Friday, June 28, 2013

Live ‘Accordion Kings & Queens’ compilation album funded by fans

In the first week of May, Texas Folklife launched a Kickstarter project to help cover the funding of the production and release of a live album. The album would be a recording of the previous years "Accordion Kings & Queens" festival. The goal on Kickstarter was to raise $2,950; they raised $3,271. The album was released on June 1, much to the delight of accordion aficionados.

This album opens with the four "Big Squeeze" finalists — Michael Ramos; Luis Gonzalez; Omar Garza; Peter Anzaldua. The four instrumental tracks include "Mas Tequila", "Avance Polka", "El Huracán" and "Carmela Medley". All four performances are vibrant and impressive, it's easy to see why these young musicians were the finalists. I saw Anzaldua — the 2012 champion — perform live in San Benito late last year. Within a few minutes, he had the entire dance floor filled up with people of all ages. This accordion wiz kid from Brownsville is someone to look out for.

In the following track we are joined by 2011 champion, Nachito Morales and Los Morales Boyz. It's a moving rendition of "Danzón Juarez", one of the finest pieces in all of conjunto music.

We now move on to Czech and Zydeco music. First up, we have two pieces by the Ennis Czech Boys. While similar in some respects, they are a neat contrast to the earlier conjunto instrumentals. Warm, graceful pieces that I think conjunto fans would appreciate and embrace. "Baby Come On" and "Watch That Mule" by Dora & Her Zydeco Entourage are infectious. This catchy music comes alive with its charming vocals and enthusiasm.

Los Texmaniacs, an incredible ensemble of conjunto musicians, are also featured on this release. They have become one of the best representatives of conjunto music, traveling all across the globe to spread awareness of this unique regional genre. Their first track on here is "Lucerito", a spirited ranchera about a man who anxiously waits for the love of his life. They are then joined by conjunto icon Mingo Saldivar, to perform a hit of his — "Pájaro Negro". Saldivar brings a country-western aesthetic to his conjunto music, producing a style of music that is original and exciting to listen to.

The legendary Flaco Jimenez also joins Los Texmaniacs for a pair of tunes; "Together Again" and "Volver, Volver". The former is a country standard that has become popular with some conjunto artists. Jimenez incorporates his signature adornos (riffs) to the popular country tune. The latter is one of the most popular Spanish songs around, an intense and powerful ranchera that was composed by Vicente Fernandez.

In-between "Together Again" and "Volver, Volver", an 11-minute track titled "Accordion Jam" proves to be electrifying. Saldivar, Jimenez, David Farias and Anzaldua hop on the stage and have an accordion shootout. This raw and dazzling track gives you an idea of what to expect at a live event. At its core, it's a genuine, heartfelt celebration of accordion music.

This album provides an expansive view to the different styles and musicians found in accordion-based music. Highly recommended to anyone out there that is curious about regional music and what it has to offer.

You can purchase a copy at

Friday, June 21, 2013

From Dallas to McAllen

It was September 2012. I was at a gas station in McKinney, saying bye to Angie. I had spent the weekend with Angie and Cody in Frisco, enjoying those days with two close friends. 

The bus was late, as usual. I was getting nervous, also as usual. So I asked Angie if I could borrow her cell phone to make a call to Greyhound. As I was making the phone call, I finally saw the bus arriving. I hugged Angie, stepped out and hopped on the bus. I put some Oscar Hernandez music on my mp3 player and off we went, patras al Valle.  

First I went from McKinney to Dallas. I spent at least two hours there at the bus station as I waited for my transfer. Re-listening to stuff on my mp3 player and eating a cheap burger as I waited there. I was anxious to get home. I wanted to watch Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. vs Sergio Martinez and Canelo Alvarez vs Josesito Lopez, two huge fights that I had missed while being away. I also had an article that I needed to finish on local record producer Mike Lopez. 

