Friday, May 31, 2013

Tony Garcia Hoping To Become The Next Valley Native to Win The Big Squeeze Finals‏

This is going to be a week that Tony Garcia will remember for the rest of his life. On Wednesday, he graduated from Juarez-Lincoln High School. On Saturday, he's going to be competing at Texas Folklife’s 24th annual Accordion Kings & Queens Festival in Houston.

Jesus Garza, a teacher at Juarez-Lincoln High School, was the individual that introduced the Big Squeeze competition to Garcia at the start of his senior year.

"I sent a video (to Texas Folklife), that was the first time I ever tried out," said Tony Garcia, 18-years-old, from Mission.

The try-out video included "Picame Tarantula" (huapango) and "Ciudad Victoria" (polka). After the video was reviewed by Texas Folklife's judges, he was called up to compete at the semi-finals in Austin on April 20. Based off his performance that day at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, he advanced to the Big Squeeze Finals on June 1. Garcia will be competing at the Miller Outdoor Theatre for the Big Squeeze championship against three other finalists: Luis Gonzalez, 17-years-old, Grand Prairie; Yesenia Garcia, 17-years-old, Houston; and Michael Ramos, 17-years-old, Dallas. The winner will walk away with a prize package that includes a new Hohner accordion, a cash prize, performance opportunities and much, much more.

Garcia's been a remarkably fast learner. He's only been playing for 2 1/2 years, so it wasn't that long ago that he got his first accordion — a Hohner Compadre en el tono de sol (in the key of GCF).

"As I got out of baseball practice, my dad called me and told me that he had gotten me the accordion he promised me for two years," Garcia said. "The ride on the bus could not go any faster, it seemed like it took me hours to get home."

As soon as he got home, he got his hands on the accordion he had been eagerly waiting for. Unfortunately, he couldn't do much with it that first day since he didn't know how to play the unique instrument. When you hear about conjunto musicians, it's typically a family tradition passed down from generation to generation. But Garcia's story is different. He was the first member in his family to acquire a squeezebox.

"I don't have any uncles or (family members) that had ever gotten an accordion before," Garcia said. "I'm actually the first one, I learned by myself. Honestly, it's all by ear, all by desire."

Since his first accordion, he's gone on to add three more to his personal collection — another Hohner Compadre, a Hohner Xtreme and a Gabbanelli. There was just something about the accordion that grabbed a hold of Garcia and wouldn't let go. He was hooked.

"The thing that really attracted me was you can express yourself," Garcia said. "It's a stress reliever. It's a thing that at the end of the day, that you actually want to go play."

When I asked Garcia about who his two biggest musical influences were, he was quick to answer with two accordionists. The first being norteño virtuoso Juan Villarreal.

"Watching him live is something else," Garcia said. "He just makes everything look so easy but man everything is so hard from him. His melodies are not easy. Like how my generation (uses the word) 'swag', he has a different type of swag."

His other favorite musician is conjunto icon Paulino Bernal.

"His polkas are very different," observed Garcia. "I like the melodies he likes. It's something very different that you don't hear from (other) accordion players."

Despite having a lot on his plate, with practicing the accordion at home and being a part of Conjunto Sol (his school's conjunto), he still found time for other extracurricular activities. A sports enthusiast, Garcia was often seen on the baseball field, playing left-field for the Juarez-Lincoln Huskies. Now that his high school days are officially over, he's making plans for the next chapter of his life.

"I want to go to college and get a degree," Garcia said enthusiastically.

While he looks ahead to the future, Garcia is confident that an accordion will always be by his side.

"It's my favorite hobby," Garcia said. "It's a thing that I would like to do for the rest of my life, it's an awesome feeling (playing the accordion). If I ever have a son, I would love for him to play."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Me Avente

Rene Gasca

If you ever step foot inside McAllen's Cursilerias  located on the corner of Dove Ave. and 10th Street  make sure to take note of the live band's trumpet player. Throughout the years, on the road and in the recording studios, Rene Gasca has made his mark in the Tejano music industry. 

"I've been playing a long time dude," said Rene Gasca laughing.   

Originally from Houston, Gasca credits his two older brothers for exposing him to music at an early age. 

"One (brother) played the trumpet and the other one played the trombone," Gasca said. "They started in school, they (then) became musicians and were playing with a lot of really good Tejano bands."

