Friday, June 20, 2014

Los Fantasmas Del Valle

From 1968 to today, Hector Barron estimates that his conjunto, Los Fantasmas Del Valle, have recorded over 60 releases. That includes 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, and CD's. Of the hundreds of songs that he's interpreted over the decades, his biggest hit is "Bellos Recuerdos" ("Beautiful Memories"), a composition by the late Ramon Medina.

The song tells the tale of a man looking back at his past, which involved him working on the fields in a bygone era in South Texas. The hardships of labor, along with sweet flashbacks of his parents, converge gracefully in this tender piece.  

It's a tune that resonates for many Valley natives that worked in the fields. It's especially true in Barron's case, who was born in 1943 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but was raised in San Benito and Mercedes. The title and narrative of the song not only resemble his childhood, but also share traits with his music career, where he encountered his fare share of struggles along the way.

"Piscando algodon y estaba cantando," ("Picking cotton and I was singing,") Barron, 70, answered when I asked him when he started singing. "I was raised in la labor. I always liked to sing."

While he was singing early on in life, he wouldn't pick up the bass guitar until he was in his early 20's. When he finally did, he was guided by the music of Ruben Vela, Gilberto Perez, and Tony De La Rosa. By that point, he had already established a lifelong friendship with bajo-sexto player Julian Figueroa.

An only child, Barron met Figueroa when his family moved to Mercedes in the early 1950's. The two struck up a friendship jugando canicas in the barrio they shared.

As they got older, they stopped playing with marbles, and started playing with musical instruments.

They teamed up with accordionist Gilberto Rodriguez, another Mercedes musician, to start the band that would later come to be known as Los Fantasmas Del Valle.

They broke into the crowded conjunto scene by recording their first song, "Mis Pasos Andaran" at Gilberto Perez's Nuevo Records in 1968.

"The song is about a guy who dies," Barron said. "He came back to haunt his girlfriend. 'Mis Pasos Andaran', my footsteps will follow you."

The nameless ensemble were still wondering what they should brand themselves as. Alejandro Perez, Gilberto's brother, spoke up after listening to that song, and asked "Why don't we name it Los Fantasmas Del Valle?" The name has stuck since.

Shortly after that recording, Rodriguez left the group for health related reasons. Times were tough, according to Barron. There was even a period where no one wanted to record them.

While working a variety of different jobs, he was forced to record on his own in the early 1970's.

"I started a label, I called it Cucuy," Barron said. "I recorded and produced several 45's by myself."

Eventually he got an offer to record for Canasta Records. Several other companies followed like Reloj, Hacienda Records, Joey Records, and JB Records. He was a full time musician by 1975.

Different accordionists filled in until 1975 when Mike Gonzalez joined the group. He held that position for twenty-five years until health problems surfaced in 2000. Rodney "El Cucuy" Rodriguez stepped in for Gonzalez after Barron took a recommendation from his friend Freddie Gonzalez.

Julian Figueroa retired after suffering a stroke in the 2000's. Bobby Salinas took over Figueroa's role of bajo-sexto player. Other current members include Martin Cortez on the drums, and Benito Fonseca on the bass guitar. At this point, Barron just concentrates on his singing.  

Some other misfortunes that happened over the years include their instruments being destroyed on a trip to California. Similar types of accidents happened to their equipment and trailer on different tours.

Still, those rough patches don't get Barron down. He is amazed that he and his group continue to be in demand after almost 46 years of performing. He is regularly invited to most of the major conjunto festivals, including the upcoming 23rd annual "Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival" this Fall. Barron tells me that he usually has at least two gigs a week in 2014.

He attributes his success to being able to understand what a conjunto audience wants.

"Para nosotros, la gente is number one," ("For us, the people are number one,") Barron said. "We go out there to please the people, not ourselves."

Barron, who still resides in Mercedes, feels blessed that throughout his career, he's always been surrounded by buena gente (good people), as he describes them. It's made all these years go by quick.

"Muchas memorias bonitas," ("Lots of pretty memories,") Barron said. "I'm lucky that the compaƱeros, comenzando con Julian y con Mike, que en paz descanse, y los muchachos que traigo ahorita, they are the best." ("I'm lucky that the companions I've had, starting with Julian and with Mike, may he rest in peace, and with the guys I have now, they are the best.")

Who: Los Fantasmas Del Valle
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 6/22
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/La-Lomita-Park/146095848797378
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

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