Friday, January 31, 2014

Elida Reyna

Elida Reyna and Ylija Campos Gomez
Some people go an entire lifetime without knowing what they want to do with their lives. Then there are those that make their decision early on and stick with it. Elida Reyna knew exactly what she wanted to do, and it all started when she was nine years old.

The San Antonio-born singer was living in Dallas before her parents decided to move to Mercedes when she was eight years old. Her father was originally from the Rio Grande Valley.

"Where I was living at that time, in Dallas, we lived in a bad neighborhood, and it was getting worse," Elida said. "(Another factor was) my grandmother had been sick, so we decided to move down here."

According to Elida's father, she became enamored with music when she was just two years old.

"He said that he noticed (that) I loved to sing and I loved to dance in front of people," Elida said. "As I got older, I was always singing and dancing, whenever I got a chance. Whenever we had family functions, I always made it a point to learn a song, then we would perform it in front of people, me and my cousins."

At the age of nine, she performed in her first talent show. She sang "I'm Going To Live Forever". She also participated in a talent search held by The Johnny Canales Show.

She became influenced by Tejano music that same year. Groups like Romance, Roberto Pulido and Grupo Mazz caught her attention. There was one musician in particular that stood out for her.

"Of course Laura Canales, I had never seen a female sing Tejano," Elida remembers. "I first saw her perform here in my hometown at the KC Hall, my parents used to go to all the dances in the area. We went to see Laura Canales, and I knew that's what I was going to do (with my life)."

After graduating from Mercedes High School in 1990, Elida enrolled at The University of Texas-Pan American. She attended for three years, and was a part of the school's mariachi program.

"I've always loved mariachi music," Elida said. "It was a real treat for me to be able to explore that (style of music)."

That's where she met bass player Noel Hernandez, who was playing guitarrón at the time with the school's ensemble. Hernandez informed Elida that he and his friends were looking for a singer. The group got together, including accordionist Cande Aguilar Jr. and drummer Javier Perez, to see if there was any spark between the four.

"We instantly hit off," Elida said. "It all felt like I had known them forever. From that moment on, we were all inseparable. It was just great chemistry. We all had the same goals, which was beautiful."

Elida y Avante was born. After recording a demo, they got signed to La Mafia's record label — Voltage Entertainment.

"We definitely felt that when we got signed to that label, things were going to be looking up for us."

Their first album was titled Atrevete, and it was released in 1994. "Luna Llena" was the group's breakout song.

"That was a very pivotal moment for us, that's when we really became more known," Elida said. "Soon after that, a lot of things started happening for us."

Algo Entero (1996) and Eya (1998) followed. At the 20th annual Tejano Music Awards (2000), Elida was awarded with "Female Vocalist of the Year" and "Song of the Year" (for "Duele") honors.

Her life took a different direction that same year.

"I decided I want to have a family," Elida said. "I had my daughter, and then I had my son, I took somewhat of a two year hiatus."

She was performing sporadically until she returned in 2003. Since then she's worked with a new group of musicians.

"I had a lot of people saying, 'Oh she's done'," Elida said. "They automatically assume once you lose your original band then things are never going to be the same. I've been able to prove them wrong."

She feels like she's evolved a lot since her early days.

"Now I'm more confident, I know what I want, it took me a few years to figure out," Elida said. "I think when you are first starting out, you're real green to the industry, and sometimes you don't speak your mind, you're afraid to because you don't want to offend anybody. Now with my second band it's like I'm on my own, and I'm kind of calling my own shots. It just feels good to be standing on my own two feet."

One of her career highlights took place in 2009. Along with accordionist Michael Salgado, Elida was invited to perform at the Latino Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C. She's really proud to have been a part of President Barack Obama's inauguration celebration.

"That was an amazing experience," Elida said. "It was awesome to be able to perform, probably my biggest song to date, which is a song called 'Duele', a mariachi song. (Then) to look out to the crowd and see George Lopez and Wilmer Valderrama, and they were actually both singing along, so they obviously heard the song before. That was really amazing to see that."

When I asked her to look back at her career for any special moments she's been a part of, Elida remembers one evening in particular that touched her the most. It took place at the San Antonio Events Center on January 19, 2013. Elida learned that one of her fans, a twelve year old girl named Ylija Campos Gomez was battling a form of cancer known as brainstem glioma.