One of his brothers, Luis Gasca, would go on to become one of the most acclaimed trumpet players of the era. Gasca proudly recalls how Luis accompanied Janis Joplin and performed at Woodstock in 1969. 

As an adolescent, he followed in his brothers footsteps by being a part of the school band. Gasca quickly immersed himself with the local music scene in north-side Houston. One of the first bands he played with was La Mafia. 

"I played with them when I was in high school," Gasca said. "We weren't a professional band yet, we were just playing locally."

Gasca notes that these were the pre-keyboard era days of the genre. It was a period where horns reigned supreme in Tejano music.  

"At that time, horns were more popular," Gasca said. "I was a trumpet player and at that time, all the (Tejano) bands had a brass section. Now a days, it's changed. Now it's more keyboards and accordions. Which is fine, maybe (it's) because of the economy, people can't travel with large groups. It's more expensive so they've cut down."

After graduating from high school, Gasca went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music, majoring in Performance & Arranging. When he came back to Texas in the early 1980's, he joined Little Joe y La Familia.

"(Little Joe) gave me an opportunity to play with his band," Gasca said. "I got to see a lot at an early age."

Gasca estimates that he was about 20 years old at the time. For a year, he joined Little Joe on the road throughout Texas, California, Washington, and many other states. He would regularly be performing at the famous bailes in McAllen. 

"I always loved coming to the Valley because the dances were really nice," remembers Gasca. "When we got to the dance halls, there would be lines of people outside waiting to get in."

After a stint in California that saw him perform with musicians from Mexico and Brazil, Gasca returned to Texas. In the early 1990's, he was hired to record for Selena's hit album Amor Prohibido (1994). That album included "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" and "El Chico del Apartamento 512". 

"I was very fortunate to have been able to record with her," Gasca recalls. "She was a very good person, she had a lot of talent. The whole band at that time (did)."

He continued being a studio musician while still finding time to go on the road when the opportunity arose. In the past fifteen years, Gasca has collaborated with performers like Bobby Pulido, Elida y Avante and Alicia Villarreal. 

For the past five months, Gasca has been performing with Rudo  Cursilerias' house band. The ten-member band is under the musical leadership of Mario Villarreal, a musician that Gasca met on tour with Alicia Villarreal. They play a variety of music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Some of the genres they cover are pop, rock, norteño, Tejano, banda and salsa.

"It's a great band, I really enjoy playing with them," Gasca said. "One thing here (in the Valley) is that people appreciate music and they always like live music. They support live music and bands. It's always been like that, even when I came here thirty years ago with Little Joe." 

Ultimately, Gasca feels he's been able to work consistently due to evolving with music throughout the decades. He credits his versatility and keeping an open mind with his success.  

"(Music is) all I've ever done," Gasca said. "I'm fortunate that I've been able to last this long in the music business." 

Friday, May 17, 2013

RGV Conjuntofest 2013

This Sunday in Weslaco could be the start of a new conjunto tradition in the Valley.
Earlier this year, Lonnie Gonzales went to the Manny and Rick Tamez  the new owners of The Horseman's Bar & Grill  to share an idea he had.

"There is a big conjunto fanbase here in the Valley but they don't have a conjunto festival here (in this area)," said Lonnie Gonzales, vocalist and bajo-sexto player of Los Badd Boyz Del Valle. "So these people get to hear about the (Tejano) Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. They see the fliers on Facebook and they don't get to go cause it's expensive and it's far."

Lonnie thought it would be neat to create a local version of that festival down here in the Valley. Both Manny and Rick agreed with Lonnie, and decided to move forward with the project. RGV Conjuntofest 2013 was born.

"It started off small but now it's looking to be really, really good man," Lonnie explained.

The acts that are currently scheduled to be performing at this new festival include the Tejano Boys (Brownsville), Conjunto Prestigio (Dallas), Crystal N' Crew (Houston), Mando y La Venganza (Corpus Christi), Ruben Vela Jr. (Santa Rosa), Los Badd Boyz Del Valle (Edcouch-Elsa), and Boni Mauricio (Corpus Christi). The last four acts listed are also part of this weekend's Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. The way Galax Z Fair brought a piece of SXSW to McAllen, Lonnie has succeeded in bringing in a bit of the TCF to Weslaco. 

