three brothers were making a name for themselves in the conjunto world.
All throughout the 1950's and 60's, Pedro Sr. would go on to record for Bego, Falcón, Ideal, Bernal, Discolando, RyN, Pato and Oro. He would often play at churches as well, performing for different types of ceremonies. Ayala was in high demand due to being one of the greatest ever at composing valses, polkas, redovas, and for being a master on the accordion.
During the peak of their popularity, Pedro Sr. and his sons were able to bring their high quality music to people all over the U.S. and Mexico. Even though they were highly successful musicians, Pedro Sr. and his family were still working the fields.
"They would play in the nights and in the weekends, but they would work in the fields," Emilio said. "It was passed along to us."
It was passed along to them the same way the father of Pedro Sr. had passed it along to him many years ago. The beautiful music of South Texas was largely created by dignified working class musicians, working hard on the stage and on the fields.
"We saw Valerio Longoria, Tony De La Rosa, Ernesto Guerra and so many others picking cherries with us in Shelby, Michigan," remembers Esperanza.
Many people note that Pedro Sr. was one of the most honest and straight forward artists in conjunto. Emilio still remembers a great story of his dad actually returning back a portion of his pay to the promoter to apologize for being a little late to a show due to car troubles in 1966. He would help fellow musicians repair their accordions, which he learned how to do from his father. Pedro Sr. actually let Los Donneños and Los Alegres de Terán use his accordion to record their first records here. Pedro Sr. was also someone who would often acknowledge forgotten musicians of his era. When Manuel H. Peña interviewed him for his book, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of Working-Class Music, Ayala made sure to reference Arnulfo Olivo, a forgotten South Texas conjunto pioneer that Ayala considered to be a very talented composer and accordionist.
"[Arnulfo] was a great friend [of Pedro Sr.], he was a very good musician, but he never recorded," Emilio said. "My dad would try to persuade him to record, but he didn't want to."
In the 1970's Los Hermanos Ayala continued to record for Falcón as they collaborated with San Benito's Freddie Fender for songs like "Lagrimas Negras" and "Nuestro Juramento". Then in 1978, Los Hermanos Ayala recorded an awe-inspiring funky conjunto version of the Star Wars theme that they titled "Guerra De Las Galaxias". That same year, Pedro Sr. was invited by the Smithsonian institute to be a part of their Folklife Festival.
The year of 1982 was a big one for "El Monarca Del Acordeon". He was a part of a tour that was put together by the National Council for Traditional Arts, which is based out of Washington, D.C. He was also inducted into Tejano-Conjunto Hall of Fame and invited to perform at the first ever Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. He would go on to perform at that annual festival throughout the decade. One of his greatest honors occurred in 1988, as he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. As an invitee of the Smithsonian Institute, he had the great honor of performing in Washington, D.C.
After such an exciting decade in the 1980's, Pedro Ayala Sr. would pass away on December 1, 1990 at the age of 79. One thing the Ayala family would love to create to honor him is a conjunto and Tejano orchestra music festival in Donna. Emilio hopes to get the assistance of representatives and local museums to help make this event possible.
"Tejano music is hurting. We have this movement that we want to pick it up and we don't want to let it die," Emilio said. "What we need to do is the same thing they do in San Benito [for Narciso Martínez] but do it [in Donna for Pedro Ayala Sr.] and hopefully they'll do it in San Antonio for Santiago Jiménez Sr."
All three Ayala brothers would continue playing together until the death of Pedro Jr. on June 30, 2007 at the young age of 62. Ramon and Emilio still play together and jam out with local musicians like Joe Mora, Mel Villarreal, and Tony Torres. Both surviving hermanos cherish the wonderful times they had with their father and brother, both in their musical and personal lives. The family is very happy that Pedro Sr. was honored by being inducted into both San Benito's Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame (2003) and Alice's Tejano Roots Hall of Fame (2004). The musical tradition has continued with the next generation of Ayala family members like Chris Rodriguez of Tejano Highway 281.
"My grandfather is and always will be my greatest inspiration," Chris Rodriguez said.
Now at 90 years old, Esperanza still has an amazing mind for detail. She's able to remember so many names, songs, faces and moments that have touched her during her lifetime. Thanks to her, a large part of Valley and conjunto history is still alive, ready to be relived and cherished.
"[Pedro Sr.] lived such a happy life, always had a smile on his face and would always treat everyone with respect and help them out in any way he could," Esperanza said. "Those were such beautiful times."