Friday, February 28, 2014


Robert Olivarez has been involved in music for close to 20 years. That's a lot of years for a 33 year old musician. He hopes 2014 is the year when he can finally take Eztilo, his Tejano group, to the next level.

His first instrument was the guitar, which he learned from his older brother at the age of 12. His dad played a piano accordion, and he would often get together to play polkas with a friend who played the bajo-sexto. That's how Olivarez first got exposed to the 12-string instrument.

"One day I saw my dad's friend play the bajo, and I was like, 'Wow man I love the way that sounds'," Olivarez remembers. "I want to learn that! I already knew a little bit of guitar, but that (bajo-sexto sound) was just like, 'Woah man'."

He soon started learning the basics of that instrument. A few years later he founded a band that he dubbed Eztilo. Their first paid gig was a huge moment for the young bajo-sexto playing kid from Santa Rosa.

"My first gig, we opened up for Los Palominos at a Quinceañera in San Benito," Olivarez said. "It was crazy, we were just so excited. We were little, we were 15 years old, opening up for a huge band. It was awesome, man. We were just freaking out."

Eventually the group disbanded, with everyone landing other music-related opportunities. Olivarez spent four years performing with Los Hermanos Garcia de San Antonio. The late Santiago “Jimmy” Garcia, the group's founder and accordionist, left a huge impression on Olivarez.

"I learned from Jimmy, a lot," Olivarez said. "(What I learn is that) it's not about how much you know. You can know a lot of stuff, it's just really how you feel it. He just really played his heart out every time."

Olivarez feels like he gained a lot of confidence performing with Los Garcia Brothers. When he felt the time was right, Olivarez left San Antonio and returned to the Rio Grande Valley. That's when he struck up a friendship with accordionist Arnold Benavidez.

A San Benito native, Benavidez would often go to bailes with his parents. Like a lot of young Tejanos, he became an admirer of accordionists Jaime De Anda and Albert Zamora. At the age of 12, he started taking button diatonic accordion lessons from Juan Antonio Tapia.

"I started playing with local bands, when I was 15 as well," Benavidez said.

He got his first big break in his early 20's, when a friend told him that Cali Carranza was searching for an accordionist. Carranza was sick at the time and couldn't play the accordion anymore. Benavidez got the job, and he made most of it.

"(At) about 23, 24, I played with him for at least 2 1/2 years," Benavidez said. "From there, Cali taught me Tejano, old school Tejano, what is Tejano. That advanced me a lot in my playing."

He treasures the brief time he was able to spend with Carranza.

"One special memory was when we went to Alice, TX, and he got inducted into the Tejano (Roots) Hall of Fame. We did a performance, and that was the day he got inducted. So I was a part of that. To me, that was an honor."

While the group continued after Carranza passed away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in 2012, Benavidez decided to move his career in a different direction.

"It wasn't the same as when Cali was alive. I guess it was like the same thing with Robert. When Jimmy died from the Garcia Brothers, it wasn't really much the same anymore, so he got out. That's when I got out of Los Formales too."

That's when Olivarez and Benavidez decided to bring Eztilo back to life.

"We got together, we said, 'Let's make a band, let's start Eztilo up again'," Olivarez said. "(Benavidez) knew who Eztilo was a long time ago, we wanted to try out something new."

That "something new" involves Olivarez infusing his Tejano music with a little bit of rock and roll. He feels that brings a fresh approach to Tejano music.

Former members of Siggno, bassist Joseph Scott and drummer Jacob Castaneda, jumped on board after talking to Olivarez and Benavidez.

"(I told them) I got some original songs, we have enough to make a CD," Olivarez said. "When I was with Los Garcia Brothers, I had my songs but I wasn't really thinking of doing anything cause I was with the Garcia Brothers. I was just doing it for fun. One of my friends, he has his own band (called) La Calma, Eduardo Perez, he's kind of the one that got me going on my own stuff. He said I should I try out (song-writing)."

