Friday, December 26, 2014

Nopal Love

Nopal Love

I took a lot of photos this year, but this is my favorite of them all. I was at Rancho El Charco in La Joya, and noticed there was a lot of nopales around in the area. My eyesight isn’t very good yet I still spotted this heart-shaped nopal from a pretty long distance. I didn’t have any camera on me, and my phone is del año del caldo, so the quality of the photo would have been pretty bad. Luckily my friend Jose Luis had a small camera with him, and I asked him to borrow it. I quickly ran up to this area of the rancho, and snapped this photo. Really happy I was able to photograph it, because I may have never been able to find it again.

A Look Back at 2014

Diana De Hoyos . Photo by Elisa De Hoyos.
 As one of the founding members of the Texas Sweethearts, Diana De Hoyos had a great year, full of all types of musical highlights. As a fan, she saw it as a great year of live metal music.

"I saw several metal acts such as Carcass, Origin, Morbid Angel, Pig Destroyer, D.R.I and more," De Hoyos said. "What amazes me about these bands is they have been around for decades yet it does not affect their performance."

Her metal music highlight goes was seeing Dead Horse at Harlingen in May.

"It was an amazing show," De Hoyos said. "There wasn't a huge crowd but the people that were there were obvious Dead Horse fans who sang every lyric to all their songs."

Another great moment for her was performing at the 33rd annual Tejano Conjunto Festival at San Antonio in May, and seeing the Texas Tornados there live.

"It was an amazing experience because of how much Texas Tornados are a part of my life," De Hoyos said. "I grew up on them, listening to my parents sing and play their songs. Now that I'm in a band, our favorite songs to cover are Texas Tornado songs like 'Who Were You Thinking Of' and 'Mentiras'.  So I went from listening to their music as a child to playing their songs in our band to seeing them live."

De Hoyos says that that same day, her and her sister Elisa met Flaco Jimenez.

I asked her what plans she had for 2015.

"Next year I hope to try and make it out to more non-metal shows," De Hoyos said. "I like all kinds of music but I mostly attend metal shows which I would like to change."

She is also part of an instrumental rock band named Verena Serene. She says the band has a lot of new material that will most likely be released in 2015.

Lupe Saenz at the Conjunto of the Year award show.

I caught up with South Texas Conjunto Association president Lupe Saenz, and asked him what were some of his favorite conjunto-related moments of the year. One of them was Lazaro Perez y su conjunto winning at the 16th annual Conjunto of the Year award show at Mercedes in June.

"A young conjunto who is having a big impact on the genre," Saenz said of that group.

Other events that he praised include the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival at San Benito in October, and the "Mi Vida, Mi Musica" Pepe Maldonado recognition event that was held recently at La Lomita Park in November.

What does Saenz have planned for 2015?

"We, of course, are looking to the return of most of these events again this year and hopefully a conjunto radio station in the Valley," Saenz said. "We also are hoping to bring back another conjunto music television show like the 'Acordeones de Tejas' TV show we had on KMBH-TV."

Cristina Balli at the NMCAC Conjunto Festival.
Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli had another year that was full of major events throughout the Lone Star State. The annual "Big Squeeze" statewide accordion contest was now divided into three different categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).

"It was our biggest yet, each year it keeps growing," Balli said. "In 2014, we had 55 kids, and of those 55, 25 were from the Valley. This contest is dominated by conjunto, so we really wanted to make sure that we had more participation and that we highlighted other genres."

The "Big Squeeze" Finals at Austin in April delivered in a different way, from past years.

"It was nice because we had diversity," Balli said. "The 'Big Squeeze' had been great, but it was all conjunto. It was really nice seeing young people playing the polka music, and then to hear the zydeco music. It is true that diversity makes our lives richer, and it was a much richer experience hearing all these genres of music instead of just one. As much as I love conjunto because that's my thing, I think people enjoyed themselves more."

Other major events that Balli and Texas Folklife were involved in were the 25th annual Accordion Kings & Queens Festival at Houston in June, Texas Folklife's 30th Anniversary Celebration at Austin in September, and the inaugural "Festival of Texas Fiddling" at Blanco in December. Also in December, Texas Folklife released a CD titled Traditional Music of Texas, Volume 1: Fiddle Recordings from the Texas Folklife Archives.

"We ended the year with a bang," Balli said of that fiddle festival. "It was a lot of fun. The concept again was to present all the different genres of music in Texas that include the fiddle."

Outside of Texas Folklife, Balli returned to the Rio Grande Valley to MC Day 3 of the NMCAC Conjunto Festival.

Just like we saw changes in 2014, we'll be seeing something new at the 2015 "Big Squeeze" Showcases here in the Valley.

"We are doing live judging," Balli said. "So we'll get the top three, right then and there. It's going to give it a little more excitement."

The 2015 "Big Squeeze" Showcases in the Valley will take place at La Joya High School on February 7, and Los Fresnos High School on date that has yet to be finalized.

Gilberto Perez

Gilberto Perez inside his 'mini-museum' at his home in Mercedes.

Conjunto musician Gilberto Perez lives on a large property on FM 491, in north Mercedes.  It's near Campacuas, where Perez says his mother was originally from. Near the back of that lot, one will find a small house that was modeled after Perez's childhood home. His son used to stay there, but when he moved out Perez transformed it into a mini-museum that celebrated his career in music.

I passed a bench that reads "Made By Ruben Vela" to arrive at the door. Before I entered, I asked him how he was doing.

"Hay andamos (Here we are)," replied Gilberto Perez with a smile. "Taking it one day at a time."

He had just finished checking one of his cars before I arrived. He was eager to show me what was behind that door. His career retrospective began once he opened it.

Gilberto Perez was born in Mercedes, TX, Mile 8 to be exact, on August 3, 1935. Perez's mother gave birth with the help of a partera (midwife). He was the 12th child in the family.

"El mas chico de toda la familia (The youngest of the whole family)," Perez said.

Perez would go on to spend most of his life in the town he was born in. His trips out of the Rio Grande Valley were reserved for work in the fields, or in front of an audience.

He did sharecropping in Mississippi, and worked alongside his father, who supported the family through farming. Some of the tools that Perez's father used in those days are displayed in a small backroom. He explains that while he did his fair share of work as a child, his brothers did much more, and had it far tougher growing up.

The first thing one will probably lay their eyes on when they enter his house of memorabilia is a Hohner, 2-row, button diatonic accordion that the family first acquired in 1939. It used to belong to Perez's older brother Mike.

"He would always, en la tardes cuando llegeba del trabajo (in the afternoon when he would arrive home from work), play and friends came over with a guitar. They used to play the old music. The backbone music from Narciso Martinez and Pedro Ayala. Those guys, the pioneers."

When it comes to music, Perez was influenced by his brothers, those two pioneers, Valerio Longoria, Tony De La Rosa, and Ruben Vela. Eventually Perez started playing music, just like his hermanos.

"My dad, at the time, would lay down on the floor, when I started picking the guitar," Perez said. "He would listen to me play, and he would tell todos mis hermanos (all my brothers), 'Chiquito, el le va sacar un pie adelante a todos.' That I was going to become (a better musician) than them. I never believed it (laughs). I said, 'Nah no way.'"

At 15 years old, Perez was finally able to play the squeezebox on a consistent basis. A neighbor of his named Jose Garza would often lend his accordion to him.

"He wanted to learn, and I was a little faster learner than him," Perez said. "So if we heard something on the radio, and I found out how it went, he'd go, 'Now you show me.' That's the way I would get to play an accordion (then)."

In the early 1950's, Perez performed locally with his brother Alejandro, and Raul Castaneda. Collectively they were known as Los Cardenales. A photo that captures that brief moment in time is framed near the door at his archive.

In 1956, Perez got married with Amelia Barroso, and the two would go on to have four children. The two daughters are named Delia Perez Aguilar and Gloria Perez Dunn, while the two sons go by Gilberto Perez Jr. and Javier Perez.

Perez received his first big break when he was invited to join Ruben Vela y su conjunto in 1958.

"When I joined Ruben Vela, I was trying to play a little bit of rock here in Mercedes," Perez said. "It was called the Red Rockers. I met Ruben Vela when he started. He called me because my brother Alejandro played for him, the bajo-sexto. Ruben asked if I wanted to join to play the bass and sing. Ruben didn't sing, he didn't know how to sing at the time. So me and Ramon Medina, the bajo-sexto player, were the ones that teached him how to sing from the little bit that we knew at the time (laughs). He got to be a pretty good singer, and he was one of the best accordion players. His music still lingers and it will linger on forever, I think."

Vela, Perez and Medina recorded a few tunes together, like "Vida de Vago" and "La Noche Que Llore" for Falcón Records. The brief musical collaboration they shared is kept alive by a street in Mercedes named "Ruben Vela & Gilberto Perez Ave".

"The committee asked me if it was okay to put his name there (with mine as the street name)," Perez said. "I said, 'Yes, he's my friend, one of my best, and he's still my idol.'"

Perez and Medina split from Vela and launched their own conjunto in 1959.  At Falcón Records, Perez and Medina recorded "El Dia De Tu Boda" on November 1959. Composed by Medina, the original plan for who was to play which instruments was scrapped at the studio.

