Monday, June 3, 2013

RGV Hub Magazine Interview: Joel Guzman

When discussing Joel Guzman, most fans use the following adjectives— "brilliant", "versatile" and "genius". This is a musician that is flexible and confident enough to play conjunto polkas, pieces by Ricardo Galliano, Cajun improvisations on YouTube, "Amazing Grace" with Rhett Butler and Americana on the Late Show with David Letterman. Whether he is displaying his skills on a Dino Baffetti or a Steve Jordan Hohner Tex-Mex Rockordeon, Guzman brings a totally unique sound to the music world. In this interview, Guzman will discuss his humble beginnings, his early influences, the role his family has played in his life, and his vision for the future of accordion music.

Eduardo Martinez: I want to start off by asking you, when you were a child in Washington, how young were you when you were first exposed to conjunto and Tejano music?

Joel Guzman: Oh gosh, in the womb. You know, I probably came out with it. [laughs] I started playing the accordion when I was about 4-years-old. I started playing 2-row accordion, a 2-row Hohner. Everybody in my family, my father included, were great musicians. It was just a natural thing, it went from there. I just kept playing more and more, changing into the 3-row and learning how to sing in Spanish. The way we would learn music was from 45's, needle point. Old 78 rpm's. I thought it was fun. A lot of kids were playing running back or playing baseball but I was learning songs on the accordion. Those were my toys.

EM: Out of curiosity, does your family have any ties to the Rio Grande Valley?

JG: Yeah. My dad is from San Juan and my mom is from Edinburg.

EM: Oh wow, I never knew that. That's awesome.

JG: [laughs] It is. The deal is I re-migrated back to Texas. They migrated to Washington in '48. It's just natural that I had to come back. We used to come here every Summer to come play music. My dad was a pretty good manager/musician. His dream was trying to get us out of the fields and onto the stage. We used to work in the fields.

EM: I read a story about you meeting [legendary Valley accordionist] Oscar Hernandez in the late 60's, in your hometown of Sunnyside, Washington. Can you share that story to those who aren't familiar?

JG: That was a funny story. In fact Conjunto Bernal went to play at La Puerta Negra, which was one of the most famous dance halls in the Yakima Valley. So I was learning how to play chromatic accordion and so my dad was aggressive, he was like, "The band is here, get up, I'm going to take you over to meet Oscar." I was like, "Okay great let's do that." We get up early. I know which room he's in, so I go knock on his door and he comes out. He's still sleeping and his hair is all messed up. Probably in his underwear, I'm not sure. [laughs]

And he goes, "What do you want?" And my dad is in the car, in the parking lot. [My dad says], "Shake his hand, introduce yourself." But [Oscar] is there like, "It's early, what do you want?" [laughs] I imagine he was probably up the night before, being a youngster like that having fun or whatever.

So I said, "Well my name is Joel Guzman and my dad told me to come over here and meet you, to show you what I can do with the accordion." And he said, "Oh okay I guess, come in." [laughs] [So he asks], "Well play something for me." So I started playing some of his tunes for him. So he's like, "Wait a minute, how long have you been playing?" I just started learning this thing last Summer. I just learned how to play it pretty good. He was amazed so I said, "Any advice you can give me?"

He said to go buy this album by Angelo Dipippo, who was a French accordion player and learn "Flight of the Bumblebee". So I went and bought the record and I came back the next day. Same thing, I knock on his door. He goes, "I meant to learn it and come see me next year, I didn't mean to come see me this morning again." [laughs]

Later on when we go to Texas to visit and play, we would stop by his place. In that time I was really becoming a better accordionist and what freaked me out was when I was playing his tunes. I was learning all his music on the chromatic, he grabbed an acoustic guitar and he started following me. Man, that just blew me away. I said, "Oh man, I guess I got to start learning how to play acoustic guitar." [laughs] I taught myself how to play acoustic as well.

I give a lot of credit to him for expanding my horizons. I was learning music from Narciso Martinez and all the other conjunto pioneers. All the 78's. Jimmy Guajardo, Clemente Bermea. Of course Tony De La Rosa, Valerio [Longoria], you name it. Especially Paulino Bernal. So it was like a candy store for me, being able to have all them records available. My dad still has them. So that was probably in, by the time I went to revisit him, maybe early 70's. Ay por ay. A little bit older, a little bit stronger on the accordion. But I wasn't really playing chromatic a lot, I was playing diatonic three-row.

