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

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