Originally, Medina was scheduled to be on the accordion, while Perez took care of the bajo-sexto. As they were there practicing, Medina struggled with a few notes, so he asked Perez to show him the opening run again. Perez grabbed the box, went through the notes, when Falcón founder Arnaldo Ramirez walked in. After observing the two, Ramirez decided that Perez would be on the accordion, and Medina would handle the bajo-sexto.

"We practiced the other way around," Perez said. "(Ramirez said,) 'I don't care, you're going to play it like that.' So, the boss era el que mandaba (was the one who called the shots) (laughs). We couldn't even talk back to him, so we were like, 'Okay sir, we'll do it like that.'"

That song was a huge hit for Perez and Medina. I first heard about this tune from my father, Felix Martinez, who told me it was popular among the migrant workers he worked with at the time of its release.

"Ibamos a piscar algodon, y el troquero tenia un radio (We went to go pick cotton, and the trucker would have a radio)," Felix Martinez said. "Las muchachas jovenes, todo el dia estaban cantando la cancion (The young women would be singing 'El Dia De Tu Boda' all day long)."

Perez and his conjunto were invited back to record more songs for Falcón Records. During that era, Perez recorded "Por Qué Dios Mio", "Con Cartitas", "Aguanta Corazon", "Mi Ultima Parranda" and "Para Llorar Por Ti".

"A lot of those songs sold pretty good at the time," Perez said. He later pointed to a plaque that was given to him by Falcón Records, as a token for his success. It looked like a beautiful artifact from several centuries ago.

He is quick to tell me that his exitos (hits) wouldn't have been possible without the composers that helped him along the way — his brother Alejandro, Medina, Matias Peña, Juan Jose Lucas, Horacio Chapa, Efrain Solis and so many others, including some from Mexico. Photos of some of these men are framed throughout his place.

Deciding on who would play what wasn't the only thing that Ramirez had a role in. The name that the conjunto would be known for then, and still in 2014, was ultimately decided by him.

Perez, Medina, Alejandro, and Cruz Gonzalez would constantly be referring to one another as compadre when they were together. Ramirez took note of that and surprised Perez one day.

"So then the record came out, 'Gilberto Perez y sus compadres'. I said, 'Okay'," laughs Perez.

Perez performed around South Texas in the early 1960's, then went beyond the area in 1962. That year he toured Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio for the very first time. He would take tours that would last anywhere from 4 to 7 weeks.

Even though he was performing outside of Texas, the people who attended his shows were still usually Tejanos.

"At the time, había campos de gente (there were camps of people), migrant people," Perez said. "Mostly Tejanos from aqui de Tejas (here in Texas). They used to migrate up north everywhere. They had camps for all the people to live there. (To promote) they would make flyers and spread them in los campos, or by telephone, whichever way. We made it, thank God."

The only state he never got to perform in within the Continental United States was New Mexico.

After Falcón, he jumped to Ideal Records, Chico Records, and then formed Nuevo Records with Alejandro in 1968. A studio was built at his home in the 1970's that he named Nuevo Recording Studio. It was in operation until Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

"I shut it down because there was a lot of studios around," Perez said. "I didn't have business, ya. As far as my own personal use, it wasn't worth having another light bill, phone bill, and stuff."

An old 8-track recorder that he used for his studio is lying around on a shelf.

Although his studio is gone, he still does digital recordings in a small room he dubbed "La Cuevita". Other labels that released his music include JB Records, Discos RyN, Reloj Records, Freddie Records, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Hacienda Records.

Now in 2014, there are two simultaneous conjuntos run by Perez and his son Gilberto Jr. The members of both ensembles include Perez (accordion), Gilberto Jr. (bajo-sexto), Cande Aguilar Sr. (bass), Juan Antonio Tapia (accordion), Rene Luna (drummer), and Aldo Solis (bass).

Cande Aguilar Jr. performed with Perez during the 1980's. His father is currently the longest lasting member in the conjunto, other than Perez himself. Perez showed me a wall full of photos of when his ahijado (Godson) shared the stage with him.

"My padrino (Godfather) threw me in the front, gave me the opportunity to invade his time and spotlight,” Cande Aguilar Jr. 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."

Gilberto Perez, Cande Aguilar Jr. and Narciso Martinez.

The most popular song that Perez has recorded in the past five years is "Mi Ultimo Deseo". It was a deeply personal subject for Perez, one that he wasn't sure about at first. It's about a man coming to the end of his life, and telling his loved ones his final wishes.

"I didn't like it at the time, because I'm not ready to die," Perez said, laughing. "Then I started thinking, 'Why not say what I want, before I pass away? So that my family and friends would know what I want?' So (Horacio Chapa) gave me tres versos (three verses), and then I wrote six versos, so I finished it up. That's how it happened."

As Perez was giving me a tour, he was wearing a cap of the South Texas Conjunto Association, the organization that has championed his career for the past 16 years. STCA president Lupe Saenz is a close confidant of Perez.

"Gilberto Perez is an icon in conjunto that has earned the title, 'The Legend from Mercedes'," Saenz said. "Even today,  Gilberto is in the studio still producing and recording new conjunto songs and polkas. I asked him about how long he will continue to play, perform and record new material, his reply, 'Hasta que Dios me permita!' ('Until God lets me!') He is one of a few of that conjunto generation that still continues to contribute to conjunto. His legacy is still being added to conjunto life. We hope his health allows to do this for still many more years."

Perez describes his current physical condition as being "not too great". In November 2003, he had open-heart surgery, which limited his appearances outside of South Texas. Although he receives offers to perform outside of Texas, he feels it's best for him and his health to just play aqui en el valle.

His most recent gig saw him perform at the legendary La Villita venue in San Benito on December 20. The event served as a birthday celebration for Gilberto Jr., Cande Sr., and Solis. Cande Jr. made a rare appearance to perform for the occasion.

Gilberto Perez y sus compadres on December 20, 2014. Photo by Jorge L. Guerra. 

At this point in time, he has over fifty releases to his name, countless miles on his odometer, and one of the most passionate fan-bases found in the conjunto music genre. At 79 years old, he has no plans on closing the door on his legendary career.

"I'm very proud of him," Gilberto Jr. said of his father. "He sings some songs muy tristes (very sad). Miras gente enfrente de el (You see people in front of him), just staring at him. You can see hundreds of eyes and you see a whole bunch of them just crying. Transmite su (He transmits his) voice to the people. That's an awesome feeling cuando miro eso (when I see that). Hasta ahorita, todavia lo hace (Even today he still does it and has that effect). It's still the same as cuando yo entre con el (when I joined him and his band)."

Perez outside his mini-museum.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Attention - RGV

There is a very important trial coming up here in the Rio Grande Valley in regards to police violence. From a May 18, 2014 article in “The Monitor” by Ildefonso Ortiz:

"A local attorney has sued the city of Pharr, its police department, the chief and an officer on behalf of a teenage girl, claiming they covered up her sexual assault by a police officer.

Richard Alamia is representing the victim — identified in the lawsuit only as Jane Doe — who is not yet 18 years old. Alamia filed the lawsuit earlier this week, claiming that Officer Erasmo Mata sexually assaulted the female teenager during work hours five times from July through October [of 2013]. Mata and other officers would take the victim to abandoned houses throughout the city, according to the lawsuit.

'Other Pharr police officers would stand watch while the sexual assault was being committed on Jane Doe,' Alamia said in the lawsuit.”


Below is a list of some quick details to know about the upcoming trial:

Lawyer representing the plaintiff: Richard Alamia.
Defendant: Erasmo Mata Jr.
Judge: Letty Lopez.
Location: 389th State District Court in Edinburg.
Pre-Trial Date: January 8th (Thursday) at 9 AM.
Trial Date: January 12th (Monday) at 9 AM.
Court Case Number: cr-2488-14-h

There are more details to this case, this is just a quick primer. For more information on this case:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Yerberia in Pharr

There was a unique looking yerberia next to the recycling center, on old 83 in Pharr that was recently torn down. After I saw it was gone, I instantly regretted that I never took a photograph of it. That led me wanting to go around town, and shoot photos of the buildings that surround us. This is a yerberia on the west side of Pharr that is still up and running. At some point in the future, some of these buildings may not be around any longer. I think it's important that we try to capture some of these images, not just for ourselves, but also for future generations, so they can see the surroundings we lived in.

Friday, December 5, 2014

La Reynera Bakery and Tortillas in Pharr, TX.

Hargill's Casey Cantu to be inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame‏

Hargill's Casey Cantu is excited about his upcoming induction into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice, TX on January 3. His enshrinement into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame would have never happened if it wasn't for a different kind of roots.

"Cuando 'taba chiquito, there was un viejito there in Hargill," ("When I was small, there was an old man there in Hargill,") Cantu, 67, begins.

The old man used to sell "árboles de naranjo" to Cantu for 50¢. Cantu would dig down to its roots, pull the trees out, and place them in a burlap sacks.

"I would go around Edinburg, McAllen, Mission, and sell them on the weekends for a $1.00, $1.25."