The bus finally came, the bus driver looked at my receipt and begrudgingly accepted it. I buy my bus tickets at Ace Express, where the receipt is used as the ticket. Some bus drivers are cool with it; others are pricks about it.  

So from Dallas, the bus was supposed to go from there to McAllen, with stops to Austin, San Antonio, and Falfurrias. I finally get some reception on my phone and I call my father and brother. Both were explaining, in vigorous detail, what was happening with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons. When the game ended, I got a call from my dad telling me Peyton Manning had lost; me aguite. Ni modo.

In little while later, I noticed one of the passengers smoking weed in the very last row of the bus. It was two joints, I think that's what they were -- my knowledge of drugs is genuinely awful. This guy just didn't give a fuck. While it was obvious, no one said a thing. The gentleman, higher than a Super Astro tope, got off in San Antonio. 

We arrived at Falfurrias at 5:00 AM and we were supposed to be in McAllen by 5:45 AM. The bus driver hopped off the bus to go inside the gas station, then he came back in to say something I couldn't understand and then he stepped out again. Then an ambulance came! The bus driver hopped into the back of the ambulance y se largo. So we were there stranded in Falfurrias, perplexed by what had just occurred.  What the fuck just happened?

A passenger that was near the bus driver informed us that the driver felt "he couldn't continue" and sufferring from heart issues or high blood pressure. This passenger tells us that the bus driver was swerving all over on the expressway, while most of us were asleep, dreaming about getting back home to el Valle.  

So we waited in Falfurrias from 5 AM. Then 6 AM. Then 7 AM. 8 AM and finally at 8:45 AM, this other bus from San Antonio came to pick us up. By that point, we were all calling to Greyhound, necios, asking what was going on, so we were relieved to see the bus after being there for close to four hours.

On the bus, a random passenger asked if he could use my mp3 player. I let him use it. I'll admit, I kept my eye on him just to make sure he didn't sprint out of the bus with it. But he was cool, after using it for a bit, he handed it over and thanked me. I felt bad for thinking he might do something like that; guilt and exhausted by that point. 

I got to McAllen at 10:05 AM. I've never had a bus drive like this. I got home, I had some really intense and colorful dreams. I woke later that Tuesday night, finally watching the HBO PPV and Showtime presentation of the two aforementioned fights. I was drained, but happy to be home. 

Conjunto artist Mario Saenz Sr. one of five to be inducted in hall of fame tomorrow

This Saturday night, five individuals will be inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito. Bajo-sexto legend and Palmview resident Mario Saenz, Sr. is one of the featured inductees of the evening.

"For me, I think it's about time," laughs Mario Saenz Sr, 86-years-old, about his induction.

Mario's son is excited about the ceremony on Saturday night. He can't wait to be there to experience the moment.

"Super honored for him, because he's worked so hard," said Mario Saenz, Jr. "He's been playing since he was thirteen years old."

Born on December 31, 1926, it's not surprising that Saenz ended up becoming a bajo-sexto player. Raised in La Sal Colorada ranch, he grew up admiring his father, Manuel Saenz — a skilled bajo-sexto player. Mario Sr. made the decision at a young age to follow in his father's footsteps.

To those not familiar with what a bajo-sexto is, it's a unique 12-string rhythm-based instrument. Along with the accordion, this powerful instrument has become one of the key symbols that represent conjunto and norteño music.

After two-years of serving the country in the U.S. Army during World War II, Mario Sr. returned home to his family in Mission on 1946. In the 1950's was when his music career really took off. It was in 1952 when he became a professional musician, and that led to the formation of Los Gavilanes de Mario Saenz. During this span, he performed with accordionists Ernesto Flores and Chano Peralez.

But he still found time for other projects outside of his conjunto.

When norteño pioneers Los Alegres De Terán crossed over to the U.S. and recorded for Discos Falcón, Saenz was called in to the studio to back-up the two iconic stars.

"I started accompanying them with the bass and I recorded many songs with them," remembers Mario Sr. "I also played with them (live) and toured with them."