They are hoping to finally get some work done at the recording studios in March.

Most recently, Eztilo came in second place at the "Texano Wars: Battle of the Bands" contest in Corpus Christi on February 15.

"I had a good time, we were just there to do what we do best," Benavidez said. "I got to meet a lot of musicians there too. I got to converse with them. New friends, it was really awesome."

For this year, they are trying their best to get as much exposure as possible. Once they are done recording in the studio, they would like to release their single  to all the Tejano radio stations out there. Olivarez is very optimistic about Eztilo's future.

"It's really good, I think we got something going," Olivarez said. "We just want to get out there, for people to hear us."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review - Smithsonian Folkways' Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies‏

There have been many great conjunto musicians that have emerged since the birth of the genre. From those many, there have been a few that have gone on to represent this style of music to the world beyond the United States of America. Two of those representatives are legendary accordionist Flaco Jimenez and bajo-sexto player Max Baca. 

According Baca, this album with his mentor and father-figure came about as a way to recognize and celebrate the music they listened to during their childhoods. While they have recorded many times before, this marks the first time that the two would sing juntos (together) in a recording. I'm happy to report that this much anticipated, seventeen-track album delivers in being a fantastic, multi-generation celebration of conjunto music. 

The CD opens with the romantic canción "Margarita, Margarita", a classic composition by Carlos Guerrero. To those unfamiliar with this number, it's one of the most popular songs in Tejano and conjunto music. The lyrics — "Ay que lástima, que lástima, que lástima me da..." ("Oh what a shame, what a shame, what a shame it gives me...") and "Te voy a comprar chinelas y un vestido tan bonito para que bailes la polka al estilo tacuachitio..." ("I'm going to buy you sandals and a pretty dress so you can dance the polka, possum-style.") — are so catchy and memorable. This addictive track sets the stage for what's to follow, as Jimenez darts in and out with his signature accordion adornos (grace notes). Great interpretation by Jimenez and Baca. 

The duo give Jesús Favella's sentimental ranchera "Me voy lejos" a raw, cantina-sounding appeal that makes it sound like you just walked into a smoky, dim-lit bar in South Texas. The song recounts a tale of unrequited love, a familiar subject in this style of music.

Antonio Fuentes' "La múcura" is a popular cumbia standard that many conjunto musicians enjoy playing. Baca takes the lead and sings the majority of the song solo. The highlight of this track begins at the 2:15 mark, which is when Baca starts shredding it on the bajo-sexto. Sounds amazing and it really gives you an idea of what the bajo-sexto is capable of. 

"Mi primer amor" is a Guadalupe Ramos canción that Jimenez has performed for decades. Aesthetically, this represents the type of material that Jimenez is attracted to. It's a nostalgic, heartfelt tune about how the protagonist will never forget about his first true love. Short and sweet; straight to the heart.  

There are a few songs on here that were penned by Jimenez's father, Santiago Jimenez Sr. Two that stood out for me are the delightful pair of "Cada vez que cae la tarde" and "Morena, morenita". 

We also get several songs with comical lines and narratives. "Ay te guacho cucaracho" (a brilliant Spanglish title) deals with a man waking up confused after being out drinking the night before. "La viejita" is about a conflicted young man who is dating an older woman just for her lana (money). Another example is "Brincando cercas", which climaxes when a husband catches his wife and her sancho (lover) in the middle of a very intimate act.  

This album has three solid instrumentals — "Los amores de José", "Beer-Drinking Polka" and "Fiesta alegre". The first one is a graceful, dreamy vals (waltz) that is perfect for couples to dance to. The other two are polkas that I've never heard before, and Jimenez sprints through them. He learned the first polka from an old recording, while the latter is one of his own creations. Both are snappy and full of zest. 

This album arrives with an extensive 40-page booklet, that includes both English and Spanish translations. To those that don't understand Spanish-language songs, there is a "Track Notes" section that gives you insight into what the song is about.