Cantu saved the profits, hoping to buy his first guitar. He was already deep into his obsession with music. As a young boy, he would regularly listen to Tejano and conjunto music thanks to his parents. But as he got older, country music and the blues caught his ear tambien.

"I always loved music," Cantu said. "We used to travel pa' norte a los trabajos (up north to work). We used to listen to a lot of country music over there. En la noche (At night) I would listen to the Grand Ole Opry from WSM (650AM) in Nashville."

When he entered his teenage years, he had just enough to buy his first instrument.

"Desas que había (Those that were around) back in the day," Cantu said, about the guitar he secured from the now defunct Silverstone company. "So that's how I started getting into the music."

Cantu began teaching himself, and soon entered several local talent shows. He performed original songs, some protesting injustices that were occurring around the world; others were closer to poetry, observing the environment around him.

When he walked on to the stage with his guitar, he had a harmonica hanging around his neck, "en el estilo de (in the style of) Bob Dylan", Cantu describes.

"I won first place, twice, at the 'Hargill Talent Show', if you want to call it that," Cantu said.

In 1973, Cantu, with Blas Castaneda, Pablo Cavazos and Reuben Rodriguez by his side, launched The Tumbleweed Band. Cantu was on the vocals, and took care of the bass guitar, arrangements, and composing. Castaneda was on guitar and vocals, Cavazos on the drums, and Rodriguez on lead guitar, and steel guitar. James DeBerry joined them shortly thereafter with his fiddle.

The Tumbleweed Band had their first gig at Shakey's Pizza in Harlingen that same year. The band introduced a distinct blend of Country and Tejano music. Word spread about their unique style, and the gang soon found themselves on KRGV's "El Valle Alegre Show" with Mike Cantu. Local conjunto musician, promoter, and producer Pepe Maldonado took notice and asked them to record for his Comanchero Records label. There they recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Spanish Pipe Dream".

Later on, Maldonado played the accordion for the group on occasion.

Cantu would then create his own label that he dubbed Crazy Hat Records in 1976. He released "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Pack Up Your Sorrows" under that umbrella. The ensemble then recorded several releases for Falcón Records, and made an appearance on the "Fanfarria Falcón" TV show.

"We got well known, all over the country and Mexico," Cantu said, crediting Falcón for the popularity that followed. "That's when we started traveling."

As the decade was closing, the Tejano-Country outfit was traveling throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

In 1980, The Tumbleweed Band signed with Hacienda Records, out of Corpus Christi. They recorded three albums there — The Tumbleweed Band (1980), Wanted (1981), and Hear To Stay (1982).

"And that got even bigger," Cantu said. "We started getting nominated in a lot of award programs, Tejano awards."

The biggest hit from these releases was "Haste Pa'ca y Dame Tu Amor", a cover that was originally composed in English by Don Williams.

"Pego porque (It was a hit because) we played it, pero Cali Carranza also recorded it," Cantu said. "He recorded it in a cumbia style. He was playing it, and we were playing it. So we were two different versions of the song. So it got double air-play. I think that's one of the reasons. And el estilo que tenia la cancion (the style the song had) because it had a country beat, pero tambien era Tejana (but it was also Tejano)."

The group would ultimately disband in 1998.

"We started getting old," Cantu laughed.

In a scrap book that Cantu showed me, he revealed the different people who supported his induction into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame. One of those individuals was Tejano icon Roberto Pulido.

"This is to verify that I've known Casey Cantu since he started The Tumbleweed Band back in the 70's," begins Pulido, in a letter he wrote to The Tejano Roots Hall of Fame committee. "They were one of the bands, along with Country Roland, that influenced me to also do some Tejano Country recordings. We played various gigs together and the crowds of people in the dance halls really got into their music."

Cantu received word a month ago that it was official, and he was set to recognized as a Hall of Famer on the first weekend of 2015.

"One of the reasons I got to be in the Hall of Fame is because they say I was an innovator," Cantu said. "That I started a new type of music (style). Because people would play country, and people would play Tejano, conjunto. But I fused them together. So we exposed a lot of country people to the conjunto style."

Cantu is eager about the weekend, but also admits that he is a little nervous about his speech. He plans to put the finishing touches on it during the final week of 2014. With this exciting event coming up, it's only natural for Cantu to reminisce about where he first developed his love of music.

"My dad was always singing," Cantu remembers. "Ibamos al trabajo en la mañana (We would go to work in the morning), and he would always be singing en la labor (in the fields), you know, pa' que se pase el tiempo (so the time would pass by quickly). So I would join in, to harmonize with him. So if I had to name somebody (that inspired me), it would have to be my father."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Smitty's Juke Box Museum

Smitty's Juke Box Museum in Pharr (116 W. State St.) has been closed for a while, and now it's up for lease. All the classic juke boxes are still inside.

RIP Don Shelton

Photo and Text from Puro Tejano TV’s Facebook page

"Former Selena y Los Dinos band member Don Shelton passed away Tuesday [December 2, 2014] from Cancer at the age of 47. Don was a backup singer & dancer for Los Dinos back in the 80’s. At one point he left the band but returned with Selena y Los Dinos a few years later and continued with them until Selena’s death in 1995. We at Puro Tejano TV extend our deepest condolences to his family. 

RIP Don Shelton.”

Selena and Don together:

QEPD Jesus "Chuy" De Leon

Just heard some sad news that Jesus “Chuy” De Leon passed away today. He was 90 years old.

De Leon caught his big break when he got the attention of Martin Rosales in 1955.

"At that time, Martin Rosales started working at KGBT as the program director, and he heard about my dad," Juan De Leon, his son, said. "The (KRGV) show (that De Leon was hosting) was getting a bit popular so he offered my dad a show at KGBT and my dad took it at 4 o’clock in the morning. That’s where Martin coined the name ‘El Gallito Madrugador’ (The Early Morning Roster)."

De Leon had a long career in radio broadcasting, spanning from the 1940’s to the late 1980’s. He not only worked at KRGV (Weslaco) and KGBT (Harlingen), but also found work at KXEX (Fresno, California), KIRT (Mission), KSOX (Raymondville) and KIWW (McAllen).

I met De Leon once at the San Juan Nursing Home, thanks to Lupe Saenz. Saenz also provided me with this video he shot and edited. QEPD, he will be missed.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Texas Theater

Today I took this photo of the old Texas Theater (115 E. Park Ave) in Pharr. Here is a neat history piece on this venue.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Q&A - Maureen Gosling

Les Blank and Maureen Gosling filming Burden of Dreams. Photos courtesy of Maureen Gosling.

On November 25, the Criterion Collection will be releasing Les Blank: Always for Pleasure. This highly anticipated three-disc, Blu-ray collection includes several classic documentaries on regional music. I caught up with film director and editor Maureen Gosling — one of Blank's key collaborators — to discuss her longtime association with the late, great auteur. This is an interview that was conducted last month when Gosling returned home after a theatrical tour of her latest film This Ain't No Mouse Music! (2013).

EM: How did you two first meet?

MG: I was going to school in Ann Arbor and I found out that there was a festival of anthropological films. I got very excited because I was a film fanatic, especially watching foreign films. So I ended up going to this festival at Temple University in Philadelphia. I think two or three of Les' films were showing there. I just thought they were beautiful and very poetic. I believe that included The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), A Well Spent Life (1971) and Spend It All (1971). So I got my nerve up and talked to Les at a party, just asked him if he ever got reviews of his films, when he screened them in film festivals. I knew he was going to be showing films at a film festival in Ann Arbor. He said, "Yes sometimes the films get reviewed." I told him I'd send him the reviews.

So I did and he started to write to me. I was just ecstatic. Here I was, this little student graduating from her university and here was this seasoned filmmaker writing to me. I was sort of starstruck. At one point I asked him if he ever needed an assistant, I didn't really know what that meant but I figured he would tell me what to do (laughs). In about November he was saying that he had this film coming up and he was deciding whether or not to even do it. I kind of convinced him to go ahead and do it. He asked me to be his assistant because his film partner (Skip Gerson), who he had made two or three films with, was living with Les' ex-wife, so he was all upset. Suddenly he didn't have a sound recordist anymore and he didn't have his best friend anymore. So he took me on, even though I didn't know anything. It was very much a trial by fire, and the first film we did was in Southwest Louisiana. The result was Dry Wood (1973) and Hot Pepper (1973).

EM: Why was it split into two and what were your contributions to those early works?

MG: We ended up making it into two films because one of the sections seemed to focus more on (Zydeco accordionist) Clifton (Chenier). The other part focused on the Fontenot family, that was connected with (Creole accordionist) Bois-Sec Ardoin. They sort of lived near each other and it was hard to figure out how to integrate those two stories. In the Fontenot family, the mother Eva, was this very strong personality and she really stood out to me. We didn't do that many interviews with people but I know that I told Les that we should interview Eva. Her interview is featured in the film. We see her cooking, talking about her family, and so forth. You can hear my voice in the background asking questions. I was really interested in what women thought, women's point of view. That was one of the things I did, I really was just learning on the job at that point.

