Friday, May 30, 2014

Q&A - Ruben Ramos

Ruben Ramos and his Grammy.
Two time Grammy award-winning Ruben Ramos returns to the Rio Grande Valley for two events this weekend. "El Gato Negro" talked to me about his beginnings, singing in different languages, his thoughts on the Valley, changes in Tejano music he doesn't care for, and his new CD.

Festiva: When you first started performing in the 1960's, with your brother's group Alfonso Ramos Orchestra, did you identify as a Tejano musician at that time?

Ruben Ramos:  We were more Chicano. Chicano music was the term then. During my Alfonso Ramos tenure, which was about eleven years, the Spanish singer (would do) boleros, rancheras, polkas, and everything. I was still in high school and I wanted my friends to come and see us play. We played in Austin. My friends would tell me that, "No, we don't want to go, your brother only sings in Spanish."

Fats Domino came in with "Blueberry Hill". Kind of slow, and I started practicing it with my drums. (I thought,) "I could play this, and sing this song." It was my first song as far as singing on stage, and I was still playing drums. So consequently, I went on and learned more English songs, so I was the English singer with the band.

After that, when I went on my own, my repertorio was mostly English. I had to re-learn Spanish. So when I started with my band, I would play a lot of English, and the people would say, "Please play Chicano music!" I was singing too much English. So I went along and learned more Spanish.

Festiva: When you started Mexican Revolution, did you intend to sing in Spanish before the people asked you to, or was it that demand that moved you?

Ramos: No it was intentional.

I picked up songs that were popular, like "La Del Moño Colorado". That was a real popular song. I was not singing it right. It's about a beautiful lady with a bow on her hair, right? I was singing it like "La Demonio..." (The Demon), which changes the whole song (laughs) but I didn't know. My father said, "No mijo." So anyway, I kind of murdered some songs along the way. Then as I went along, I researched, I picked it up so I knew what I was relating to the people.

Festiva: When you were growing up, did you speak any Spanish?

Ramos: My dad was from San Luis Potosi and we were migrants. Of course, my dad and my mom talked Spanish. We talked Spanish until we started to go to school, which was in Sugarland. We started to learn the English language. By the time I was 9 years old, I moved to Austin from Sugarland. That's when we all started speaking nothing but English. Everything.

Unless we were home with dad and mom, for the most part, it was English.

Festiva: What are some of your thoughts on the Valley's music?

Ramos: A lot of la musica viene de Mexico. We kind of come and pick up some of the songs. We do it our own way. Some songs they come out of Mexico as a balada and we would come and maybe turn it into a polka. A different beat.

A lot of music comes from Mexico, and it comes through the Valley. That's where a lot of the music comes from. The Valley first, then Texas, then the rest of the United States. There are a lot of good musicians there (in the Valley).

Festiva: What are some changes you have seen in your long career?

Ramos: A big change is a lot of groups, they do a lot of pre-recordings. In other words, como dice, they may record a song, put congas but they don't have a conga player. They sing that particular song, press a button, the congas and everything start playing.

In the old days we used to record with the real horn. Nowadays a lot of people are recording with synthesizers. That's a big change. But I still have a band, and I still record with real horns.

Festiva: Do you think it takes some of the soul away to do that?

Ramos: Yes it does because it's not performed live. (They are) picking it from somebody that pre-recorded all these musical instruments. It changes texture, it changes the sound. That's a big change.

Festiva: Can you tell us about your new CD?

Ramos: It's going to be hot. Up-tempo. It's a real good CD. I'm taking the picture this coming Friday morning for the CD. I really look forward to the CD. It has some good horn players.

It's going to be called El Idolo. It should be out by the third week in June, god willing.

Festiva: How do you feel about coming to the Valley this weekend?

Ramos: The Valley people, they are beautiful people. They really show the love for the music. I'm really excited about going over there. I got some friends over there.

Festiva: Thank you for the interview.

Ramos: You're welcome Eduardo.

