Saturday, June 1, 2013

RIP Ernesto Guerra (1938-2013)


I got a message from Sandra Ortega, Wally Gonzalez's grand-daughter, early this morning. She was asking me if it was true that Ernesto Guerra had passed away. I didn't know the know what to say, I had not heard anything, although I had been aware of the fact that Guerra was ill for quite some time. So I asked her where she heard the information. She told me that her grandfather received an early phone call breaking the bad news that Guerra had passed away.

A little while later, Esteban Jordan III confirmed the sad news:

"I just found out a good friend of my dad's just recently passed away. My condolences to the Guerra Family del Valle. Ernesto Guerra is a pioneer of conjunto and the accordion. I met Ernesto when I was 17. And he was a hard worker and a library of history. 'They say that when a elder passes, a library of history is gone with them as well.' Que en paz descansen."

I only met him Guerra once. I really regret that I didn't go out of my way to meet him again. It was outside of Cine El Rey, on May 2011. After a movie night, I walked outside the theater and saw him playing various piezas on a two-row button diatonic accordion. I ended up having a fun conversation with him that night. He reminisced about the old days and musicians of past years. I would bring up an accordionist I liked and he would tell me all about them. At the time of the conversation, I didn't know who Guerra was. But after that night, I became a big fan of him and of his work. He had many great instrumentals, most memorably "La sicodélica", which has become one of my favorite polkas ever. 



He was a great guy by all accounts. My good friend Israel always had the kindest things to say about Guerra. He was good friends with many of the great conjunto, norteño and Tejano musicians of the last 60 plus years like Esteban Jordan, Flaco Jimenez, Mel Villarreal, Wally Gonzalez, Cornelio Reyna, Ramiro Cavazos, Los Hermanos Ayala and countless of others. He collaborated with many musicians like Reyna, Cavazos and Tomas Ortiz. JoeBueno over at the ReyesForum said something I agree with, that he was a great composer that never got the credit he genuinely deserved.

He will be missed. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and friends. Us conjunto fans will never forget him. I'm going to make it a goal of mine to learn various pieces of his on the accordion. Starting with "La sicodélica", I'm going to help keep his memory alive by introducing people to his wonderful music.

You all should go to this link, my friend and editor, Amy Nichol Smith wrote a touching tribute to Guerra. You all should check it out, some great quotes from Guerra's daughter and Mel Villarreal.

This is a blogpost I wrote after I met him.

This is an article written of Guerra by Zack Quaintance on January 2012. I would typically link to it but it's not online on The Monitor's website anymore. So I am posting it here, so more information is available online:

When he was a 17-year-old shoe shine boy, Ernesto Guerra bought his first two row diatonic accordion for $32 in 1956 at the old Ross Department store in McAllen.

His father maintained orchards, keeping the trees cleaned and the irrigation ditches flowing. Ernesto, who helped in the family business when his father demanded it, had no musical training nor any musical tradition in his family.

What he had was an inexplicable love for accordion music and an urge to make it himself.

“I’ve always had that sound in my mind, the sound of the accordion,” says Guerra, now 73.

He dedicated much of his life throughout the next five and a half decades to making accordion music, self-taught and enamored with the squeeze box. Nowadays, with his legs slowed by diabetes and his lungs made weak by serious respiratory problems, he has retired from the instrument he loves, spending his days at home with his daughter Melissa and her son.

And even though the music has stopped, Guerra’s memories remain – the shows in Los Angeles, Mexico City and Chicago. The time on stage with Cornelio Reyna and Juan Gabriel. The inductions into regional music hall of fames and the feature in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

“I’m proud,” Guerra says. “I’m proud that Jesus gave me the talent to play the accordion.”

Guerra credits his entire career to a firm devotion to Christianity, thanking his faith for everything from the invitations to tour with some of tejano and conjunto’s greatest legends to the late nights spent practicing after working at a paint can factory in Illinois.

One of his greatest lasting accomplishments is the music Guerra recorded with Tomas Ortiz, of Los Alegres De Teran. To this day he keeps DVDs and CDs of his work with Ortiz, who combined his bajo sexto with Guerra’s accordion.

His musical career wasn’t always easy though. When he would depart for weeks to play and work in Los Angeles or Chicago, he would leave his young family.

“It was the hardest thing in the world,” Guerra says. “When I went on tour, I would leave my wife without a vehicle.”

His wife, Pura Sylvia Guerra, worked as a nurse. She passed away recently, but back then, she worked as a nurse and depended on rides from friends when her husband took to the road to pursue his music. She supported his career, though, and when he could he brought his family with him.

Melissa Guerra, who is now 47, remembers growing up surrounded by tejano.

“When I was a baby, that’s all I ever heard,” she says. “He was always practicing, practicing, practicing.”

Melissa inherited her father’s love of music. She still works as a vocalist, covering singers that range from Mariah Carey to Rihanna. Her husband, who recently lost a battle with cancer, was also involved with music, working for Melhart’s Music and doing the sound for his wife and his father-in-law.

“My daughter has a beautiful voice,” Ernesto says.

Melissa even performed with her father for a time with her band Savannah. These days she performs as a solo artist under the name Melissa Guerra.

And also, he can rattle off a list of tejano musicians who became close friends – Ruben Vela, Roberto Perez, Narcisso Martinez, who is also known as the father of conjunto.

Sadly, he can also make a long list of fellow musicians who have passed on.

None of his own ailments are life-threatening, and Guerra says he’ll be ready when it’s his time. He enjoys living with his daughter, surrounded by family. In the corner of the living room in their South McAllen home, there is a poster-sized black and white photo.

It is a photo of Guerra when he was 17, shining shoes at the McAllen bus station and just discovering that he could bring to life his mind’s music with an accordion. His thick, dark hair is slicked back and he smiles a wry grin, like he has just found his life’s calling.

Those are the days Guerra remembers now.

“I was young and strong, and I always played my accordion, no matter how tired I was,” he says. “I was never too tired to practice a while. I loved my squeezebox.”

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