I always felt like I was doing things wrong because Les didn't tell me when I was doing it right. He would just complain when I was doing it wrong. I felt like I was getting worse because he was criticizing me so much. At one point I told him, "You have to tell me when I'm doing right because I keep feeling like I'm doing everything wrong." He didn't like the idea of having to give me positive feedback but I said, "You better do it or I'm going to keep screwing up." I was getting a real complex and he finally started to do it, very begrudgingly. It really helped (laughs).

EM: I haven't seen the unreleased A Poem Is a Naked Person (1974), but my friend Tom has, and he asks: "What was it like working on something where Blank was contemptuous of the artist versus his other work?"

MG: Things started out fairly well with Leon Russell. The conversations that are in the film, between Leon and Les, were really early on in the process. You could hear that they are having an interesting conversation. But at a certain point, and I'm not really sure what the problem was, Les just kept trying to get Leon to sign a contract. And Leon didn't want to do it, he would disappear. There were some times, as the process went on, that there just became more of a tension between Les and Leon. There was one point when Les sort of drank too much and got to be a little obnoxious. We were on tour with them and they told us we should go home (laughs). They threw us out, basically. So we had to go back home. Somehow we managed to finish the film, but when it was all done, Leon didn't want it to be released. We never found out what the problem was.

Harrod Blank, Les' son who took on Les' business after Les passed away, has had a mission to try to tie up all the loose ends in all the films. Especially the ones we had problems with like the Leon Russell film and the Ry Cooder film (Ry Cooder Group ’88 in Santa Cruz). So Harrod is now having conversations with Leon and has been meeting with him. He's actually making some progress. I saw Leon with Harrod one time when he was here in Oakland and it was kind of wonderful to see him after all these years. I avoided seeing him for 25, 30 years. We caught his concert in Oakland and went to his tour bus. We stayed there for like 45 minutes. He was very funny and kind of wry. So that was like breaking the ice. Harrod is still trying to make things work out with Leon, which would be a wonderful ending to this story because Les wasn't able to do it.

EM: You're credited as the assistant editor to Chulas Fronteras (1976), which was partially shot here in the Rio Grande Valley. What was your experience like working on that production?

MG: I didn't go on the shoot but Les and Chris Strachwitz shot the film. Because I had been Les' assistant (in those early films), he called on me to be his assistant on Chulas Fronteras. I moved from Austin to Berkeley to do that. It was really a fascinating experience for me because we had just made these films about Creole folks, and Clifton Chenier, who was kind of overtly soulful. All these people getting down in the dance hall. Suddenly we were working on a film about these very quiet, dignified musicians like Los Alegres de Terán, who just stand there and sing. They don't jump around, they don't have big expressive motions. So it took me a while to get into the music. I wasn't that familiar with Mexican music, I'd live in the north and hadn't really heard it. I wasn't that crazy about it but the more I learned about the songs, the passion of the music, where the passion lies in the songs, I just started getting really fascinated. I grew to love the music very much.

With Strachwitz being such an aficionado, and so knowledgeable about the music and traditions, I felt like I learned so much. I was just an assistant, Les edited the film, and I thought it was so beautiful the way he put it together. The music combined with the scenes of the family, people doing work, and all this kind of stuff, I just thought it was such a beautiful piece. I also helped with the translations of the songs, which was really fun. That made me appreciate the music even more. That started my interest in Latino, Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin-American culture.

Maureen Gosling editing Del Mero Corazón 

EM: Like an earlier production, this became two separate films with Chulas Fronteras (1976) and Del Mero Corazón (1979), right?

MG: Chris Strachwitz couldn't handle leaving any of the good songs just sitting on the editing room floor. He just wanted to do something with the outtakes. I said, "Well I can put something together." And I looked at all the stuff that was left over and realized that they were mostly love songs. I thought, "Let's make something about the love songs." So Guillermo Hernandez, who helped us with Chulas Fronteras, helped me figure out how to put a film together about the love songs. We realized that it would be really nice to have a reference to some of the poetry in Mexican tradition. We got a woman (María Antonia Contreras) with a beautiful voice to read poems in-between the music. It kind of complimented the songs, and that became Del Mero Corazón, which is a half-an-hour film. I realized years later that I kind of directed that film because I had the idea. For me it was an opportunity, it was the first time I really got to edit something. Those films were really key to a foundation for what I ended up doing later, which was working on many Spanish-language films, making a film in Mexico, and so forth.

EM: Were there any films that you and Les would have loved to have done but the financing just wasn't there?

MG: Way back, Les was interested in doing a film on James Booker, who is an incredible New Orleans piano player. Someone did that recently (but Les wanted to do it) in the early 1980's. Another film that we talked about, that I would have loved, was a film about the African influence on music on the coasts of the Americas. I just thought that would have been incredible. In every country, especially near the coasts, there is a lot of African influence in the music.

EM: One of the more memorable sequences of In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984) is the "Who Stole The Kishka" montage. Is that you making a cameo?

MG: Yeah (laughs). Yes and (Les' ex-wife and collaborator) Chris Simon is also in there, briefly.

It was a funny little thing that we did. That was unusual, not typical of what we would do.

EM: What's the story behind Blank, yourself, Simon and Susan Kell all getting equal "A Film By" credit at the beginning of Gap-Toothed Women (1986)?

MG: That is because every person did something of equal weight. Not only in giving feedback during the process but for example, Susan Kell interviewed all the women. She was basically the casting director and she figured out who should be in the film. Simon was involved in producing, she was also involved in the interviews, choosing who was to be in the film. It was a film about women, it would be unfair not to give proper credit to the women involved in the production. We all shared the weight of that film, and that's why everyone has a credit like that.

EM: Do you feel, having you, Simon and Kell involved helped the women being interviewed feel more comfortable about opening up about their ideas about this unique topic, as opposed to just having Les or other men do the interviews?

MG: Sure. You bet. Chris was married to Les at the time, she just wasn't sure what his motivation was to make this film about women. She just wanted to make sure that it was properly done. Sensitively done. And I felt that way too.

EM: For years, one could only buy Les' work through his website, or through Les himself, was there any particular reason why this was case?

MG: He started out by having other people distribute his films in the 60's, and he would get a check for $45.00 at the end of the year. He just said, "That's not acceptable, I know that there are people that are interested in this film, and would buy it. Clearly this company doesn't know how to distribute my films." He decided he better start doing it himself. I would say he's one of the first DIY filmmaking distributors, and it really worked because he could do niche marketing. He found the market for his films, and developed this incredible mailing list of universities, organizations, microcinemas, independent cinemas, festivals. He realized that he just needed to reach those communities. Nobody else was going to do it as well as he could because he had a lot of interest in promoting his own films. He didn't have to worry about other people's films. It really paid off, and he was actually quite successful doing self-distribution.

EM: Now that he's passed away, was it his son that made the deal with the Criterion Collection?

MG: I believe that Les did that before he passed away, and Harrod is following through with that. There are a few films that Criterion doesn't have. They don't have the films that Les did with Strachwitz, for example. Harrod still has the rights for 16 mm and broadcast, I think.

EM: Ah okay, yeah I also noticed Criterion wasn't releasing Marc and Ann (1991) in this collection.

MG: Oh, I'm not sure why that would be. That's interesting, I didn't even know that.

EM: Speaking of (Cajun accordionist) Marc (Savoy), one of the things I like about Les' work is that you see Marc grow up from the early 70's to the early 90's. You see the young accordionist develop into a spokesperson and authoritative voice for Cajun music and culture.

MG: It's true.

EM: And he comes out in your latest film This Ain't No Mouse Music (2013) as well, right? So between Les and you, it goes beyond the 90's.

MG: Yeah, he's also in our film. It's like that film Boyhood (2014), seeing this kid grow up. We've got Marc's boyhood (laughs).

I met Marc in 1972 when I first started working with Les, and I was just at his house like two weeks ago (laughs). Strachwitz is really close to the Savoys, and we're pretty close to them too. That's one of the by-products of making these kind of films, some of the amazing friendships you make. It's really cool.

ChaCha Jiménez

Abelardo "ChaCha" Jiménez Sr in Pharr. 
Abelardo "ChaCha" Jiménez Sr. spent most of his life bringing people up and down, on and off their feet, with the depth of his passionate voice. With a change of tone, and quality musicians by his side, he challenged what was being offered in Tejano and conjunto music for decades. His sensitive voz carried him to reach the highs he dreamed of as a young, lower-income kid in South Texas.

"The feeling he put into it," Juan Sifuentes Jr., Jiménez's cousin, said that's what made ChaCha's singing stand out. "He told me, 'If you want to sing a song beautifully, and if you're feeling pain, you want the people to feel your pain. If you're feeling happy about something, you want people to feel your happiness.'"

Abelardo "ChaCha" Jiménez Sr. was born to Abel and Elida Jiménez on May 23, 1947 in Kingsville, TX. To his fans he's best known as "ChaCha" — sometimes spelled "Chacha" or "Cha Cha" — a nickname that he drew during the 1950's.

"He came from a poor family, that's how he got his nickname," Sifuentes Jr. said. "He was really little and his mom would go buy him shoes so he could go to school. All she could afford was some chanclas for girls. So he had to go out wearing girl sandals. His older cousin would go over and make fun of him. He'd say, 'Mira la chachita!' And the name just stuck with him."