Who: Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution
Time: 8:00 PM
Date: 5/31
Cost: $15.00
Phone Number: 956-650-8022
Location: The Donna VFW Post 10802, in Donna.

Who: Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 6/1
Cost: $15.00
Phone Number: 956-867-8783
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

Paulino Bernal

Paulino Bernal, at his offices on McColl in McAllen, on May 21, 2014.
When talking to different musicians and fans across the Rio Grande Valley, one name tends to be mentioned a lot. It's a name that carries a lot of weight for many in a crowd that tends to be over the age of fifty. To a younger demographic, he's likely known as the local evangelist who they have probably heard on the radio or from their parents. Some up and coming accordionists know him because of the thrilling polkas that he fixed ages ago. To some young people, the name might not even resonate.

However, to folks who witnessed his rise, it's a man who did it all in the Valley music scene. He paid his dues working with regional attractions until he broke out on his own with his bajo-sexto playing brother. He built up his conjunto into possibly the best, most innovative conjunto we've ever seen in the 1960's. When discussing the greatest three-row, button diatonic accordionists of all time, he's one of the few that has an argument for greatest ever.

That would be enough to make one a legend around these parts but that's not all he did. He took part in creating two different record labels in an era that was loaded with local Tejano, conjunto and norteño talent. He released music from Carlos Guzman, Ruben Vela, Ernesto Guerra, Pepe Maldonado and Little Joe Hernandez. He established a weekly Monday night series in McAllen known as El Baile Grande. He discovered and promoted new acts. He scheduled and created his own unique touring system.

To a generation of Valley music fans that were alive in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, he was a cut above the rest.

This man's name is Paulino Bernal.

In 2014, his age hasn't slowed him down. Church gatherings and business engagements keep him traveling on an almost daily basis. The allure of the road is still strong with him. On this particular afternoon, he returned to the Valley and stopped by his Christian radio offices in McAllen to reminisce about his past with me.

He walks in speaking with a remarkably polished voice and exchanges greetings with me. He closes the door, and asks me to speak up since decades of being around loud music has made it difficult for him to hear.

Born in Raymondville on October 18, 1939, Bernal's childhood was far from the world of luxury that he currently lives in. His parents divorced when he was five years old, making life difficult for Guadalupe De Anda Bernal, Bernal's single mother, and her children. The family relocated to Kingsville after the separation.

"We lived in poverty for years," Bernal, 73, said. "My mom used to clean homes, apartments, take care of the family — two brothers, three sisters."

As children, Bernal and his younger brother Eloy worked extra jobs to help their mother out. By the age of ten, Bernal already had plenty of experience working in the fields and polishing shoes.

During the evenings in the barrio, a group of neighbors would mingle in a nearby patio for a guitar jam session. Standing next to a fence, Bernal was captivated by the sound he was listening to.

"I used to love the way they played the guitar," Bernal remembers. "I wanted to know what they are doing, how they are doing (it)."

One day, one of those neighbors stopped by the Bernal residence. He was trying to sell his guitar and Bernal argued his case to his mother.

"I told my mom, 'Buy it, I'm going to learn how to play it and I'm going to help you,'" Bernal promised.

A few weeks later, Bernal was outside his home, picking at his guitar when a stranger stopped by. It was an older man that played the accordion, and he invited Bernal to accompany him at nearby cantinas during the evenings.

"I was a young kid, 10 or 12 years old at that time," Bernal said. "They would give me tips and put coins in my guitar. At midnight I was shaking the guitar to get those coins out and give them to mom."

Bernal observed that man closely and learned how to play the accordion on his own. He says he was a fan of Tony De La Rosa, Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martinez growing up.

"Those were the accordionists of my time, when I started as a little kid," Bernal said. "I would go and hear them play, and they were a great inspiration for me."

Discos Ideal promotional photo of Narciso Martinez, one of Paulino Bernal's inspirations.  
He explored the three-row, button diatonic accordion, studying what it was capable of for eight hours a day. Bernal notes how other accordionists would use several boxes to switch to different keys throughout their live performance. Bernal himself experimented so much with it that he figured out how to find everything he needed on a sole box.