"She didn't have much time to live, but one of her dreams was to be on stage with me, and to hear the song 'Juntos Hasta Morir'," Elida said. "I was able to make that dream come true for her. I invited her to a show, she got up on stage with me, and I sat her on my bench. She sat right there on the side of the stage. When I sang 'Juntos Hasta Morir', I asked her to come up and sing it with me. Her mom also came up and we all sang it together. It was a very endearing moment. If you were to look out into the crowd, everybody, everybody was just in tears. I had a lump in my throat, it was just a very beautiful moment."

A brief video of that emotional evening is up on YouTube, under the title of "Elida Reyna singing to Ylija". Ylija passed away a month later, on February 26, 2013.

In 2014, Elida continues to follow the career path she chose as a young girl. She just re-signed a new deal with Freddie Records, where she's recorded seven albums in the past six years. One of those albums was Fantasia (2010), which won the Latin Grammy Award for "Best Tejano Album". She hopes that her three children are able to follow in her footsteps, creating the life they envision for themselves, like she's been able to do for the past twenty-plus years.

"The one thing that I have to say is that I've always been a very determined person," Elida said. "I always knew what I wanted, from a young age, from the time I was nine.  I told my parents, this is what I'm going to do, and I did it."

Who: Elida Reyna
Time: 7:00 PM
Date: 1/31
Cost: $15.00
Phone Number: 956-572-8158
Location: Gaslight, 1401 S. 10th Street, McAllen.

Friday, January 24, 2014

TV-DX'ing II

From Wiki: TV DX and FM DX is the active search for distant radio or television stations received during unusual atmospheric conditions. The term DX is an old telegraphic term meaning “long distance.”

Back in 1999, I used to mess around with antennas and get a signal from a station in Corpus Christi on Saturday nights. I would do this to record some professional wrestling programming that aired there but didn’t air here — ECW Hardcore TV and old 1980’s episodes of CWA/USWA (Memphis, Tennessee promotion).

That was just a 100-plus miles. Some TV-DX’ers gets signals from 1000-plus miles away. Most of these screen shots come from someone who recorded them off their TV in Florida.

Credit: oldfldxer and wa5iyx.

Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr.

Oscar Ramirez, Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr. and Jerry Mejia.
When Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr. steps out of his house, and looks around at his neighborhood, it's a reminder of who he is and where he comes from.

"Right now I live a block away from where my father used to live," Rabbit, 50, said as he talked about his father Ruben Vela, the legendary conjunto accordionist. "Actually the street where I live on is named (after) my dad. So I live on Ruben Vela Sr. Avenue in Santa Rosa."

He first shared the stage with his father in the 1980's. It all started when Amalia Vela, his mother, disciplined him by sending him off to California, where his father was touring.

"I guess I was messing up in school," Rabbit said. "Nombre to me it was a vacation, I loved it bro!"

Initially he started working as the band's driver and roadie. One day during a tour, Vela gave his son and ahijado (Godson) Chalito Zapata permission to perform during intermission.

"So we would do a little show," Rabbit remembers of his teenage days. "People would start throwing money cause (Chalito) would play the accordion, and I would play the drums."

Rabbit had played before at the Mercedes Livestock Show but this was a totally different experience. He estimates that he and Chalito would walk away with $15 to $20 dollars each after performing.

Enrique "Flaco" Naranjo joined the young musicians, becoming a part of their mid-show act. Later on Naranjo secured the role of Vela's lead singer while Rabbit became his father's drummer, a position he held for 26 years. The glory period of the 1990's followed as Vela and Naranjo hit the jackpot with a pair of hits in the form of cumbias — "El Coco Rayado Power Mix" (1996) and it's sequel "La Papaya" (1997).

"Coco Rayado brought him back to life," Rabbit said about his father's career resurgence."When my dad would play out of state, I (would) see how much the people loved him."

For the years that followed, Rabbit worked closely with his father, hoping he could take him to the next level.

"My goal was to make his music hit one more time before he died," Rabbit said. "I noticed that we were climbing the ladder again, he was going back up."

Sadly, Vela passed away at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen on March 9, 2010. He was 72.