In a video interview with B.E. Kimball, Jiménez states that his musical journey began at the age of 8. Without Jiménez alive today, it's hard to determine exactly when he first got up on stage, and performed for an audience. Nevertheless, his cousin remembers hearing one specific story when he was growing up.

"Conjunto Bernal was playing at a grand opening of a store in Bishop," Sifuentes Jr. said. "ChaCha showed up with five or six of his friends in bicycles. He lived in Kingsville at that time, and Bishop is like five miles away. ChaCha asked Eloy (Bernal) if he could sing a song. Eloy went ahead and let him sing a song."

Sifuentes Jr. estimates that Jiménez was around 12-years-old at the time.

One day in his adolescence, Jiménez found an old guitar inside a nearby trashcan. Unfortunately it had no strings and there was no money around to buy any for his newly found treasure. He went to one of his screen doors, and found a way to remove strands from the tela. He attached those pieces to his guitar, and went to work.

"He basically taught himself," Sifuentes Jr. said. "Of course he had some pointers along the way. He became quite an accomplished guitar player."

Jiménez would eventually dabble in the keyboard, and the melodica as well.

As a teenager, Jiménez played for a few bands before joining Conjunto Bernal in the early 1960's. The transition was smooth, as the popular conjunto was already familiar with Jiménez from when he would pop up at their shows as a fan. Two canciones of that time period that are available through YouTube are "Siempre Junto a Tí" and "No Te Voy A Rogar".

"He had a pretty good high tenor voice," Sifuentes Jr., whose dad was also with Conjunto Bernal, said of those days. "He had almost become a seasoned veteran by then, even though he was the youngest in the band. He knew the singing part of it, he knew it well. And he didn't have any formal schooling."

As far as school went, Jiménez had dropped out to pursue music professionally. He enjoyed a brief stint with Los Fabulosos Cuatro, and was then drafted into Vietnam around 1965.

Local theater director and actor Pedro Garcia, became friends with Jiménez later in life. The two briefly talked about their time in the service.

"He had 13 service medals and ribbons," Pedro Garcia said. "He was a sergeant in the Army and to get to that rank of sergeant, man, that takes a whole lot of work and discipline. You could tell that's the kind of guy he was."

During their brief time collaborating together, Garcia was once able to get Jiménez to open up about the horrors he experienced in Vietnam. It was a difficult subject for Jiménez to discuss.

"Being that he was in Vietnam, and all the ugliness that he saw there, you could hear some deep rooted soul," Garcia said of the emotion that Jiménez conveyed with his voice.

After returning from Vietnam, Jiménez re-joined Conjunto Bernal, and met Herbie Lopez, who was now with the troop playing keyboard.

"We did a lot of recordings con el cantando (with him singing)," Herbie Lopez said. "There was several tunes that we recorded with ChaCha, that were really big hits back then — 'Ya Somos Dos', 'Aurora', 'Corazonada'."

Around 1974, Jiménez decided to branch out on his own. He formed Los Chachos, with himself as the vocalist, Bobby Naranjo as the accordionist, Juan Solis on guitar, Joe Solis on bass, and Ernie Ruiz as the drummer. Those five musicians decided to take a chance and present a new brand of Tejano music.

"They had their own ideas about the kind of music they wanted to play," Sifuentes Jr. said. "It wasn't that they were dissatisfied with Conjunto Bernal. It was more like they felt they were getting in the way of the sound of Conjunto Bernal. They had their own style that they wanted to play."

In 1976, the group released their first album, self-titled Los Chachos. Karlitos Way Accordions owner, accordion dealer and collector Karlos Landin Jr. recalls that gem of a release.

"I clearly remember being 6-years-old," Karlos Landin Jr. said. "I remember my dad coming home from the store. He had this album, and it was Los Chachos' first album. It was on Manny Guerra's label, and I think that may have been the only one that was actually on that label. I remember being a kid, and being tripped out looking at that cover. There's this artsy drawing of a turntable, and it had this guy's face with longhair. I remember (my dad) putting the album on, and just being really drawn into the vocal harmonies, the arrangements. Even at that age, my ears perked up."

To get a taste of the progressive sound they cooked up, check out "Visito Estos Barrios" from that debut release on YouTube. It's such a wild and unorthodox piece. There was one ingredient in particular that surprised Landin Jr. many moons later.

"At that the time, I remember thinking it was an organ," Landin Jr. said. "(The style) had a different edge because of the organ, but then I came to find out years later that that wasn't an organ. It was Bobby's Cordovox chromatic accordion that had like 25 switches on it. It had so many different sounds. It sounded like an organ; it sounded like a chromatic. It sounded like all these different things. The first one that told me about that accordion was (accordionist) Joel Guzman."

Sifuentes Jr. caught a glimpse of that rare squeezebox during the 1970's.

"He would plug a big ole' chord on there," Sifuentes Jr. said. "It was electronic and it was heavy as heck. He had to buy a stand for it, because he was hurting his back when he would play it."

From GCP (Guerra Company Productions), Los Chachos pressed on to record with Freddie Records and Hacienda Records in the late 1970's and early 1980's. They soon took their funky, eccentric Tejano sounds outside of South Texas.

"Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Florida, California," Lopez says were some regular stops for Los Chachos at their peak.

By the mid-1980's, the original members of Los Chachos had drifted away, embarking on new challenges. Jiménez found himself with chromatic accordionist Oscar Hernandez and The Tuff Band. With that ensemble, which also included vocalist Jessy Serrata, he recorded several albums, and made a few TV appearances, including a potpourri performance on "The Johnny Canales Show".

Early in 2011, Jiménez was attending the Pharr Literacy Project and Cultural Arts Center. One day he overheard two men talking about Vietnam. He went up to them, revealing that he had been in Vietnam.

"Oh yeah? Well there's a part in my play that I have, maybe you'd be interested in playing it?" Garcia answered back. While he had been a huge fan of Jiménez's music in the 1970's and 1980's, he didn't recognize him at first.

"I'm ChaCha Jiménez," said the then 63-year-old man.

"I was totally in awe," Garcia said. "I wanted to hug him."

Jiménez agreed to act in Pat and Lyndon after looking over the script and discussing the project with Garcia. According to Garcia, he was a natural and easy to work with.

"He did really well in the role of Marcel," Garcia said. "He sang 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee', in his style with a guitar, in the play. Then he sang 'America the Beautiful'. He had a great voice."

A few months later, following a battle with liver cancer, Jiménez passed away at the McAllen Medical Center on June 15, 2011. He was 64.

"I remember him talking to me about how he felt ill," Garcia said. "How he would grab a hold of his bible, and pray all the time. He seemed sad at times, because of the illness."

Jiménez during Pat and Lyndon.
Jesse Gomez, who was performing with ChaCha during the last two years of his life, has kept Jiménez and the Chachos name in the local public eye. Lopez joined the group recently.

"All we play with Los Nuevo Chachos is music from Los Chachos and Conjunto Bernal," Lopez said. "We try to stay true to the fact that we're trying to keep the memory alive de Los Chachos and el Conjunto Bernal. Because nobody really plays that type of music, the whole night, anymore."

Along with that tribute band, Jiménez is being kept alive through three major Tejano and conjunto music Hall of Fame institutions. In 2003, he was inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice, along with Chachos' bandmates Naranjo and Ruiz. In 2006, he joined the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito. Finally in 2012, he was recognized posthumously by the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Antonio.

The voice on those old songs still resonate with his peers, fans, friends and family. The heart-strings are still being pulled every time one listens to his old vinyls, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CD's, or online uploads. The emotions and memories that Jiménez expressed through his craft continue to lift those that were fortunate enough to know him, and his art. His voz carried him when he was alive, and it still carries him today years after he passed away.

"If you ever listen to a really good ChaCha Jiménez song, like for example, 'Ando Todo Enamorado'," Garcia begins. "There can be this lapse of time where the rhythm and the lyrics just float, and you're savoring it, man. You're just floating with it, and then 'tas', it hits. Not only in vocalizing does that work so well, it works when you're on the dance floor. You're on the dance floor, then all of a sudden that hits, you take a dip, then you float up into heaven, and then you land back, and you keep going."

Javier Villanueva, Jiménez, Karlos Landin Jr., Herbie Lopez, Juan Sifuentes Jr. and Albert Martinez.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Refugio Ortiz

Refugio Ortiz at St. Anne's Church in Pharr

At St. Anne's Church Annual Fall Jamaica in Pharr, on November 2, Refugio Ortiz walked up to the stage after performances from Ramiro Cavazos y Los Donneños and Roberto Pulido.  He took to the microphone and told el público (the audience) that he was going to sing a piece of his titled "Cumbia Barack Obama" in a cappella.

Ortiz begins.

"Voy a cantar con respeto, y con mucha admiración,
Al señor Barack Obama, yo le canto su canción,
De corazon yo le pido, que arregle ya la nación,
Que arregle ya la reforma, reforma de migración."

(Basic Literal Translation:
"I'm going to sing with respect, and a lot of admiration,
To Barack Obama, I'm going to sing him his song,
From my heart I ask him, to fix this nation,
To fix the reform, the immigration reform,")

Born in Tamaulipas in April 28, 1983, Ortiz lived in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon before making the Rio Grande Valley his home six years ago. He started singing at the age of 8, around his house, at school, and at local events. He points to Los Tigres del Norte as a major influence, both in singing style and in the themes they illustrate through their music.