"People used to say that the three-row accordion didn't have all the chords and all the music," Bernal said. "That's not true, I proved it all these years that all the chords are there."

Eloy learned to play the guitar before arriving to the bajo-sexto. The two formed Los Hermanitos Bernal, which would later evolve into the legendary Conjunto Bernal.

"Eloy, in my opinion, is the greatest bajo-sexto player that I have ever known," Bernal reflects on Eloy, who passed away at the age of 61 in 1998. "There is a lot of good musicians out there, but to me, he had the greatest touch to that bajo-sexto. He would spend hours just playing by himself. Until he got the right sound, not only the chords or everything else that goes with it, but the sound on that bajo-sexto. (It was) like nobody else. Not only that, he's a great composer."

Paulino Bernal and Eloy Bernal. 
During those early days, radio personality Domingo Peña of Corpus Christi took a liking to Bernal. He gave Bernal advice that he's eager to share with us.

"He told me, 'Paulino distinguish yourself, even if you distinguish yourself as an idiot,'" laughs Bernal. "He was always joking. Oh man, he was so great."

The two hermanos would indeed stand out, as Peña suggested. They scored the opportunity to record for Discos Ideal in Alice and San Benito as the 1950's unraveled.

"I would skip school and go to (Ideal) or other guys (who were) recording," Bernal said. "One day the accordionist didn't show up and I was there, and I told (Ideal founder) Mr. (Armando) Marroquín, 'I can play the accordion.' He said, 'Well, let's see how you do.' I played it as best as I could so he could like it. From there on, he would go pick me up in Kingsville and take me to play the accordion with other singers. Then he gave us the opportunity to record our first record with my brother and I. It was a hit."

Carmen y Laura are two of those singers that Bernal touched upon.

That first record from 1955 included "Mujer Pasada" on Side A and "Desprecio" on Side B. The bigger hit came later that same year when the duo dropped "Mi Unico Camino". Influenced by Los Panchos and Los Tres Reyes, two popular acts of that era, Bernal introduced three-part harmonies to the conjunto music genre. To pull of this feat, he enlisted vocalist Ruben Perez. The two teenage brothers were starting to be seen as pioneers.

Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, has released three Conjunto Bernal CD's that feature those rare, early recordings from Ideal — 16 Early Hits, Mi Humilde Corazon, and Mi Unico Camino.

One of the Arhoolie re-releases. 
"Bernal is a brilliant musician," Strachwitz said. "Similar to what (Zydeco accordionist) Clifton Chenier was like. He (as in Clifton) was an amazing musician who once told me, 'Chris, you got to be a little bit ahead of the audience, just to have something new all the time.'"

Conjunto Bernal began touring all across Texas after those first hits. They eventually became big enough draws that they started touring throughout the country.

"I was making a lot of money with Conjunto Bernal," Bernal said. "No more picking cotton, no more shoe shining, I'm going to dedicate my life fully to playing music."

Mike Lopez, who once operated a Valley record label titled Mestizo Records, remembers seeing Conjunto Bernal in those days.

"They were incredible," Lopez said. "Widely imitated, never duplicated."

Marroquín started Nopal Records in 1960.
During the 1960's, Bernal introduced the chromatic accordion to his audience after Oscar Hernandez joined the gang. The dynamic of the group progressed with it now featuring two maestros. One day a fan asked Bernal why he invited Hernandez to join his conjunto.

"I said, 'Well I started hearing him, he was a tough musician playing great accordion (music) and if you can't beat him, join him,'" Bernal laughs hard, slapping his thighs. "We did incredible things with those accordions."

Oscar Hernandez, Paulino Bernal and Conjunto Bernal during the 1960's.
Joel Guzman, arguably the most versatile accordionist today, recalls seeing Conjunto Bernal in the Valley and in Washington during the early-to-mid 1960's. While he grew up in the Pacific Northwest, his parents would bring him to South Texas at least once a year to visit family. He projects that the venue he saw the group in for the first time was either Blue Moon in Pharr or Vera's Palladium in Weslaco.