EM: I was going to ask you, what signaled the switch from the chromatic to the diatonic?

JG: There was not really a switch, like I can still play it, I think it's just that a lot of it has to do with the kind of music I was continuing to learn. Other than Oscar, there wasn't a lot of players that were laying any ground work for chromatic, so there was nothing to study. Later I find out, because I'm still studying now, that there is Richard Galliano from France, who was his inspiration. In turn, I'm still studying that musical form but I'm doing it on diatonic. So I can play chromatic stuff on the small box. I kind of made it a goal to learn how to play in all the keys on one box.

EM: How old were you when you first started performing live?

JG: 5, 6..

EM: Oh wow, that young?

JG: Yes, I learned all the valses, so when we would play weddings or parties like that, or bailes. All the old people would love it and then they would sit there and throw money at me. [I thought], "Why are they doing that for? [laughs] What's up with this? I'm just playing songs." I thought the songs I was learning were present day, I had no idea they were forty years before my time.

My ears are always open, being in that kind of mind frame of music is universal. I'm influenced by the European players a lot. I am sure a lot of Tejano and conjunto players also do their research like I did. Learning from the German players, the Polacos, Czechoslovakian guys, [and others] from Panama and Columbia. We got it from somewhere. The difference with the accordion players from Texas, we actually developed a style based on the song form like the corridos. In essence, for me its accordion but for the public it's about the songs, stories, corridos. But it's really hard for me to memorize lyrics but I know every single lick there is on the accordion. From many styles, arrangements, bands and artists.

EM: You stand out for being able to do different stuff like Cajun, jazz, blues, Americana and European style. Also you play the bass section at times, what advice can you give to young accordionists that look up to you?

JG: Well it's like, let's just say that the left hand, it's like I want to play piano but I'm just going to play with my right hand now. What happens to the left hand? You don't need the left hand? Because the left hand is what makes the right hand happen. With tone, with timing, with articulation, with acompañamiento. All that stuff. I push it a lot.

I'm teaching all the kids how to read music for accordion, we're talking about the button accordion and the bass side. I recently got signed by Hohner to endorse the product. The reason I did that was because they understand my vision of what I want for the future generations, and that's to compete with the European kids on their level. But then kids in Europe are all bass players, which are left hand. So I'm trying to have Hohner work on a design that will incorporate a 40 bass on the left and also incorporating reading notations. But that's my goal to get all the kids from now on to understand the importance of the left hand. You can't have anything without it.

EM: You mentioned being sponsored by Hohner, any plans for a Joel Guzman signature accordion like they've done in the past with Esteban Jordan and Flaco Jimenez?

JG: Yeah definitely. We're working on several ideas, and one may even be the 40 bass box. We're looking at a specific type of tuning and look. I don't like the big giant boxes so much. But if I can find a design that has the capabilities of a chromatic, the weight of a smaller box and has access to the left hand bass, I think that would be a signature model for me. I just don't want to put anything out with my name on it just to say I have a signature box. I want something that really is going to impact that next generation so I am not in a hurry. We're working on stuff.

EM: A lot of conjunto fans were happy to see you appear in the film "Crazy Heart". How did that come about and what was the experience like to work on a major motion picture like that?

JG: Well I had a good friend here that I've been making records with over the years, his name was Stephen Bruton. He was with Kris Kristofferson, he was his side man for all his life it seems like. He was an awesome guy [Note: Bruton passed away in 2009]. I think when he decided to go on his own, he was also an aspiring actor. He always had his hands in the cookie jar. He knew what was going on in music and movies. So I had known him through the years, doing recordings and stuff. So this one time he called me, I was in Chicago and he says, "You gotta bring Sarah [Fox], you gotta bring Gabriel [Guzman], there's this movie and it's going to be great." I was, "Hold on, what are you talking about?" [He goes], "It's great, you gotta come man." So I said, "Well I'll tell you what, as soon as I get back to Austin I'll call you." He says, "No, you gotta tell me if you want to do it or not right now." I said, "Of course, I'm not going to say no." He says, "Well as soon as you get back, they'll be five tickets, I'm working on this music soundtrack for a movie I'm working on." So it was just the soundtrack first.