"Yo tengo la misma ideas que ellos," ("I have the same ideas that they do,") Ortiz said. "Lo que miro es lo que me interesaba más. Tratando de expresar (eso) con las canciones." ("What I see [around my community] is what interests me the most. Then trying to express that with songs.")

Topics in his large repertoire of corrido and cumbia compositions include the struggles that undocumented immigrants face, the ongoing violence in Mexico, school shootings in the United States of America, a sad Christmas tune and even a tribute to Jenni Rivera, who died in 2012.

I asked him if he had any plans to compose a corrido on the missing Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers' College of Ayotzinapa students.

"No he tenido tiempo de hacerlo," ("I haven't had time to do it,") Ortiz said. "Pero mejor si lo hago." ("But maybe I will do it.")

While he's been busy working on his material for years, Ortiz is not currently in a band, and has not been able to commercially document his canciones in audio recordings or videos.

"Siempre a querido pero pos no puedo económicamente," ("I've always wanted to [record] but I can't financially,") Ortiz said. "No conozco mucha gente (aqui). Pero si se presenta la oportunidad, si lo quiero hacer." ("I don't know too many people here. But if the opportunity presents itself, yes I would like to do it.")

If anyone is interested in contacting Ortiz, he tells me that the best way to get a hold of him is to look him up on Facebook.

Ortiz credits Joe Melendez for inviting him to the Jamaica in 2013 and 2014. He notes that he wrote this cumbia because he knows it's something that millions of people are struggling with, and it's his special way of bringing awareness to this issue.

He concludes his cumbia.

"Son once millones ya, de gente indocumentada,
Que le rezan a su dios, para trabajar con ganas,
Ya no quieren esconderse, ellos de la migración,
Quieren que entre la reforma, reforma de migración,
Quieren que entre la reforma, reforma de migración."

("There are 11 million now, of undocumented people,
That pray to their god, to work wholeheartedly,
They don't want to hide, those that have migrated,
They want the reform to be introduced, immigration reform,
They want the reform to be introduced, immigration reform,")

The crowd gave Ortiz a great response after he completed his passionate solo performance. When he walked off stage, he was greeted by several observers, fellow musicians and fans. Ortiz concludes that it was a great night for him, and he assures me that he will continue to focus on topics that affect la gente (the people).

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Mi Vida, Mi Musica"‏

Pepe Maldonado at La Lomita Park.

The local conjunto music scene will gather to pay tribute to one of its greatest legends on Wednesday night. The family of Pepe Maldonado is holding a celebration to recognize his outstanding career, which spans over seven decades. The event has been dubbed, "Mi Vida, Mi Musica".

"Dad has always stayed true to conjunto," Joe Maldonado Jr., Pepe's son, said. "That's what he does, and what he loves."

The 73-year-old pioneer has been involved in performing, recording, radio broadcasting, and promoting during his long journey in conjunto music. La Lomita Park, his intimate venue in McAllen, has become one of the most popular conjunto spots around today. Every Sunday night, the dance floor is filled with gente bailando to conjunto acts from all over the state of Texas.

The master of ceremony for this occasion will be Leonel Sanchez, who is well known in the local Tejano, conjunto, norteño, and Christian music communities.

Sanchez first met Maldonado in 1954.

"He was not playing with any particular group (at the time)," Sanchez, 77, said. "We used to go to Edinburg, TX. There was a patio there and the band there was Ricardo Guzman y sus Tres Ases. Pepe was very, very young. Of course, I was very young tambien. Pepe would like to sing with them. He started his (professional) singing there in 1954."

The friendship that began on that patio continued in the decades that followed. One of the highlights for Sanchez was when he accompanied Maldonado and Gilberto Lopez Sr. to Florida in 1963. He says that they were the first group of musicians to take conjunto music to "The Sunshine State".

"They didn't even have a radio station (that played conjunto in Florida)," Sanchez said. "The promoter was a contractor for people that worked in the fields. The guy would take us in the back of his truck, telling the workers there that there is going to be a band tonight."

The details for this party are still being worked out this week. Joe says that he's working on securing several conjunto acts to perform for this event. Some of the groups he is talking with include Los Dos Gilbertos, Los Fantasmas Del Valle, Ricardo Guzman Jr. and Los Delta Boyz. Joe notes that there is also the possibility of some surprise appearances.

When this get-together was first thought of, Joe was hoping that Gilberto Lopez Sr. would be able to make an appearance. Maldonado and Lopez played together for many years, and recorded "Nada Me Importa" and "La Quintanita" for Discos Ideal in 1957. Unfortunately, Lopez is very ill and currently in the hospital.

"We all grew up together," Joe said of the Lopez and the Maldonado family. "We are praying for him, and his family, for a speedy recovery. Get well soon."

The two people that came up with the idea for this social affair are Joe and his tia Diamantina Patlan.

"He's a very wonderful person, with a big heart," Diamantina said of her older brother. "He helps everybody that is interested in music. Everybody is very grateful for that. I believe that he deserves to be honored."

Diamantina says that people who attend can expect to have a great time, and experience a showcase of musicians that are regulars of La Lomita Park. The evening will be filled with family and friends acknowledging everything Maldonado has accomplished in his life in music.
As for the title of the event, that credit goes to Joe's wife, Sallie Trevino Maldonado.

"I came up with the title, 'Mi Vida, Mi Musica' because that is him," Sallie said. "To me, he is all about the music. He started as a teenager, and he hasn't slowed down since. He's never stopped (playing and promoting). So it's a big honor for his family to do this for him. I think the people (who attend) will appreciate this as well."

What: "Mi Vida, Mi Musica" (Celebrating Pepe Maldonado's Career in Conjunto Music)
Time: 7:00 PM
Date: 11/12
Cost: Open to the public, with concessions available to purchase at the event
Phone Number: Pepe's son, Joe Maldonado Jr., can be contacted at 956-821-0955
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen

Friday, October 31, 2014

23rd annual NMCAC Conjunto Festival Recap‏

Los Dos Gilbertos headlined Day 3 of the festival.

This past weekend, the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center hosted their 23rd annual NMCAC Conjunto Festival in San Benito. The three-day event, which ran from October 24th through the 26th, shined the spotlight on a wide array of talented conjunto musicians.

The band selection for this celebration of conjunto music takes about 4 to 6 weeks according to Rogelio T. Núñez, founder of the NMCAC. Núñez credits Yolanda Lopez for booking all the bands, negotiating their fees, and scheduling their appearances. He notes that it costs about $35,000 to support this extravaganza.

This year, the two masters of ceremonies were Juan Tejeda of San Antonio, and Cristina Balli of Brownsville, although she now resides in Austin. Tejeda, who heads the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, performed his duties for Friday and Saturday. Balli, the executive director of Texas Folklife and co-author of the upcoming book "Conjunto Music: Sustaining a Texas Tradition", coordinated the event on Sunday.

The first night of the festival was headlined by The Tejano Boys (Brownsville), and featured a line-up of up-and-coming conjunto artists. Núñez estimates that they hit over a 1000 attendees for the opening day. One of the highlights of the evening was seeing the 2011 "Big Squeeze" champion, 18-year-old Ignacio "Nachito" Morales and his group Los Morales Boyz (Dallas).

Saturday night presented Eva Ybarra y su conjunto (San Antonio), Rio Jordan (San Antonio), and Los Monarcas (Richmond) as the three main acts. Ybarra showcased her progressive and jazz-influenced style with her songs and instrumentals. In-between pieces, she casually joked with the large crowd that surrounded the stage. At one point, a conjunto fan I remember meeting at the Pan Americana Festival at SXSW 2012, asked Ybarra if he could go up on stage to sing a duet with her. Ybarra eagerly granted his wish. Altogether, it was a great showing from Ybarra.

Juanito Castillo and Rio Jordan opened their set with Esteban Jordan's "La Polka Loca". Castillo delighted the crowd with radical accordion runs, and otherworldly sounds. Castillo's dynamic performance can be best described as "avant-garde conjunto". Raul Robert Perez, my buddy from Zapata who accompanied me this night, told me about Castillo, "He's the best accordionist I've ever seen (live)."

Rio Jordan

Núñez says that about 2000 people attended on Saturday, watching Ybarra and Castillo push the boundaries of conjunto music.

Sunday had appearances from Chano Cadena (Corpus Christi), Los Layton (Edcouch-Elsa), Los Fantasmas Del Valle (Rio Grande City), and Los Dos Gilbertos (Edinburg).

"It's always exciting to perform at the Narciso Martinez (conjunto) festival," Los Fantasmas Del Valle accordionist Rodney Rodriguez said. "First of all because we're honoring the father of conjunto music, Narciso Martinez. Keeping his memory alive. Another reason I enjoy performing at the fest is because the crowd is nothing but conjunto music lovers. It's just a great vibe seeing them dance the night away and seeing how much they appreciate true conjunto music up to this day."

One couple I spotted dancing on Friday and Sunday was Amelia and Raul Martinez of Pharr. It was in-between sets on Sunday when I spoke to the married couple of 47 years.