"Bernal was very innovative," Guzman said. "Instead of just playing the accordion, (Bernal) got up and played the bass in a rock and roll tune."

I bring up this story to Bernal, and he notes that he tried to raise the profile of his band by attempting to draw fans from outside regular conjunto followers. To do that, he brought in elements from other styles, like the aforementioned trio style, orquesta, ballroom, various Latin@ forms and rock & roll.

"These guys were dressed like rock stars," Guzman said. "They had something going on. They knew how to market themselves."

This recollection from Guzman gives Bernal a flashback to the early part of his career, which gives us a glimpse into the early class divide in the early Tejano and conjunto scene.

Bernal me dice que when he was growing up in Kingsville, there was two patios. One was called Junior's Patio, and it was for conjuntos. The other one was known as El Patio, and it was used for Mexican-American orquestas like Beto Villa and Luis Alcaraz. He described the former as being for “la raza” (his exact phrase), while the latter was for upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans, or jaitones.

"I would see people all dressed up in their suits and everything," Bernal observed of the crowd at El Patio. "Y aqui (en Junior's Patio), pura raza, which was okay but I wanted to (play) over there too."

He impressed fans on the first site but aimed at getting a gig on the upscale stage, which rewarded musicians with more lana. Thanks to that hybrid style that was covered earlier, it didn't take long until he pressed on to the second patio.

Bernal made several key moves that shook up the conjunto business in the 1960's. One of them was when he partnered up with Joseph H. Gonzalez and Lillie A. Gonzalez to form Bego Records.

The Gonzalez's promoted Conjunto Bernal when they performed in Michigan. The married couple were admirers of the way Bernal and his musicians sung. However, Lillie was perplexed by some of the material that they were recording at the time.

"(She) couldn't understand why most of their music was all polkas, huapangos, and things like that," Yolanda Gonzalez, Lillie's daughter, said. "They were such a good band. Paulino (Bernal) told them, 'Well that's what the record labels there in the Valley (want).'"

After listening to Bernal's answer, Joseph asked him how much it would cost to start their own record company.

"They came up with a figure," Yolanda said. "My dad says, 'Okay let's do it.' My mom said, 'Let's get it rolling.' She wrote out the first contracts for those musicians (that night)."

The name of the new company was agreed upon early. "Be" and "go" would stand for the first two letters of the last names involved.

Offices were opened at 415 S. 17th Street in McAllen. Most of the recordings were completed at Jimmy Nichols' studio on Dallas Ave. in the same city. Bob Tanner's TNT (Tanner N Texas), a pressing plant in San Antonio, manufactured the vinyl records.

"My mom and dad were the money people," Yolanda said. "Paulino was doing a lot of the producing. It was him and Armando Hinojosa."

The label became one of the most successful Mexican and Mexican-American record companies in America at the time. Yolanda notes that their only competition was Discos Falcón.

Bernal is credited with discovering several talented artists that recorded for his company. Judging by the excitement in his voice, he seems most proud of two in particular.

Bernal's cuento begins in 1963, at a cantina in Reynosa where two young performers came over to sing for him. After a few songs, Bernal bluntly told them that they were never going to amount to anything. When they asked why, Bernal replied that their act was just canciones from Los Alegres de Terán. That if they wanted to make it big, they needed their own material. The two men fired back saying that they had original work.

The pair started singing, "Ya no llores mujer, ya no estes triste..."

As he heard "Ya No Llores", Bernal saw the future of norteño music before him.

"Cornelio Reyna and Ramon Ayala," Bernal said. "So I told them you go tomorrow to McAllen, I'm going to record you."

In our conversation, Bernal made no reference to Hinojosa. However, others have stated that it was Hinojosa who advised Bernal to go to that bar, to specifically see Ayala and Reyna.