To those unfamiliar with the headliner, Boni Mauricio was an inductee into the "Tejano Roots" Hall of Fame in 2011. He's one of the most popular and respected musicians on the conjunto circuit. Los Badd Boyz Del Valle have also earned their reputation as being one of the finest conjuntos around. In 2012, they were awarded the "Conjunto of the Year" prize from the South Texas Conjunto Association.

"(I'm going) to support all conjuntos and keep the music alive," said Maria Ortiz Almaraz, a conjunto fan who's planning on attending RGV Conjuntofest. "The memories I have of my aunts and uncles, listening and dancing to this wonderful music and introducing it to me. (Now I'm) making those same happy memories with my family."

Conjunto music has been kept alive by people like Maria. It's a part of their tradition, something that they will be pass on from generation to generation.

"Some of (these conjunto) bands don't have enough airplay," Lonnie said. "Our music is not mainstream, (but) it's our culture. We play for the people at quinceañeras, weddings and festivals. That's how we keep it alive."

There is something to be said about the resiliency of conjunto music. While other styles have suffered through lack of radio support, conjunto has remained strong after 80 plus years. Like Cajun music in Louisiana, conjunto has become a significant part of our cultural identity in South Texas. So if you want to experience what conjunto music feels like first hand, this festival on Sunday is your opportunity to do so. 

RGV Conjuntofest will take place on Sunday, from 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM. The bands will perform in indoor and outdoor stages. The cover charge will be $10.00 at the door, but kids under ten years of age get in free. For more information, please call 956-463-7223 or visit

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Chicano Love Is Forever

Chicano Love Is Forever / Amor Chicano Es Para Siempre (Directed by Efrain Gutierrez)

Texas Folklife's Kickstarter Campaign

The great people over at Texas Folklife started a Kickstarter campaign for their “Accordion Kings & Queens 2012” CD project. Any donation is welcomed. If you dig the squeezebox, please consider looking into this project. Thank you. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Check out this ticket.

I was looking up old boxing results and I came across this image. At one McAllen show on October 6th, 1979, you got a world title fight, Roberto Pulido y Los Clasicos and Ramon Ayala y Los Bravos Del Norte! A boxing, Tejano and norteño trio! I read the newspaper report of the fight and it sounds like it was a good one. Jorge Lujan defeated Reynosa's Roberto Rubaldino via KO at 2:47 of the 15th round. The two would eventually meet again on August 15th, 1981 in Houston, TX. With no title on the line, Rubaldino would defeat Lujan via majority decision.

Cande Aguilar Jr. Returns To The Recording Studio

Cande Aguilar Jr, Ruben Vela and Gilberto Perez. 
It’s been a sweet dream for Brownsville’s Cande Aguilar Jr.

You can trace back the start of his journey to when he was 12 years old. The incredibly shy kid asked his padrino (godfather) — conjunto icon Gilberto Perez — if he could play the accordion at one of his shows.

“When I asked my padrino, he said, ‘Go ahead’,” remembers Cande, 40 years old, in the dining room of his home in Brownsville. “I’m so grateful that he was open for me (to play), without any hesitation at all.”

At the age of ten, Cande started mimicking what he heard on the record player and at the dance halls. He honed his craft at home with his dad, Cande Sr. (Perez’s longtime bass player). Cande said that he was inspired by the sounds of his padrino, Ruben Vela and Tony De La Rosa.

Gilberto Perez stepped aside, allowing his 12-year-old godson on stage to rattle off a few polkitas.

“I wouldn’t even finish [the polkas] right,” said Cande with a smile on his face. “I had never really squared off a piece to where I would finish appropriately. So after a couple of tries, I finally got the endings right.”

The following year, Cande recorded his first album. Titled Mis Primeras Polkas, the young accordionist joined his father on the bass, Gilberto Perez Jr. on the bajo-sexto and Javier Perez on the drums to record at his padrino’s studio.

“At that time I recorded, I included four original pieces,” Cande said. “At that age, I was already composing my own tunes.”

The young prodigy was living a unique life in the 1980′s. During the weekdays, he would be attending Porter High School like an ordinary teenager living in Brownsville. Outside of school he was living the life of a conjunto musician, accompanying Gilberto Perez y su conjunto at live shows.