"When he passed away, I didn't know what to do," Rabbit said. "Man, my world's over, I got so sad."

It was a very difficult time for Rabbit. He said that knowing he had his own family to take care of helped him deal with the pain that he was going through.

Before he passed away, Vela was already booked for the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio on May 15, 2010. Juan Tejeda, the festival's organizer, decided to keep the booking as a tribute to him. Who would play the accordion that night with the band?

Rabbit got a hold of an 18-year-old accordionist from Rio Grande City named Jerry Mejia. What made this young kid stand out was that his style was very much influenced by Vela and Naranjo. Mejia joined the Vela family on-stage that night to pay tribute to a legend.

"I felt nervous at first, because I never performed in front of so many people," Mejia, 22, said. "At the same time, (I was) very excited because I was given the opportunity by Ruben Jr. to participate in giving this tribute to his dad. To me it was an honor."

The Vela family was very impressed by Mejia's style.

"I told him, I think you're very close to playing like my dad," Rabbit said. "How weird that this young kid that I have playing the accordion, he's 22-years-old (now), but yet he plays like my father, and he sings like Flaco (Naranjo)."

With his father gone, Rabbit was unsure about his future and considered leaving the music business altogether. After hearing a lot of encouragement from Mejia and his band-mates, Rabbit decided to stick around.

The current line-up of Ruben Vela Jr. y Sus Muchachos includes: Rabbit on the drums; Mejia on the accordion and vocals; Jaime "El Serrucho" Solis on bass and vocals; Alex Delgado on bajo-sexto. The band continues to play songs that Vela made famous.

"I feel so fortunate to carry on Mr. Vela's music, it is a great honor to me," Mejia said. "I will try my best to keep that traditional Texas conjunto sound from El Valle that Mr. Vela developed and that all of us fanatics and followers enjoyed so much."

The group just completed a 12-track album for Latin World Records titled Corazon Magico. It will feature rancheras, cumbias, a huapango, and a polka. Rabbit describes it as being "a little more progressive". He hopes to attract a new, fresh audience with this release.

Sunday night's gig at La Lomita Park will be the CD release party. It will also serve as a birthday celebration for Rabbit and Serrucho. Rabbit tells me that if you can't make it, he plans to return to McAllen next month for an event that is yet to be scheduled.

One reason why Rabbit is performing at La Lomita Park was that it was the last venue his father performed at. Preserving the memory of his late father is a must.

"If I can do it, and God gives me the chance to keep his music going, well why not," Rabbit said. "I just want all his fans to know that we are going to try to keep his music alive. We're giving it a shot, we're trying our best."

Who: Ruben Vela Jr. y Sus Muchachos and Herencia 4.
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 1/26
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Bands Facebook:
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jesus "Chuy" De Leon at the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame in San Benito

Lupe Saenz, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, presented me with this video that he produced. In this video, we hear from Jesus "Chuy" De Leon, his family, and his fans. A corrido is also featured that tells the tale of "El Gallito Madrugador". Enjoy!

To read more on Jesus "Chuy" De Leon, check out this article I wrote on the legendary radio broadcaster.

Wally Gonzalez at La Joya High School

I recently got a copy of this video on DVD, so I thought I would share an excerpt with you fans.

La Joya Independent School District's 3rd annual conjunto festival took place on November 19, 2011. Students and established musicians came together for this event at the Performance Arts Center at La Joya High School. Local legend Wally Gonzalez was part of the extravaganza, and he performed some of his most popular tunes — "Short Legged Texan", "Mi Low Rider" and "Que Me Entierren En Walmart". Enjoy!

To read more about Wally Gonzalez, check out this great article by Crystal Olvera.

Friday, January 17, 2014

¡Huelga En General! Songs of the United Farm Workers by El Teatro Campesino

In March, American theaters will see the release of Diego Luna's film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero. One piece of history associated with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) involves Luis Valdez.

Valdez, who was part of that civil rights movement, founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965. The Chicano based-company would perform productions that dealt with issues that affected Mexican-American farm-workers.

In 1976, the troupe released ¡Huelga En General! Songs of the United Farm Workers by El Teatro Campesino on vinyl.

This album ended up in my hands thanks to a friend, after she discovered that some of her family members performed with El Teatro Campesino.

