Friday, January 24, 2014

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 https://www.facebook.com/pages/La-Lomita-Park/146095848797378
Bands Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ruben-Vela-Jr-y-su-Conjunto/338131632881806
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

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