Friday, December 26, 2014

Gilberto Perez

Gilberto Perez inside his 'mini-museum' at his home in Mercedes.

Conjunto musician Gilberto Perez lives on a large property on FM 491, in north Mercedes.  It's near Campacuas, where Perez says his mother was originally from. Near the back of that lot, one will find a small house that was modeled after Perez's childhood home. His son used to stay there, but when he moved out Perez transformed it into a mini-museum that celebrated his career in music.

I passed a bench that reads "Made By Ruben Vela" to arrive at the door. Before I entered, I asked him how he was doing.

"Hay andamos (Here we are)," replied Gilberto Perez with a smile. "Taking it one day at a time."

He had just finished checking one of his cars before I arrived. He was eager to show me what was behind that door. His career retrospective began once he opened it.

Gilberto Perez was born in Mercedes, TX, Mile 8 to be exact, on August 3, 1935. Perez's mother gave birth with the help of a partera (midwife). He was the 12th child in the family.

"El mas chico de toda la familia (The youngest of the whole family)," Perez said.

Perez would go on to spend most of his life in the town he was born in. His trips out of the Rio Grande Valley were reserved for work in the fields, or in front of an audience.

He did sharecropping in Mississippi, and worked alongside his father, who supported the family through farming. Some of the tools that Perez's father used in those days are displayed in a small backroom. He explains that while he did his fair share of work as a child, his brothers did much more, and had it far tougher growing up.

The first thing one will probably lay their eyes on when they enter his house of memorabilia is a Hohner, 2-row, button diatonic accordion that the family first acquired in 1939. It used to belong to Perez's older brother Mike.

"He would always, en la tardes cuando llegeba del trabajo (in the afternoon when he would arrive home from work), play and friends came over with a guitar. They used to play the old music. The backbone music from Narciso Martinez and Pedro Ayala. Those guys, the pioneers."

When it comes to music, Perez was influenced by his brothers, those two pioneers, Valerio Longoria, Tony De La Rosa, and Ruben Vela. Eventually Perez started playing music, just like his hermanos.

"My dad, at the time, would lay down on the floor, when I started picking the guitar," Perez said. "He would listen to me play, and he would tell todos mis hermanos (all my brothers), 'Chiquito, el le va sacar un pie adelante a todos.' That I was going to become (a better musician) than them. I never believed it (laughs). I said, 'Nah no way.'"

At 15 years old, Perez was finally able to play the squeezebox on a consistent basis. A neighbor of his named Jose Garza would often lend his accordion to him.

"He wanted to learn, and I was a little faster learner than him," Perez said. "So if we heard something on the radio, and I found out how it went, he'd go, 'Now you show me.' That's the way I would get to play an accordion (then)."

In the early 1950's, Perez performed locally with his brother Alejandro, and Raul Castaneda. Collectively they were known as Los Cardenales. A photo that captures that brief moment in time is framed near the door at his archive.

In 1956, Perez got married with Amelia Barroso, and the two would go on to have four children. The two daughters are named Delia Perez Aguilar and Gloria Perez Dunn, while the two sons go by Gilberto Perez Jr. and Javier Perez.

Perez received his first big break when he was invited to join Ruben Vela y su conjunto in 1958.

"When I joined Ruben Vela, I was trying to play a little bit of rock here in Mercedes," Perez said. "It was called the Red Rockers. I met Ruben Vela when he started. He called me because my brother Alejandro played for him, the bajo-sexto. Ruben asked if I wanted to join to play the bass and sing. Ruben didn't sing, he didn't know how to sing at the time. So me and Ramon Medina, the bajo-sexto player, were the ones that teached him how to sing from the little bit that we knew at the time (laughs). He got to be a pretty good singer, and he was one of the best accordion players. His music still lingers and it will linger on forever, I think."

Vela, Perez and Medina recorded a few tunes together, like "Vida de Vago" and "La Noche Que Llore" for Falcón Records. The brief musical collaboration they shared is kept alive by a street in Mercedes named "Ruben Vela & Gilberto Perez Ave".

"The committee asked me if it was okay to put his name there (with mine as the street name)," Perez said. "I said, 'Yes, he's my friend, one of my best, and he's still my idol.'"

Perez and Medina split from Vela and launched their own conjunto in 1959.  At Falcón Records, Perez and Medina recorded "El Dia De Tu Boda" on November 1959. Composed by Medina, the original plan for who was to play which instruments was scrapped at the studio.

Originally, Medina was scheduled to be on the accordion, while Perez took care of the bajo-sexto. As they were there practicing, Medina struggled with a few notes, so he asked Perez to show him the opening run again. Perez grabbed the box, went through the notes, when Falcón founder Arnaldo Ramirez walked in. After observing the two, Ramirez decided that Perez would be on the accordion, and Medina would handle the bajo-sexto.

"We practiced the other way around," Perez said. "(Ramirez said,) 'I don't care, you're going to play it like that.' So, the boss era el que mandaba (was the one who called the shots) (laughs). We couldn't even talk back to him, so we were like, 'Okay sir, we'll do it like that.'"

That song was a huge hit for Perez and Medina. I first heard about this tune from my father, Felix Martinez, who told me it was popular among the migrant workers he worked with at the time of its release.

"Ibamos a piscar algodon, y el troquero tenia un radio (We went to go pick cotton, and the trucker would have a radio)," Felix Martinez said. "Las muchachas jovenes, todo el dia estaban cantando la cancion (The young women would be singing 'El Dia De Tu Boda' all day long)."