On the back cover, there is an endorsement by Chavez that reads: "These songs express the hopes, the strength and determination of farm workers who labor each day in the fields to feed the people of this country."

The music here represents a variety of styles — marchas, corridos, and rancheras to name a few. While the forms are different, the content is all about promoting the union.

The title track opens with a simple, somewhat repetitive accordion run, that quickly emerges into a passionate battle cry. The song recounts the famous Delano Grape Strike, crediting Filipino-American farm-workers for starting the strike on September 8, 1965. When Mexican-American farm-workers finally joined in, the joint boycott led to the formation of the UFW. This is one of the strongest pieces in the album, and while brief, it reminds us about the important role that Filipino-American's played in the movement.

Another song that stood out was "Solidaridad Para Siempre". The song is a bilingual, Mexican-American take on Ralph Chaplin's "Solidarity Forever". The melody remains as catchy, although the style is updated to fit the time when this was recorded.

"No No Gallo" is one of the more famous songs on here. It's a great, charming tune about refusing crooked deals and sticking with Chavez. After listening to it once, the lyrics are hard to forget.

Guadalupe Serna's "El Corrido del Cortito" was the song that interested me the most. It's a ballad that narrates the struggles of the farm-worker who spends much of his day bent over, which issues him a lifetime of back pain. That's just a simplification of what is a really great song. This is the only track on here that seems to be drawn from Texas-style music, with its bombastic accordion runs and corrido structure.

Those are just the highlights of the thirteen tracks featured on this album. Some of the aesthetics may be a bit dated, but this covers a significant, sometimes overlooked part of Mexican-American and Filipino-American history. This music was spawned out of a group of people who struggled to make a positive change in our world. Like Rumel Fuentes' Corridos of the Chicano Movement CD, there is some great historical value here.

The vinyl record and CD are difficult to find, but a rare copy of this album is currently on sale at eBay. Another used copy is also on sale right now at Amazon.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Rogelio T. Núñez's Fundraiser

Núñez Family - Soledad, Amado, Rogelio and Elma.
Rogelio T. Núñez turns 62 years old today. He said he could have spent it drinking a beer at home or barbecuing. That's not going to be the case tonight, as he has found a much better way of celebrating his birthday, and everyone is invited.

Núñez has spent the past 22 years providing a platform for Rio Grande Valley artists through the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito.

The idea for the center first took shape after he returned to the Valley in 1983. He had been away studying in Kingsville and Austin, where he was swept up by the Chicano movement.

"When I was in college, I got influenced by, and became part of the Chicano movement," Núñez said. "So that movement began to tell me that it was important that we do things to better our community of Chicanos. So one of the leaders of the Chicano movement was a guy named Jose Angel Gutierrez, who was the founder of La Raza Unidad (political) party. He used to say things like, 'We need to create institutions by us, for us, and about us.' Because it wasn't being done by the institutions that existed."

Seeing some of the work that was done in San Antonio by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and Juan Tejeda further inspired Núñez on what needed to be done here in the Valley. He dreamed of creating an organization that would present the world with the art that was birthed from these borderlands.

One of those art-forms would be conjunto music.

"The interest there was because in San Benito we had some important things that happened that are very critical to conjunto music," Núñez explains. "One, we had a recording company called Ideal Records, that was the largest recording company for conjunto music and the largest distributor of conjunto music in the U.S. between about 1946 to about 1960. And then we also had what's called "La Villita" dance hall. Between the 40's, 50's, and early 60's, (it) was the premiere dance hall for all these great musicians like Paulino Bernal, Tony De La Rosa, Narciso Martinez."

Núñez tells me that he decided to name the center after Narciso Martinez because of what he represented to the community. To those not familiar with Martinez, he's the legendary accordionist that has long held the title of "father of conjunto music". Núñez felt that the name would provide a strong foundation for the future of his center.

Members of his family were friends with Martinez, so he went up to his uncle to inform him about the plans he had for the center. His uncle suggested that he go talk directly to Martinez. When Núñez met Martinez, he mentioned who his uncle was, and the conjunto pioneer immediately opened up.

"I tell him what we want to do, and (Narciso) says, 'It sounds good to me, no problem,' and we named the center after him," Núñez said.

