Friday, November 28, 2014

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.  

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