Those early Bego recordings of Los Relámpagos Del Norte can still be seen popping up at second-hand stores in McAllen and Weslaco from time to time.

"He's a brilliant businessman," Strachwitz said. "He really knows how to take care of business and find out where it's at."

Los Relámpagos Del Norte's first release for Bego. 
The two parties officially split off after a financial dispute near the end of the decade. The Gonzalez's bought Bernal's share of the company, and he used that money to launch Bernal Records, which also specialized in the same market.

One successful idea that Bernal came up with is the Bego (or Bernal) Caravana. As he described to me, he would start two separate tours simultaneously in two different cities across the U.S. After a performance, the act(s) would leave one city to go to the next one on the tour. As the journey came to an end, each course would be completed in the other's starting point. He did that both on a national and local level.

In the second half of the 1960's, he created what is known as "El Baile Grande". He went to the McAllen Civic Center, requesting to book the venue every Saturday night. Bernal tells me that they responded with, "No that's impossible, we have a lot of bookings." When Bernal asked what dates would be available, they replied with Monday. He took all of those dates, placed his deposits, and rented the venue for what would become a weekly extravaganza. He was a frequent headliner at his own dances.

"It was the biggest dance, I'd say, in the state of Texas," claims Bernal. "Monday there was no competition and all the musicians were free (as in, not booked). Nobody would hire them anyway on Monday's. I had the choice of booking whatever I wanted to."

Bego release named after "El Baile Grande". 
In 1968, Conjunto Bernal was invited to Vietnam to entertain the troops as part of the USO. For 21 days they toured with the help of three helicopters. The musicians were in one aircraft, the instruments in another, and the soldiers that were protecting them were in the third.

"We would go down there to sing to those guys," Bernal said. "Guys from the Valley, El Paso, San Diego, California, from all over the United States."

Professionally he was successful as a musician, promoter, and record producer. Personally he describes himself as being "lost" in the late 1960's to the early 1970's. He credits a young person for taking his life and career into a different direction. That new camino led him to becoming a born-again Christian in 1972. Since then, he has dedicated his life to spreading the gospel.

"Everyday we are out," Bernal said. "Going to auditoriums, dance halls, everywhere that we can go. We rent them and we tell people about salvation."

Even though certain aspects have changed, some characteristics have remained the same. He's still playing music, his ensemble is still Conjunto Bernal, and the style he originated has stood strong through generations of fans.

"We sing songs that we used to do before, but now with Christian lyrics," Bernal said. "It's the same trio, the same style, the same everything. Just the lyrics changed. Once in a while, I play them a good polka."

The biggest hit of his Christian-era is "Un Dia A La Vez", which is a Spanish version of "One Day At A Time", written by  Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson.

Paulino Bernal's most popular Christian release. 
While he's been dedicated to his ministry and radio stations for the past 42 years, he's had a few moments where he's returned to the field that made him famous. In December 2007 and February 2008, Bernal visited the Mafia Studios in Houston to record El Maestro Del Acordeon Y Sus Polkas, his first non-Christian recording in 36 years. He doesn't want his conjunto contributions to fade away.

"I did it to bring all those polkas into digital sound," Bernal said. "Also to do some new stuff in there, to leave for the young people."

From those new slick recordings, along with YouTube videos of "Idalia", "Elegancia", "Dolly" and "Morir Soñando" that have popped up online recently, it's clear that he still has first class skills. It's quite the sight seeing his agile, vibrant fingers work their way up and down the three rows on the Dino Baffetti that he is holding on those clips.

"He still plays every bit as good as he ever did," Guzman observes. "He's been somebody that's always been on the top of my list as one of the biggest influences of my life."

Bernal tells me about how he's been watching internet videos as well. He likes seeing young people playing his polkas. I tell Bernal that I recently saw a teenager at La Joya High School perform one of his piezas. He smiles, then starts talking about what surprises him the most is when he sees videos of kids from other countries interpreting his material.