"Los Fantasmas Del Valle are one of our favorites," Amelia said, after I asked her which bands and styles she liked. "Las polkas are our favorites. Redovas, schottisches, vals (tambien)."

They both started attending these festivals about 15 years ago.

"Me gusta todo, todo el ambiente," ("I like it all, the whole atmosphere,") Raul said when I asked him what attracts him to the festival. "La musica es de la mejor." ("The music is the best.")

Amelia and Raul Martinez

The classic sounds of Los Dos Gilbertos closed out this great weekend of conjunto music. The timeless style of the local group received a strong response from those in attendance. Núñez states that the final day had over 1500 fans.

I was fortunate enough to stop by for all three chapters, and it was such a wonderful display of music and culture. As a fan of this music, the festival felt like a great triumph. After it was all over, I caught up with Núñez to ask him for his impressions.

"By far, the most successful one in terms of number of people (who attended)," Núñez said. "The city was supportive. They put up the fence (at the location), which was very important. They paved the dance floor, which it needed to be. The (San Benito) Economic Development Corporation gave us some money (for support). It was a very good event. The music was fantastic, every band did their job. The crowd was incredible, they just love to have a good time."

Eva Ybarra y su conjunto

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

M. Rivas

I went to M. Rivas (836 N. Cage Blvd.) in Pharr near my house to buy some jugo. They got a nice selection of candles. This is a portion of that section.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Four Things To Know About Jessy Serrata

Jessy Serrata
Tejano singer Jessy Serrata returns to the Rio Grande Valley this Sunday night at La Lomita Park in McAllen. After over fifty years in the music industry, he's still going fuerte today, working on new recordings and touring regularly. If you're not familiar with Serrata, here are four things that stand out about his unique career in music.

—He got his first big break with conjunto legend Agapito Zuniga.

Serrata was performing with his family in Robstown, when he heard that Agapito Zuniga was looking for a bass player in 1968. Serrata quickly took off to Corpus Christi to meet up with the popular piano accordionist.

"He hired me," Serrata said. "I played for him from '68, '69, '70."

This breakthrough was the beginning of his long journey in Tejano music.

"Comencé con el," ("I started with him,") Serrata said. "We were always on tour. To California, Colorado, Arizona, and all that. It was always an adventure with Agapito."

—Serrata did vocals for the only Christmas song "El Parche" ever recorded. 

Serrata was at Esteban "Steve" Jordan's side for four years during the early 1970's. While in Florida Serrata met up with Beto Ayala, a promoter in the area. Ayala had the composition of "Esta Navidad" with him, and asked for Serrata's vocals and Jordan's accordion licks that afternoon.

"It was almost Christmas," Serrata remembers. "I learned it right then and there in the studio (in Miami). We recorded it. It took about an hour and it was done."

Serrata stated that it was the only Christmas song Jordan ever touched.

Later in their musical partnership, Jordan invited Serrata to go perform with him at Staten Island. During that trip, Serrata saw Jordan go on stage, and have an impromptu jam session with two other musicians that were there at that time — Stevie Wonder and George Benson.

"That was an awesome experience," Serrata said of that day.

—He covered Paul McCarthey's "Yesterday", conjunto-style. 

In 1983, Serrata moved to McAllen, where he enjoyed local success with Oscar Hernandez and the Tuff Band. Serrata considers Hernandez one of his many mentors.

One day during this period, Serrata thought of doing his own take of "Yesterday". He translated the song to Spanish, and Hernandez's chromatic accordion produced the melody.

"It was a big hit here in the Valley," Serrata said of "Desde Ayer".

—He is known to some as "Mr. Iron Throat". 

In the 1980's, KIWW Tejano DJ Mike Cantu came across Serrata and his distinctive style of singing.

"He was a big time DJ in the Valley," Serrata said of Cantu. "I had that raspy voice, he heard me say 'Oh baby', and all that stuff. So he named me 'Mr. Iron Throat'."

Who: Jessy Serrata and Retoño.
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 10/12
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.
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Friday, October 3, 2014


Briana at Gaslight in McAllen

It was three months before Briana's 15th birthday but her quinceañera was already taking place. Since plenty of snow was expected in the Northwest during December, the decision was made to move her big party to September.

Two locals bands and a DJ were scheduled for the occasion. As the baile was about to begin, an urge came over her.

"I told my dad, 'I want to sing a song,'" Briana said. "He's like, 'What are you talking about?'"

At that point in her life, she was in the very early stages of putting together her first band.

After some pleading, her dad was finally convinced. When the time was right, Briana went out in front of the audience with her tio, who accompanied her with a guitar he had borrowed.

She walked up to the microphone that was on the center of the stage, and started singing "Siempre hace frio".

"It was good," Briana said. "I had never heard what my vocals sounded like on a microphone or a PA system. It was eyeopening for me at that moment. That was my first time (singing) in public."

Born and raised in the state of Washington, Briana became interested in music while attending elementary school. It wasn't Tejano that first caught her ear though.

"Growing up I was more into R&B and pop," Briana said. "Spanish music came later, mostly influenced by my parents."

Tejano had little exposure where Briana was being brought up.

"We didn't have a Super Tejano (102.1) over there," Briana said. "The music was very different. We'd have to wait every Sunday, for one hour of Tejano music (on the radio). Over there, in California and Washington, tocan mas (they play more) banda, Duranguense, and a lot more of that stuff."

While the internet was around back then, it wasn't like today where you could easily find streaming Tejano music by just going on Google.

While attending high school, she formed Briana y Lokura. I asked her, "What music were you performing when your group first started?"

"Un poquito de todo," ("A little bit of everything,") Briana said. "You had to do a big mix of everything to keep a crowd and we did."

She arrived in the Rio Grande Valley about eight years ago, she estimates. Her mom was from Del Rio, while her dad was native to Mercedes. She's been residing out of McAllen and Edinburg since her arrival.

Through her parents, and local Valley musicians, she began to develop a taste for the Tejano genre. She points to Elida Reyna y Avante, Jennifer Peña, Ricardo Castillon y La Diferenzia, and Laura Canales as major influences. She pauses, then says, "and of course Selena. Who didn't cover Selena songs?"

Briana jokes that the name Lokura is so fitting because there are always different musicians coming in and out of her group, with one exception.

"I have one right hand man that I always travel with, and that would be Roger (El Leon Peña)," Briana said."He does the accordion, and the keyboard. He was a former musician for Jennifer Peña."

Since 2013, Briana's been performing with the Gaslight Club house band in McAllen. This position has helped her stay in the spotlight, and gain new fans.

"We invite you to come to Gaslight, and you'll get a feel for what we do," Briana said. "The majority of the music we cover is from the Tejano scene, but we also do disco, country, R&B, hip hop, Amy Winehouse.  We do a little bit of everything. You'd have to come to a show to actually appreciate the music, and get more of a feel of what we do."

Like most weekends, Briana will be performing there this Saturday and Sunday nights.

In the past year, when she's not singing at gigs, she's been working hard on a new album. Her previous releases of Tu Mayor Tentación (2003) and Besame (2008) were filled with cover songs, so she decided to work on new original material for this upcoming release.

"I'm writing the album," Briana said. "I don't consider myself a writer, but I'm dabbling into that now. I'm my worst critic, so I can like something one day, and hate it the next."

When she looks back at her quinceañera, she remembers how much learning she had to do on her own, and how far she's come in her musical journey.

"When I was chiquita (small), everything was pretty much, 'You're on your own,'" Briana said. "Everything that I've done, I've always had to fend for myself."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Eva Ybarra

Eva Ybarra at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito in 2014.

Being known throughout the conjunto-loving world as "La Reina del Acordeón" makes Eva Ybarra a bit uneasy.

"It was not me, that's for sure," Eva Ybarra replied, when asked who gave her that nickname. "I'm not the kind of person that wants to be playing themselves up."

She's confident about what she can do on the accordion, but she doesn't want to take anything away from all the other women out there.

"I'm not competing with anybody," Ybarra said. "I'm myself, and I have my own style. Everybody has their own, and I have mine."

Ybarra was born in San Antonio, and raised in the Circle 81 area. She explained to me that it used to be called La Lomita in the past. Brighton Avenue was the barrio she resided in.

I inquired about her birthday early in our conversation.

"That I'm not going to mention," Ybarra said, laughing. "Only thing I'm going to say is that the years are not for counting, they're for living."

She was born into a musical family. Her father Pedro Garza Ybarra was a singer and guitar player. Her mother Maria Eloisa Gonzales Araiza Ybarra composed songs and sang as well.

Ybarra was the fifth child born, in what ended up being nine children in total.

She received her first accordion, a two-row button diatonic Hohner model, when she was just four years old.

"It was like they gave me a doll to play with," Ybarra said.

At that age, Ybarra would turn to her mother and ask, "Mom, turn on the radio, so I could learn some pieces." The radio dial would be turned, while Ybarra sat on a little stool, studying the tunes that spilled out from the speakers.

Ybarra raves about her mom, about how great of a job she did raising her family, but admits that she didn't think the accordion was the right instrument for her daughter.