Perez and his conjunto were invited back to record more songs for Falcón Records. During that era, Perez recorded "Por Qué Dios Mio", "Con Cartitas", "Aguanta Corazon", "Mi Ultima Parranda" and "Para Llorar Por Ti".

"A lot of those songs sold pretty good at the time," Perez said. He later pointed to a plaque that was given to him by Falcón Records, as a token for his success. It looked like a beautiful artifact from several centuries ago.

He is quick to tell me that his exitos (hits) wouldn't have been possible without the composers that helped him along the way — his brother Alejandro, Medina, Matias Peña, Juan Jose Lucas, Horacio Chapa, Efrain Solis and so many others, including some from Mexico. Photos of some of these men are framed throughout his place.

Deciding on who would play what wasn't the only thing that Ramirez had a role in. The name that the conjunto would be known for then, and still in 2014, was ultimately decided by him.

Perez, Medina, Alejandro, and Cruz Gonzalez would constantly be referring to one another as compadre when they were together. Ramirez took note of that and surprised Perez one day.

"So then the record came out, 'Gilberto Perez y sus compadres'. I said, 'Okay'," laughs Perez.

Perez performed around South Texas in the early 1960's, then went beyond the area in 1962. That year he toured Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio for the very first time. He would take tours that would last anywhere from 4 to 7 weeks.

Even though he was performing outside of Texas, the people who attended his shows were still usually Tejanos.

"At the time, había campos de gente (there were camps of people), migrant people," Perez said. "Mostly Tejanos from aqui de Tejas (here in Texas). They used to migrate up north everywhere. They had camps for all the people to live there. (To promote) they would make flyers and spread them in los campos, or by telephone, whichever way. We made it, thank God."

The only state he never got to perform in within the Continental United States was New Mexico.

After Falcón, he jumped to Ideal Records, Chico Records, and then formed Nuevo Records with Alejandro in 1968. A studio was built at his home in the 1970's that he named Nuevo Recording Studio. It was in operation until Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

"I shut it down because there was a lot of studios around," Perez said. "I didn't have business, ya. As far as my own personal use, it wasn't worth having another light bill, phone bill, and stuff."

An old 8-track recorder that he used for his studio is lying around on a shelf.

Although his studio is gone, he still does digital recordings in a small room he dubbed "La Cuevita". Other labels that released his music include JB Records, Discos RyN, Reloj Records, Freddie Records, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Hacienda Records.

Now in 2014, there are two simultaneous conjuntos run by Perez and his son Gilberto Jr. The members of both ensembles include Perez (accordion), Gilberto Jr. (bajo-sexto), Cande Aguilar Sr. (bass), Juan Antonio Tapia (accordion), Rene Luna (drummer), and Aldo Solis (bass).

Cande Aguilar Jr. performed with Perez during the 1980's. His father is currently the longest lasting member in the conjunto, other than Perez himself. Perez showed me a wall full of photos of when his ahijado (Godson) shared the stage with him.

"My padrino (Godfather) threw me in the front, gave me the opportunity to invade his time and spotlight,” Cande Aguilar Jr. said. “Nombre I just can’t be more grateful, I keep going back to it. He (gave) me the opportunity to come out in the shows when he was there. That counts for a lot."

Gilberto Perez, Cande Aguilar Jr. and Narciso Martinez.

The most popular song that Perez has recorded in the past five years is "Mi Ultimo Deseo". It was a deeply personal subject for Perez, one that he wasn't sure about at first. It's about a man coming to the end of his life, and telling his loved ones his final wishes.

"I didn't like it at the time, because I'm not ready to die," Perez said, laughing. "Then I started thinking, 'Why not say what I want, before I pass away? So that my family and friends would know what I want?' So (Horacio Chapa) gave me tres versos (three verses), and then I wrote six versos, so I finished it up. That's how it happened."

As Perez was giving me a tour, he was wearing a cap of the South Texas Conjunto Association, the organization that has championed his career for the past 16 years. STCA president Lupe Saenz is a close confidant of Perez.

"Gilberto Perez is an icon in conjunto that has earned the title, 'The Legend from Mercedes'," Saenz said. "Even today,  Gilberto is in the studio still producing and recording new conjunto songs and polkas. I asked him about how long he will continue to play, perform and record new material, his reply, 'Hasta que Dios me permita!' ('Until God lets me!') He is one of a few of that conjunto generation that still continues to contribute to conjunto. His legacy is still being added to conjunto life. We hope his health allows to do this for still many more years."

Perez describes his current physical condition as being "not too great". In November 2003, he had open-heart surgery, which limited his appearances outside of South Texas. Although he receives offers to perform outside of Texas, he feels it's best for him and his health to just play aqui en el valle.

His most recent gig saw him perform at the legendary La Villita venue in San Benito on December 20. The event served as a birthday celebration for Gilberto Jr., Cande Sr., and Solis. Cande Jr. made a rare appearance to perform for the occasion.

Gilberto Perez y sus compadres on December 20, 2014. Photo by Jorge L. Guerra. 

At this point in time, he has over fifty releases to his name, countless miles on his odometer, and one of the most passionate fan-bases found in the conjunto music genre. At 79 years old, he has no plans on closing the door on his legendary career.

"I'm very proud of him," Gilberto Jr. said of his father. "He sings some songs muy tristes (very sad). Miras gente enfrente de el (You see people in front of him), just staring at him. You can see hundreds of eyes and you see a whole bunch of them just crying. Transmite su (He transmits his) voice to the people. That's an awesome feeling cuando miro eso (when I see that). Hasta ahorita, todavia lo hace (Even today he still does it and has that effect). It's still the same as cuando yo entre con el (when I joined him and his band)."

Perez outside his mini-museum.

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