Paulino Bernal's only non-Christian recording in the past 42 years.
As our chat nears its end, he tells me he's going to do service later that day in McAllen at his Valley Worship Center on McColl in McAllen. Then he's back on the road, as he visits Mexico the following day.

Bernal continues to be a mesmerizing character to discuss in 2014. Most people I've talked to, that know his work, have something spirited to say about what he's accomplished over the course of seven decades. A man who has successfully navigated though the life that Bernal has sprinted through is unheard of. One way to get across his unrelenting drive for success, is to point to an answer he gave me when discussing his job as a shoeshiner.

"When I see a young kid with a shoeshine (kit), I go and give him a big tip," Bernal said with a big smile. "I know what it is, you know. I always said to myself (as a kid), 'I'm going to give him the best shine that he has ever seen, because I want him as a client.' When I started playing the accordion, I said, 'I'm not going to be just any accordionist. I'm going to be the best.'"

Friday, May 23, 2014

Los Layton Return in 2014‏

The legacy of the legendary Los Layton group had been riding strong for more than 50 years. By 2011, the musical clan from Elsa was headed by the brother-sister duo of Benny Layton Sr. and Norfy Layton Gonzalez.

"My other two brothers had already retired," Norfy said. "But we decided to keep the band going."

Los Layton were still an in-demand conjunto. The year prior they had performed at the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. In the Valley, they had a steady stream of gigs that kept them busy on the weekends.

Tragically that all changed on March 26, 2011, when the world found out that the beloved Benny Layton Sr. had passed away.

"It's irreparable, you really never get over it," Norfy said. "You stand beside this one person, for fifty years, and then all of a sudden he's removed."

Paul Layton, Benny's son, was also a part of Los Layton at the time. He lost the drive to keep the ensemble going after the unexpected passing of his father.

"We stopped after the death of my dad," Paul said. "We had a couple of private gigs after his passing, then after that, we just put everything hold. Because it was too much to bear, as a family."

Several years had passed since the traumatizing experience they went through in 2011. Then on November of 2013, the Layton family was celebrating Thanksgiving and watching a football game. That's when Norfy first came up to Paul about starting the band again. According to Norfy, Paul wasn't sure at first.

"I'm very persistent," Norfy said.

The past had been on Norfy's mind, and she hoped that she could use Los Layton name to help establish the new generation of talented Layton family members. Norfy decided to go online to show Paul and her family how serious she was.

"I'm going to post on Facebook, I'm going to put some pressure on him and everyone else," Norfy said laughing.

She went on Facebook in January and posted the following on her profile: "Ok...time is up. I have decided to take the lead. Bringing Los Layton back. Look forward to being back on stage. Will be holding auditions in a couple of weeks."

The support started pouring in from family members and fans. The status quickly got a hundred likes. Norfy took charge and was moving forward with the new entourage.

"I took them by the reigns and said let's go," Norfy said. "So we sat down, and before we knew it, we started practicing in late January."

Once they were all together again, Paul felt that this was going to be a special year for the family.

"We decided 2014 was going to be our comeback year," Paul said. "We are going to go as long as we can go."

The group that got together includes several generations of Layton family members, as well as friends of the family: Norfy on vocals; Paul on drums and vocals; Norfy's grandson Oscar Gomez on accordion; Bobby Layton on guitar; Jimmy Cano on bass; Gabriel Cabrera on saxaphone; and Benny Layton Jr. as the booking agent.

Their return took place at Borderfest in Hidalgo on March. With it being near three years to the death of Benny Sr., it was an emotional experience for those involved.

"It was difficult, my first songs were very hard," Norfy said. "It was something that needed to get done (though)."

It was a moving day for Paul as well. He feels that his father was there in spirit.

"It's an indescribable feeling," Paul said. "It just feels overwhelming to see that the fans haven't forgot about the Laytons."

Since then, Los Layton have had two CD release parties in Mission and Elsa. Paul describes it as a special edition CD since it includes photos of the family, throughout the decades. It's a glimpse through their rich, musical history.