So it happen to be in L.A., with him, with T-Bone Burnett, and all the guys from the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant band that were backing up. All the musicians Buddy Miller, Dennis Crouch, Jay Bellerose, and a bunch of national guys. They were all there in the studio when I walked in. The idea was that they needed to do music for this one scene in the movie that was in Santa Fe and they were trying to tap into what would make it more Santa Fe, cause it's close to the border. So our buddy Stephen was thinking I know the perfect guy that can help us with this. They brought me in. You can hear the difference in the music and the sound. The way the drummer, the bassist was playing and everything else. The musical director happened to be in the studio and he goes, "Hey man, what are you doing April 'something' to April 'something'." I go, "I don't know let me check my calendar." And I said, "I'm free." [laughs] We went to Santa Fe where we were going to shoot the scene to be part of it. It just happened like that, you never know.

Sarah, I and Gabriel are in a new movie called "When Angels Sing". It's premiering this Sunday (SXSW week) at the Paramount theater. It's a Christmas movie with Harry Connick Jr, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Fiona Flanagan. Anyway, so being in Austin is cool, we have a lot of opportunities for movies, tours and concerts. We produce records. Of course we're always working on our own, Sarah and I have had a record label for years. So we try to put out great music. We have three CD's out there that kind of go beyond conjunto. "Latinology", which was a really good record. Of course "Polka Gritos", that was really successful record for us, we got two Grammy's for that one. The most recent was "Mas Conjuntazzo" and "Conjuntazzo" before that which was nominated for a Grammy.

There are just so many things going on but it's amazing the questions you asked me about the beginning. To me every day, I'm just sitting here ready to rehearse, is like that first day. Just curious about music. Still wanting to know how we can redefine music, how to make it better. How to not get caught up and be complacent with it just because it's a certain genre or something. We are always trying to go beyond the scope. What it is, perhaps it'll influence our music and make it better. Conjunto music or musica de la raza. People can bring something to it that you didn't think about before. Maybe production quality, artwork, maybe tours, maybe movies, maybe something. But we're sharing definitely.

Sarah and I have been incorporating since '96 as a company but we've been with each other for thirty years. We kind of share the same vision. Without my family, without Sarah, without everybody, none of this happens. Because there are a lot of musicians that have dreams of doing things but they don't have the support of the family or they don't prioritize properly. Or problems with alcoholism or drug use or all that bad stuff. I was just saying from a realistic stand point, it's good to bring family and to stay focused on the art, conjunto and music.

EM: You regularly go to a lot of festivals and hold a lot of accordion clinics. Who are, in your opinion, some up and coming accordionists that we should look out for? Some that could carry on the tradition?

JG: From the traditional side, I'm sure there is a handful. Because I think the Valley is the place where they grow them. I can't specifically tell you one person but I know there is a lot of people from the Valley that are preserving the traditional style. But I have not discovered a new Tony De La Rosa or a new Valerio Longoria. Or a new Paulino Bernal or an Oscar [Hernandez]. And I'm still looking. Perhaps the reason why is that those guys were innovators and they started the trend. What is happening with a lot of our generation of players now is that they are just copying what those guys did. I haven't really found somebody that has created an original style since then.

It's a hard question to answer. I give credit to all the accordionists playing [in bands] and maintaining but somebody's going to have to take the lead and create new songs. A new look for the next forty years. I don't think we have any yet. I don't think we have any new writers or guys that are spear-heading the movement. It's tough for me because I've been in the music business so I'm guilty of that too. I try to innovate my music or arrangements on my records without disrespecting the old style. Without getting too crazy and losing the audience. [laughs] It's hard. We got to preserve it but at the same time you got to make it expand a little.

EM: Okay I really want to thank you so much for the interview, I very much enjoyed your perspective and your comments on music. Thank you very much Joel.

JG: You got it. Thank you, good luck.


  1. I would say AJ Castillo is one of the new innovators in conjunto music. Great interview!