The intricate touches that Jimenez and Baca weave into these songs with their instruments are what makes them come to life. They can take the simplest of songs and inject them with their unique savor (flavor). This is one of the more accessible conjunto releases I've ever listened to. It's a great introduction for anyone that is just getting interested in this type of music. It's also a treasure for longtime fans, who have probably listened to different interpretations of these songs, and who know what Jimenez and Baca have to offer. What a gem of an album.  

Smithsonian Folkways' Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies will be released on February 25. You can pre-order it at today. For more information, please visit 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Texas Folklife Talent Showcase at La Joya High School‏

Alan Guerra on the accordion.
This past Saturday morning, Texas Folklife hosted a talent showcase for their statewide "Big Squeeze" accordion contest at La Joya High School. By 10:00 AM, the school's mariachi room was filled up with enthusiastic observers.

"What surprised me was the audience, there were a lot of people here," Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli said. "It was packed, there was a lot of Winter Texans. It just shows you how much they appreciate the local culture."

Choosing this destination as one of their talent search stops was a natural choice for Balli.

"The organized conjunto education program that's here is what brought us down here," Balli said. "This is a very unique program in the country. It's so big because of it's size, and the fact that it teaches something like conjunto music as a fine art credit. It's not an after school program, it's during school like choir, band, or any of those. So that's pretty astonishing. I don't know if there are any other programs like this in the country. The only conjunto programs in the school districts that I know of are here in the Valley. So it's La Joya, San Benito, now Los Fresnos has one. Edcouch-Elsa used to have one."

Sarah Rucker, Texas Folkife's program and events manager, introduced the up-and-coming musicians to the audience. The following entered the contest and showcased their squeezebox playing skills: Marco Ramos, 17, student at La Joya High School; Miguel Peña, 17, student at Palmview High School; Alan Guerra, 17, student at Palmview High School; Jose Lopez Jr., 20, graduate of Mission High School; Alberto "Ranger" Rangel, 17, student at La Joya High School; Roel Sandoval, 15, student at La Joya High School; Alberto Rios Jr., 17, student at Palmview High School; Mariano Resendez, 14, student at Palmview High School.

It was a delightful morning of great music, and a reminder of how much talent we have here in the Valley. Some of the pieces that were performed include "La Grulla", "Idalia", "Viva Seguin", "Atotonilco", "El Oso Negro", "Nievitas", "Accordiones de Oro", "La Repetida", "La Naranjal" and even an instrumental version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'".

The love for this music started at home for many that auditioned. Rangel, who has been playing the accordion for close to five years, credits his family for introducing him to this music.

"My grandpa, my uncles, all my family (got me into this)," Rangel said. "My grandpa tunes accordions, his name is Nafael Rangel, he lives here in Peñitas."

This year we saw a new change with the "Big Squeeze" format. The accordionists competing will now be divided into three different categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).

While Tejano, conjunto and norteño music has remained strong within the state of Texas, that has not been the case for the other accordion genres.

"We've discovered there really aren't that many kids in the state that are playing (those other styles)," Balli said. "We realized that we had to give more attention to the other genres, and have them compete in their own category because it's kind of tough to compete with a different genre because there is different styles, different technical skills. They are not the same so that's why we decided to try (separate them)."

Nine finalists, three in each of the categories, will be announced on April 11. They will then compete at the "Big Squeeze" finals on April 26 in Austin, where one champion will be crowned per category. The three grand prize winners will then perform at the Accordion Kings & Queens Festival in Houston on June 7.

To any accordionists, 21 years of age or younger, that missed this event but want an opportunity to enter this contest, Texas Folklife will return to the Valley with another talent showcase on March 29 at Los Fresnos High School. There is also the option of mailing or emailing a video entry for consideration. For more information, please visit

As far as what Balli thought of the young accordionists that performed on Saturday morning, she couldn't be happier.