"That's why it's so special," Paul said of the new Amor Mio album. "So people can reminiscence."

The 10-track release had been in the vaults for three years. Norfy felt now was the right time to finally release it to the world.

"It was a project that (Benny Layton Sr.) had left pending," Norfy said "I felt that would kind of add closure to that chapter of Los Layton and we'd be ready to open up a new chapter with Los Layton, the next generation."

Fans interested in obtaining a copy can do so by getting in contact with the groups Facebook page at

Details of upcoming gigs will also be updated on that page. One scheduled appearance that is already confirmed takes place at the 23rd Annual Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival on October 26 of this year.

Now that Norfy is back on the stage, with her family and close friends, she feels right at home. It's been a long, tough journey but she feels blessed to be where she is at in 2014.

"It filled my void," Norfy said. "This is where I belong. This is what I needed in my life, to make me who I am, complete again."

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review - Smithsonian Folkways' Taquachito Nights‏

As we reach the mid-point of 2014, the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center has already started making plans for its 23rd annual conjunto festival.

In 1998, their yearly conjunto celebration was recorded live for an album release, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Folkways and the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce. It's a great representation of puro border music in el Valle.

The album opens up with Gilberto Perez's "El Burro Pardo", a light song that covers the jealousy of an older lover in a relationship. This tune is sprinkled with some neat word play and a lively accordion sound.  

Ernesto Guerra's two piezas — "La sicodélica" and "Calle Diez y Siete" — showcase his swift, self-taught accordion playing skills. Before this live recording, one had to track down obscure releases from Bego, El Pato and RyN to be able to listen to these instrumentals. The first is a psychedelic polka, which is built around a zany sounding shuffle that Guerra invented one afternoon in Illinois during the 1960's. To create this peculiar sound, Guerra had to open and close his squeezebox at a breakneck pace. According to the linear notes, Guerra used to call this adorno "El Jorgoneo". It's one of my all time favorite polkas to listen to. The second one is an appealing huapango named after 17th street in McAllen, which was Guerra's home territory.

"Bellos Recuerdos" by Los Fantasmas del Valle is a beautiful cancion that illustrates the plight of the Valley migrant worker. The song describes several vivid scenes ranging from hardships to sweet memories, like picking cotton, the constant traveling, eating your first hamburger and going to the movies. This is such a sincere and heartfelt song. If you ever get the chance, check out some of the YouTube comments to this piece. Many people have a strong emotional connection with this cancion.

As explained in the linear notes, "Atotonilco" is one of the more popular piezas among aspiring accordionists. This iconic Tony De La Rosa number has roots to a Juan Jose Espinoza Guevara song by the same title. De La Rosa has transformed that into a spirited conjunto polka that fills one with alegria. With the possible exception of "Viva Seguin", this might be the most recognizable polka in the genre.

The 1990's hit "El Coco Rayado" closes out this charming collection. With the help of Enrique "Flaco" Naranjo's vocals, Ruben Vela's career was rejuvenated when he released this power cumbia during a decade that was dominated by far younger musicians. This catchy, amusing cumbia takes you right back to the 1990's. I always loved his signature at the end — "Que bruto, me avente, me avente!" That line is probably best described as a vocal pat on the back.

This album arrives with a 36-page booklet, that carries English translations of the songs. It also includes a great article about conjunto by David Champion, Ramon de Leon and Cynthia L. Vidaurri. Other tracks on here feature festival music from Valerio Longoria, Mingo Saldivar, Ricardo Guzman, Freddy Gonzalez, Martin Zapata, Amadeo Flores, Joe Ramos and Conjunto Aztlan.

This compilation offers you a chance to discover the range of styles and trends found in this corner of the world. It's a delight taking in the exclusive characteristics that are brought forth by forms like schottisches, rancheras, polkas, cumbias, danzóns, redovas, boleros and huapangos. It's a showcase of what a great festival like this provides to the world. A strong recommendation to any fan of regional music.