Thanks to the exposure he gained though those gigs, Cande was invited to perform with La Mafia for a tour in the Summer of 1988. He credits this early, teenage success to his two main inspirations — his father and padrino.

“My padrino threw me in the front, gave me the opportunity to invade his time and spotlight,” Cande said. “Nombre I just can’t be more grateful, I keep going back to it. He (gave) me the opportunity to come out in the shows when he was there. That counts for a lot.”

After he graduated from high school, Cande turned his attention to starting his own band.

“I have to give (Javier Perez) credit for Elida y Avante,” Cande said. “Because I think he is the one that got us all together.”

Cande, Javier and Noel Hernandez got together to start their own group. Eventually it was Noel that found the person that would become the lead-singer of the ensemble.

“Noel met Elida (Reyna) at the mariachi (program at UTPA),” Cande said.”So Noel came to me and Javier (saying), ‘There is this young lady that has a great voice.’”

Once they heard her singing at his padrino’s studio, Cande said that they immediately started rehearing. Elida y Avante really established themselves with the release of Atrevete in 1994.

“('Luna Llena') was really the song that broke through,” Cande said. “It got us our own spot.”

Rock N Roll James — local DJ and former host of Puro Tejano — remembers that era very well.

“(Cande) is awesome, he really added a very unique sound to the early Elida songs,” said Rock N Roll James. “It was signature-esque as to where you knew it was Elida y Avante as soon as you heard the accordion.”

Another song that played a major role in their success was “Duele”.

“(When their) mariachi song 'Duele' was released, that song made her a household name and a staple of Tejano and Regional Mexican Radio airplay,” said James.

After eight years together, the band split up in 2001. Eight months before the break-up, Cande was already sketching and drawing.

“It was sort of a smooth transition for me,” said Cande, as he moved on to the next phase of his life. “I felt like we went out on a good note, we won four awards at the Tejano Awards (2000).”

Cande tells me that at that point in his life, he wasn’t interested in pursuing music. With art, he had found a new way to express himself.

“As I did with the music, (I had) the same commitment, the same energy towards it,” Cande said. “By the time you knew it, I was stretching my own canvases and participating in art shows.”

Cande — happily married with three children — works out of his home in his garage studio. As you enter the studio, you will see his first paint palette to your right; on your left, you might catch a glimpse of a Chewbacca action figure. Several three-row button diatonic accordions are on display. Cande's latest work is hanging off a wall; multimedia art with image transfers on horizontal panels.

“Cande’s work is outstanding,” said Manuel Miranda, a local artist in the Valley. “He incorporates elements from various sources yet he’s been able to produce a body of work that represents the Rio Grande Valley. He has greatly contributed to raising the level of painting right here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Although he’s identified as an artist now, the urge to record music has come back for him in recent years. One of his main goals is to establish a catalog of original material.

Some familiar names joined Cande for his new Dulce Sueños album — Javier Perez, Noel Hernandez, Epifanio Martinez, Gilberto Perez Jr., Felix Aleman, Jaime Gonzalez and Cande Sr.

Along with his parents being a big motivating factor, it was also Lupe Saenz that influenced Cande to return to the recording studio.

“I really appreciate his effort in trying to keep conjunto music alive,” Cande said of the president of the South Texas Conjunto Association. “I told him I was going to start recording (and that he was) one of the reasons why.”

Cande said that he had to get these musical compositions out of his system. With art and music, it’s a constant stream of creative energy for him. He feels that by releasing this album, he could move on to the next stage of his life.

While at his home, Cande sampled some of the songs for me off his laptop. It’s a pure conjunto sound, straight from the roots of the genre. Polkas, redovas, schottisches, waltzes and huapangos. If you’re a fan of classic conjunto music, this is an album worth getting excited about. He’s breathing new life into these traditional forms of music.

“I feel like I’ve challenged myself to play more refined,” Cande said. “I feel like I’ve gotten better interpreting and achieving what I want to play.”

The album is set to have ten original compositions and three tribute tracks – Ruben Vela’s “El Pajuelazo”; Narciso Martinez’s “La Cuquita” and “Dulce Sueños”.