Those weren't the only musicians that he collaborated with. He worked regularly as a studio musician, being hired to record music for Discos Falcón and Ideal Records. Other musicians he did business with throughout the decades — in the studio or at live shows — include Narciso Martinez, Pedro Ayala, Ernesto Guerra, Juanita Garcia, Beto Cano, Marcelo y Aurelia, Lupe Salinas, and many, many more.

Perhaps his biggest and most successful partnership was when he joined forces with accordionist Wally Gonzalez in 1967. Los Gavilanes de Mario y Wally went to Discos Falcón and recorded many hits;“La del Moño Colorado” (The One with the Red Bow), "La Triste Gata“ (The Sad Cat), "Frijolitos Pintos” (Pinto Beans), "El Riky Riky" and “La Minifalda de Reynalda" (The Mini-Skirt of Reynalda). The two acclaimed musicians gained popularity and fame well beyond the Valley. They were in demand outside of Texas as well, making tour stops in Monterrey, Arizona, California, Ohio and Illinois.

Deep down in his heart, Mario Sr. feels the most grateful towards his wife, Esperanza, who passed away in 2003. He notes that he was playing every week for about 60 years and his wife was always there for him. They were together for 66 years and had five children together.

"I have to give a lot of credit to my wife, because she really supported me all those years," Mario Sr. said

Now in 2013, practicing daily on his vintage bajo-sexto is a routine that has remained strong for him after all these years.

"This bajo-sexto that I have (here) was made in 1968 by Martin Macias from San Antonio," Mario Sr. said. "A very famous man, he used to make great bajo-sexto's (handmade). I still got it."

That's the bajo-sexto that he's going to be performing with at Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito on Saturday night. The other inductees for the evening include Johnny Canales, David Lee Garza, Ramon Medina and Juan Sifuentes. Mario Sr. is looking forward to getting up on the stage and performing with accordionist Oscar Garza and his two sons, Mario Jr. and Arturo Saenz.

"He's been a role model, as a father and as a professional musician," Mario Jr. said. "He was always there for us, he always cared about us."

Friday, June 7, 2013

Los Dos Gilbertos still filling the dance halls.‏

Gilberto Garcia and Reuben Garza

When listing the top conjunto venues in Hidalgo County, La Lomita Park would likely top the list.

Owned by Pepe Maldonado, the venue is consistently hosting the type of musicians that Valley conjunto fans are crazy about. This Sunday night, the headliner will be Los Dos Gilbertos.

To the "puro conjunto" crowd, Los Dos Gilbertos repertoire — "El Rosalito", "La Vieja Escalera", "Palabra de Hombre", and "Redoblando" — gets them bailando on the dance floor. To the fans that can't make it but still want to share in the experience, La Lomita Park offers a live stream of their weekly Sunday night events on UStream.

During the mid 1960's, Gilberto Garcia had his own successful conjunto. The Edinburg native had been playing the accordion since he was a young boy, winning local contents and prizes with his superlative accordion skills.

Around 1970, an opportunity arose for him to join together with his tocayo, or namesake, for a new conjunto that featured duet accordionists.

"He had a group named Gilberto Lopez y su conjunto," said Gilberto Garcia, 72-years-old, in Spanish. "Then we decided to join together, have two accordions in one conjunto, to see if the people liked it."

They did. The two accordionists became one of the most recognizable acts of the era despite their brief run together. Garcia explains that their three year adventure ended when Lopez fell ill. A tumor was discovered, Garcia said. Lopez made a promise that if he were to survive, he would just focus on performing for his church. Thankfully, Lopez survived and has since gone on to become a Deacon at the Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg. The two accordionists still keep in contact to this day.

After Lopez left the group, Gilberto Jr. stepped in to continue Los Dos Gilbertos and move the band forward. Eventually it was Reuben Garza who would become the other major face of the conjunto.