The center opened on October 29, 1991, which coincided with Martinez's 80th birthday.

"(The center opened) with a presentation by Don Narciso Martinez, who was still alive, and it was one heck of an opening cause it was standing room only, not enough space for the people that wanted to come see Narciso Martinez."

Since that successful opening 22 years ago, the center has thrived with photo exhibits, art exhibits, poetry readings, writing workshops, concerts and a variety of other events that celebrate our cultural arts. Every year in the fall, the center stages their annual Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival. I've attended it once in the past, and have watched many videos of other times I have not attended. When I attended that festival in 2012, I thought, "This is the best celebration of conjunto music that we have here in the Valley."

Tonight's birthday party will be a fundraiser that will feature the live music of Juan Lugo, Los Angeles del Sur, and Ruben De La Cruz. The conjunto-inspired art of Roel S. Flores will also be on display. The proceeds will benefit this center and Casa de Proyecto Libertad, where Núñez has served as the executive-director since 1990. According to their website, Casa de Proyecto Libertad's mission is, "to promote and defend the Human Rights of immigrant families in the Rio Grande Valley through legal defense and community organizing." This organization also provides help for women that are survivors of domestic violence.

"The idea of the fundraiser is cause both organizations need funding," Núñez said. "I'm grateful to these institutions, it's my birthday, we'll celebrate, but we'll also celebrate the work of these two organizations."

WHAT: Rogelio T. Núñez's birthday celebration.
WHERE: The Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, 225 E. Stenger Street, San Benito, Texas
WHEN: Friday, January 10, 2014, 7:00 PM.
COST: $20.00 at the door.
Contact: Rogelio T. Núñez - 956-367-0335,,

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year!

I'm always amazed at how quickly a year passes by. A year ago, I wrote my first piece for this "Regional Ramblings" column on The Many Sounds of Esteban "Steve" Jordan. Two years ago, I wrote my first article for The Monitor on Ramiro Cavazos, the legendary bajo-sexto player of Los Donneños.

The best thing about writing about regional music is that it feels like you're consistently discovering stories that may fallen through the cracks. Getting in touch with local musicians and slowly learning about their own personal history with music feels uplifting at times.

Recently, my aunt and uncle gave me a DVD copy of an evening at Donna Hooks Fletcher Museum that celebrated Donna's rich history of border music. The 3-hour video of this event featured several musicians that I was not familiar with. This great Christmas present reminded me how there is still plenty of ground to cover here in the Valley. The depth of Tejano, conjunto, and norteño musicians that we have in this area is astonishing.

Random gems from these musicians pop up from time to time, you never know when something from the past will be re-discovered in the present day. Someone online might upload a great track from an obscure vinyl record or post some random video that they shot in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, some of these discoveries will eventually disappear, like a Frankie Caballero potpourri that somehow mixed his accordion contributions to Bobby Pulido's "Desvelado" with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". I wish I would have saved that one on my hard-drive! Here's to more novelty, obscure and bizzare Valley-music being explored in 2014.

Outside the Valley, I have several things I'm looking forward to in the new year. I'm very excited about the Smithsonian Folkways' Flaco y Max - Legends and Legacies CD, which is scheduled to be released in February. Max Baca is one of my all-time favorite bajo-sexto players, and when I talked to him about this project, he was very enthusiastic about how the recording sessions with Flaco Jimenez turned out. Also, I hope that we finally get to hear some new information about the eight unreleased Esteban Jordan albums that his children are currently in possession of. I've been waiting to hear release dates about these mysterious albums since the release of Carta Espiritual in 2010.

As for my biggest music-related goal of the new year, it deals with a three-row, button diatonic accordion that I bought from Hermes Music a year ago. Through a DVD instructional, YouTube videos, and the excellent Señor Maestro program, I feel like I've come as far as I can on my own. Which isn't much, honestly. So this week, I've made plans to get lessons from an established accordion teacher, who has an excellent reputation. I'm very excited about my first lesson, which will be coming up very soon. Hopefully this time next year, I'll be able to bust out a variety ofpiezas in the company of family and friends.

I'm eager to share more stories with you this upcoming year. If you have any questions, suggestions, or ideas, feel free to email me. I always look forward to hearing from my readers.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!