"My mom, all the time, told me that she was concerned about the push and pull (of the accordion)," Ybarra said. "I don't know if it was that, or that she thought it was a man's instrument. She never told me that, she just said she was concerned about the push and pull, about my lungs. That something could happened."

Nothing ever happened to her lungs, despite her mother's concern. Her father was far more supportive when it came to the accordion.

"My dad, when I was growing up, he said that's my key," Ybarra said, referring to the accordion as the key to her success.

Her madre attempted to push her towards the piano. She took Ybarra to get lessons and bought a piano for the family house. While Ybarra stuck to her squeezebox, she did get plenty of value from those sessions. She learned about music theory, and how to read music. These classes would later help in distinguishing Ybarra's accordion style.

She started playing with the family band at the age of six, where she helped support her parents with her accordion skills and singing.

"(My father) took us to restaurants to baseball fields, and we played there," Ybarra said. "People liked it. We made a lot of money. We put the sombrero out and everybody was putting in one dollar, two dollars."

At eight, she upgraded to a three-row button diatonic accordion. She didn't care when people told her it was too heavy and big for her. That year she outgrew piezas with basic melodies, preferring music that was a bit more complicated.

"I didn't like little, simple polkas," Ybarra said, laughing. "I like to challenge myself."

As a young girl, she dared herself to learn far more difficult polkas like "Polka Monterrey" and the Paulino Bernal arrangement of "Maria Bonita". She's proud that she was able to figure out the accordion on her own.

Her eldest brother formed a group called Pedro Ybarra y Los Chamacones. She started playing the accordion for them around the same time she stopped attending school. One night, the fourteen year old accordionist was performing with this conjunto at a local night club. In walked in Ruben Ruiz, a record producer who owned Rosina Records in San Marcos. He was impressed by what he heard.

"He talked to my dad," Ybarra said. "He gave us a two year contract. We were selling a lot of 45's back then."

Her brother was hoping they would use his band's name, but Ruiz insisted on dubbing them Eva Ybarra y su conjunto. As a courtesy to her brother, the recordings listed, "Accompanied by Pedro Ybarra".

"He believed in me," Ybarra said of Ruiz.

Unfortunately, Ybarra soon realized how hard it was being a female in a male-dominated world. It became difficult for her to find band members that were open-minded.

"A lot of men," Ybarra starts before pausing. "They cannot take it, accept it, that a lady can be a leader. That's the jealousy that came from a lot of musicians that used to play with me."

The opportunities she had to record when she was a teenager disappeared once she became an adult.

"There is a lot of envy," Ybarra said. "I had a hard time. They closed doors (on me). I went to every studio, looking to record, they would say, 'Well, give me your material.' Never called me because of discrimination."

In the 1970's and 1980's, the promoters weren't any better than the sexist musicians Ybarra encountered. Some were professional and respectful. Sadly, there was way too many that weren't. One promoter in Puerto Rico, who Ybarra didn't name, made her very uncomfortable with his unwanted sexual advances. Some didn't pay Ybarra after her gigs were over.

"I had a hard time," Ybarra said of that period.

In her mid-thirties, she fell deeply in love with a luchador. He worked both as a tecnico and a rudo. When they first met, she couldn't stand him. Despite her initial impression, they remained friends and she slowly became enamored with him. They began dating, and planned to get married. But when Ybarra discovered his mentiras, she thought about how a marriage would affect her craft, and she called it off.

"Marriage was not for me," Ybarra said. "My music is my life. I'm a music lover, and nobody was going to take it away from me, and I was concerned about that."

In the 1990's, Ybarra was asked to record with Hacienda Records out of Corpus Christi. While she was originally skeptical at legitimacy of the offer, she eventually found out it was genuine. She recorded two releases for that label.

Her most renowned releases came through Rounder Records — A Mi San Antonio (1993) and Romance Inolvidable (1996). These came after meeting Dr. Catherine Ragland in the early 1990's.

"Cathy put me with Rounder Records," Ybarra said. "She saw me at Juan Tejeda's (Tejano Conjunto) Festival (1991). She believed in me, and she told me, 'You're going to record at Rounder Records.'"

Ragland, currently a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, has been championing Ybarra's auteurship since then.

"I produced those records," Ragland said. "What's unique about Eva is that those two recordings that we did are all her original songs. I love Mingo (Saldivar), Flaco Jimenez too, and all those (conjunto) artists are really great, but few of them write their own songs. They play a lot of songs that are already out there in the tradition."

Most of the lyrics in Tejano and conjunto tend to be catered towards men. The majority of compositions are written from a man's point of view. Ybarra is a major exception to that unfortunate norm.

"Some of those songs were very much from the female perspective," Ragland said. "She was really singing about her own experience and I think those songs weren't really being written."

Ybarra has a large repertoire that includes polkas, huapangos, schottisches, racheras, boleros, cumbias and corridos. She pushes the boundaries with a progressive style yet she still keeps it within the conjunto tradition.

"She's very sophisticated, musically," Ragland said. "She does a lot of inverted chords, so they sound a little bit different. Really just expanding and doing a lot of interesting runs on the accordion."

In 1997, Ybarra was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington's Ethnomusicology Department. Her one year there inspired her release of Space Needle (2008).

"That was good," Ybarra said of her experience there. "I taught accordion, bajo-sexto, bass, and guitarrón."

Susan Torres, an acclaimed accordionist who plays with Conjunto Clemencia in Austin, is an admirer of Ybarra's work.

"I like the joy that she gets out of playing the accordion," Torres said. "You can tell it comes from her heart, and I think that's what I like best about her."

In 2010, a fundraiser was held at Mission Trail's Conjunto Express to assist Ybarra after someone broke into her home. She lost a significant amount of her possessions, including her instruments. Torres was one of the musicians that volunteered to perform that night.

"She's always complimenting me," Torres said. "She goes, 'Mija, you got to take my torch, you got to run with it because when I'm gone, you're going to be the next one in line.' I go, 'No Eva, cause I don't love music as much as you do.' Where that came from was earlier, she was talking about how her sister makes tamales. I was telling her how I like helping my mom make tamales and I asked Eva if she makes tamales. She goes, 'No, I play the accordion!' So when I told her that I'm not going to be the one that takes the torch, I told her, 'Remember, I like making tamales, you don't.' (laughs) That's a story I'm really fond of."

Iliana Vasquez, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and an aspiring accordionist, tabs Ybarra as a key influence.

"She inspired me," Vasquez said. "She's a big influential force in me learning the accordion. I'm sure she's inspired other women to pursue conjunto music, especially the accordion."

Vasquez met the legendary musician during The National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco 2013 conference, at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. Ybarra was scheduled for that event's Noche De Cultura, and a workshop on conjunto music the following day. Vasquez took her guitarra de golpe, and introduced herself to Ybarra before her performance that night. They ended up jamming out, and Vasquez was invited on stage.

"We played 'Paloma Negra' together," Vasquez said. "Then the next day, people were encouraged to take their accordions to the workshop. I was the only one to take an accordion, and I had no clue what I was doing on the accordion. She's very, very welcoming. The way she plays is intimidating, but her demeanor isn't. She was showing me how to play 'La Mucura', cause I had asked her the night before. She showed me a little bit of that. Because she had a gig that same night, she had to rush off to San Antonio. I asked her, 'Can you show me a little bit of 'El Circo'?' And she played 'El Circo' with me, all the way out the door. I had never experienced that with anyone else. It's just a memorable moment for me."

Most recently, Ybarra was part of the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, which took place on September 13. She was part of a line-up that featured Chinese, Vallenato, Urban Finnish Folk, Southern Italian Modern, Czech, Afro-Brazilian Forro, Celtic Folk, conjunto and norteño styles of the accordion.

"I think she's really come into her own," Ragland said. "I've noticed that in the past couple of years, she has really been doing a lot more with her voice. I always thought she had a really great voice. I think part of it is that she's been playing with mariachis, and I think that's influenced her singing. It's very emotional, very expressive. It's been coming out in her performances, more and more."

Her next major festival will be here in the Rio Grande Valley, at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito. This three-day conjunto extravaganza lands on the weekend of October 24, 25, and 26. Ybarra shares the October 25 line-up with La Clica, Mingo Saldivar y sus Tremendos Cuatro Espadas, and Los Monarcas de Pete y Mario Diaz.

"I like to perform there," Ybarra said. "The people in the Valley are very good. One time, we had a good crowd there (at the NMCAC)."

The current members of her conjunto consist of Ybarra on accordion and vocals, her brother David Ybarra on bass guitar, Ramon "Rabbit" Sanchez on bajo-sexto, and Pedro Lopez on the drums.

"We are just four but we make noise," Ybarra said. "The musicians that I have right now are great, and they respect me. They do what I say."

Ybarra likes to joke about this imaginary crown that's been bestowed upon her. She tells me it's okay if someone comes along, and yanks it away from her. She sees so many talented mujeres out there, and she just doesn't like being pitted against her hermanas en musica.

"They say, 'She's the best female accordionist,'" Ybarra said, imitating what men have said about her for decades. "I don't like that. They are putting down other talented ladies. How come they don't say, 'Well, she's one of the best, of the males and females?'"