“I am very interested in making up my own music and trying to get as close to being original as possible,” Cande said. “I feel more comfortable playing my own stuff.”

What does the name of the title track mean to Cande? What has conjunto meant to him?

“'Dulce Sueños' being that it’s been a great dream and that I’m happy to be able to participate again in contributing to the conjunto genre,” Cande said. “Through conjunto music, I’ve managed to been able to release my creative energy in a way where it’s not stagnant.”

You can find Dulce Sueños at,, and iTunes.

Friday, May 3, 2013

First steps towards understanding mariachi music

Despite being exposed to mariachi music for all my life, I would say I have a very limited understanding of the subject. Since Cinco De Mayo and Mother's Day are coming up, I figured it would be a good time to get a brief understanding of this often misunderstood genre. 

I contacted my friend Corine Garcia to ask her about the subject. She's been playing with professional mariachi groups since she was a junior in high school. Along with being a singer/songwriter in a three-piece band, she is the mariachi director at Roma Middle School. 

This was my first time asking her about her passion for mariachi music. 

"My earliest memories of mariachi are watching Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de Mi Padre," remembers Corine Garcia. "When the high school mariachi came to visit our elementary school and play a recruiting concert, I was hooked. I knew that's what I wanted to do."

I asked Corine, "How would you describe mariachi music to someone who has never really explored it or isn't familiar with (the genre)?"

"When asked to describe mariachi to someone unfamiliar with the term, the easiest way is to say, 'those musicians with the guitars and the big hats'," Garcia said. "A more technical definition would be the traditional Mexican folk ensemble made up of violins, trumpets, and several variations on the guitar."

"But mariachi is much more than that. The first mariachis included any number of instruments and were the ensembles that led community celebrations in rural Mexico. The ensembles from the states of Jalisco and Michoacán most resembled the mariachi we know today and included a harp, a small guitar, and one or two violins." 

Through the decades, mariachi music drew from a variety of influences. 

"Gradually, as radio and movies came on the scene and people started moving to the cities for work, the ensemble absorbed many influences and became the standard group we are used to seeing today: four to six violins, one or two trumpets, the large guitarrón as a bass instrument, guitar, and a smaller guitar called a vihuela, and sometimes a harp." 

So what songs are you going to be exposed to while you're out celebrating Cinco De Mayo and Mother's Day in the Rio Grande Valley?

"Often any of the traditional mariachi repertoire is welcomed and appropriate, especially patriotic songs like 'Viva Mexico' or 'México Lindo y Querido'," Garcia said. "A typical Mother's Day serenata would include 'Las Mañanitas', 'O Madre Querida' and often a romantic trio like 'Gema'. Or any other favorite song of the mother being honored."

I decided to contact Jonathan Clark — a noted mariachi historian and professional guitarrón player of 38 years — about the differences on how the upcoming holidays are celebrated on both sides of the border. While he confirms that Mother's Day is equally big in Mexico, the same is not true of Cinco De Mayo. 

"Cinco De Mayo is basically a Chicano holiday," said Jonathan Clark. "Basically a meaningless date for Mexican mariachis, they don't normally get any extra work on this day. Whereas virtually every U.S. mariachi is booked up months in advance for this date."

Clark also points out to me one of the most common misconceptions about mariachi music.   

"(Some people say) that some connection exists between the French culture or language and mariachi music," Clark said. "This is an old myth that has been debunked many times, but which dies hard." 

Curious about listening to early mariachi recordings, I turned to where I often go to for regional and roots music — Arhoolie Records. Thanks to the easy access of Spotify, I was able to quickly listen to Mariachi Coculense de Cirilo Marmolejo - Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis - Vol. 1 (1926 - 1936) and Mariachi Tapatio de Jose Marmolejo - Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis - Vol. 2. 

I was really quite surprised at how raw the mariachi sound was in those early days. It was powerful yet very different from the polished and smooth sound that you hear from contemporary musicians. I still have a long road ahead of me when it comes to exploring mariachi music.   

Thinking about how these records made me feel, I went back to ask Corine something that had slipped my mind. My first set of questions for her were for information, background and facts. I had forgotten to ask her what she feels — que siente — when experiencing mariachi music.  

"Excitement. Passion. Pride. And the feeling of connecting with your audience (in a way) that I have never experienced in any other genre of music."