"Nombre, they are just great," Balli said. "I'm almost speechless with how good they are."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Q& A: Javier Solis

Conjunto Solis returns to the Valley this Sunday night at La Lomita Park in McAllen. The Coastal Bend-area act was previously known as "Loz Homyz" and "Loz Unikoz" before settling on their current name in the early 2000's. The band includes four brothers and one close friend — Javier Solis (vocals), Pedro "Pio" Solis Jr. (vocals and accordion), Lino Solis (vocals and bajo-sexto), Alfonso Solis (drums) and Victor Lara III (bass). Javier Solis, the oldest brother, joined me for a conversation this week.

Festiva: Growing up in Gregory, TX, who were some of the local influences you had?

Javier: It would have to be Angel Flores (y) Los Alacranes, being that they were the first conjunto that we would listen to. Of course tambien out of Gregory, TX, you have Ricky Smith y La Movida. We also had, back in the day, Los Bandidos de Albert and Ruben Lopez. (They) were also the songwriters of "Como Te Llamas Paloma". We also had the influence (of) Mr. Guadalupe Reyes, which musicians know for his famous bajo-sextos and guitars.

Festiva: What was it about Angel Flores that appealed to you?

Javier: We first started back in '94, we were a cover band, a local band. We were real young. We would do a lot of covers from different groups, from local bands, and also whatever we would hear on the radio. It came about in 2002-2003, when Conjunto Solis finally set their sound to what we have now. Of course, Angel Flores being a real good friend of our father, and of the group, he would always give us advice. We would follow his music and his style. That's where we basically came about, picking up the style that Conjunto Solis has nowadays.

Festiva: Are there any RGV musicians that influenced you as well?

Javier: Ruben Vela. I know we did some covers from Freddy Fender. Of course Mazz. Los Dos Gilbertos always inspired us to play conjunto. Also, Tony De La Rosa was caught between the Corpus Christi-area and the Valley. Tambien influenced us a lot.

Festiva: To people who aren't familiar with your music, how would you describe your style?

Javier: Each of us have our own style of music. Meaning each of us brothers, when we're at home, we like to listen to different music. On what we play now, it just came together throughout the years performing.

Our style would be more like the older guys, the older conjuntos. Tony (De La Rosa), Angel (Flores). Mingo Saldivar has always been a big part of Conjunto Solis. Ruben Vela, Ruben Naranjo, Los Dos Gilbertos, that's our style.

Festiva: So you take a little bit from different influences?

Javier: I do speak a lot about conjunto legends but there is quite a few norteño conjuntos that have influenced us. Like of course Los Relampagos (del Norte), Ramon Ayala y Cornelio Reyna. Los Cachorros de Juan Villarreal, Los Invasores (de Nuevo Leon), there are so many groups in Mexico that have also influenced Conjunto Solis.

Festiva: As a vocalist, what type of songs do you prefer?

Javier: We'll try whatever comes around. Every area is different. The Valley has their songs, they have their styles. Some of them prefer more cumbias and rancheras. Some areas don't even care too much for boleros and what not. So what Conjunto Solis does is we try to feel the people. We'll see what they like, we'll try a little bit of country, a little bit of oldies. We'll do some slow songs, cumbias, rancheras. We'll see what the people respond to (and go from there). That's the kind of night we're going to give them. We just try to mix it up for the people.

Festiva: Any advice for any young conjunto musicians out there?

Javier: I would have to say to any young musician coming up, whatever style of music they are playing, continue going and que no se aguiten (don't get discouraged). Pa'delante porque (Move forward because) there's always going to be people that are going to put you down. There are always going to be people that are going to envy you. It doesn't matter what people say or what any other musician might think of you, it's what you feel (that matters). Keep going and follow the dream of being a musician.

Festiva: Thank you for your time.

Javier: Thank you very much.

Who: Conjunto Solis and Conjunto Los Leones
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 2/9
Cost: /$10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.