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."