"Reuben Garza used to be with Ruben Vela, back in the day. We became friends cause everywhere we played, he would greet us. He told me, 'If you ever need a bajo-sexto player and vocalist, call me.' There came a time when I needed one, so I called him and invited him. I asked if he would like to perform with me. And he said yes. We've been together since then."

Despite not having the "Gilberto" name, he's pretty much become an honorary "Gilberto" at this point. To the fans that fill the dance halls, Garcia and Garza are now known as Los Dos Gilbertos.

"I started with Gilberto in 1977," said Reuben Garza, primer voz and bajo-sexto player, in Spanish. "I feel very good about it, we have the same sentiments and we get along good."

Now in 2013, Garcia's been having a heck of a year. A few months ago, the original two — Garcia and Lopez — were interviewed by Dr. Margaret Dorsey at the Border Studies Archive. Garcia feels proud to have his legacy and history on the record at the University of Texas-Pan American.

"It's really a great thing for me," said Garcia proudly. "I started thinking, through there, all the students get to see everything that's happened. They learn about the music, how us musicians got started, along with our stories."

His time there got him thinking about the youth of the Valley. He encourages young students to be serious about their studying.

"For the young people, I tell them to learn (and focus) at school," Garcia said "But at the same time, they could discover and follow music after studying for their school work."

Another one of the highlights this year includes Garcia and Garza headlining the Saturday night portion of San Antonio's Tejano Conjunto Festival in May. It shows that Los Dos Gilbertos name is still a popular one outside the Rio Grande Valley.

"We went on last, from 10:45 PM to 12:00 AM," Garcia said. "The fans were there, enjoying the music. I felt very good cause there was people from everywhere. California, Arizona, Chicago and all of Texas. It was very beautiful."

The memories of where he's been and what he's accomplished are always with Garcia. The various labels he's recorded with through the years like Discos Falcón, Freddie Records, and Hacienda Records. The fun times he's had appearing on The Johnny Canales Show, Fanfarria Falcón and Rogelio Botello Rios. Garcia feels like he's been blessed.

"There's been so many beautiful things that have happened in my life," Garcia said. "I'm very happy with God and all the people right now."

Los Dos Gilbertos are scheduled to perform at La Lomita Park in McAllen on Sunday night. Event starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m. For more information, please call Pepe Maldonado at 956-867-8783.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Don Chon

-"Quién te cortó el pelo?"

-"Don Chon."

-"¿Cuánto te cobró?"

-"Un tostón."

-"¿Como te dejó?"

-"Bien pelón."

-"¿Cómo te lo cortó?"

-"Con un caserolón."

-"¿Porque iso eso Don Chon?"

-"Porque es cabrón."

My dad says his family used to say this fictional rhyme when he was a kid. The title character's name came to be because their neighbor was known as Don Chon.

My dad remembers sneaking in to his neighbors yard, with his brother Chano, to see Don Chon sharpening his knives. When Don Chon saw my dad and tio, the old man jokingly threatened to castrate them. While my dad laughs about it now, he remembers being scared and freaked out after hearing Don Chon say that. 

Texas Folklife's Big Squeeze Champion 2013

Michael Ramos, Big Squeeze Champion 2013. Photo Credit: David Dodd

This past weekend, Dallas-native Michael Ramos was crowned as the new "Big Squeeze" champion. The 17-year-old pulled was given the nod by the judges at the 24th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens Festival in Houston. The other three finalists included Tony Garcia, Yesenia Garcia and Luiz Gonzalez.

All four of these kids have a bright future, and I wish all of them the best. Congratulations to Michael Ramos!

Ernesto Guerra (5/10/11)

I'm really glad that Cine El Rey uploaded this on their YouTube account. This is the night when I met Ernesto Guerra, the great McAllen accordionist that passed away last week. He is accompanied by Elizabeth Guerra, Noel Hernandez, Epi Martinez and Zeke Martinez.

I would again like to offer my condolences to his family and friends.

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.

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.”