Available for purchase at Also streaming at Spotify on Facebook. Check out the Narcisco Martinez Cultural Arts Center at

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ruben De La Cruz

Ruben De La Cruz
While out working on the fields, a young Ruben De La Cruz would use his breaks from hard labor to go watch conjunto musicians Ruben Vela and Gilberto Perez. Born in Joliet, Illinois, as his Valley-native parents were migrant workers, Ruben would travel up north every year to work with his family.

While up there, he was exposed to accordionists who would also make the seasonal trip. He started to get a feel for that unique Valley sound.

"Hay comenzo," ("That's when it started,") De La Cruz, 37, said. "My dad tambien tocaba poco la accordion." ("My dad also played the accordion a little bit.")

Ruben's dad, David De La Cruz, had a Hohner accordion in the 1980's. The young kid enjoyed messing around with it for fun. One day David noticed his hijo with his accordion.

"Quieres tocar? Vamonos!" ("You want to play? Let's go!") De La Cruz remembers his dad telling him that day. "So since then (I've been playing). I was eight years old."

David started by having his son hang out with his musician friends. Then one time when they were in Florida, he took Ruben to an accordion teacher there named Tomas Maldonado. He learned "Nuevo Laredo" in two hours, his first polka.

"He pushed me, he pushed me, hasta que aprendi," ("until I learned,") De La Cruz said of his dad.

After that trip to Florida, the young musician was taken to Ruben Vela's house three to four times a week so he could study with a local master. By the age of 12, Ruben says that he was already playing professionally in bars.

"Todas las cantinas in Harlingen," ("All the bars in Harlingen,") De La Cruz said laughing. "My dad hablaba con todos los dueños." ("My dad talked to all the bar owners.")

Ruben does note that a few of the owners were hesitant and didn't allow him to play. A few years later, the group he was performing with finally started calling themselves Ruben De La Cruz y su conjunto.

While all of this was going on, Ruben and his family were still making trips to work. In 2000, he got a big break when he was asked to record for Hacienda Records in Corpus Christi. That was when his life changed.

"Ya no queremos eso," ("We didn't want that anymore,") De La Cruz said. "Me pare de ir al norte y me dedique a la musica." ("I stopped going up north and I dedicated myself to the music.")

He prides himself on being one of the few current conjunto musicians that creates new, original material. Since that turning point, he's released 14 CD's through Hacienda Records and Discos RyN. Some of his most popular songs include "El Proximo Viernes" and "Agua De Fruta". When he's playing here in the Valley, he says that there is a strong demand for polkas like "Asi Se Baila En Tejas".

"I think that's the number one thing que pide la gente," ("that the people ask for,") De La Cruz said. "Ya sabes, la gente del Valle son muy polkeros aqui." ("You know the people of the Valley are polkeros here.")

The current line-up of his conjunto includes: De La Cruz on the accordion and vocals; Frank Hernandez on bajo-sexto and vocals; Felix Aleman on bass guitar; Mike Vallejo Jr. on the drums.

While he's no longer a migrant worker, he finds himself on the road on a consistent basis. With his red Gabbanelli accordion, he enjoys exposing Valley-style conjunto to Mexico and the rest of the states in America. What Vela and Perez did in past years, De La Cruz is doing today.

"It feels awesome, we see different places," De La Cruz said. "We went to California and on the way back, we took a trip to Vegas. We had a good time."

Mother's Day Dance
Who: Ruben De La Cruz y Su Conjunto and Pepe Maldonado
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 5/11
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Three New Champions

Sarah Rucker, Aaron Salinas, Garrett Neubauer, Randall Jackson II, and Cristina Balli.
This past Saturday afternoon, Texas Folklife hosted their statewide "Big Squeeze" finals and concert at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX.

The band line-up included last years winner Michael Ramos, Fabulous Polkasonics, Sunny Sauceda, and Curtis Poullard & the Creole Zydeco Band.

This year saw a new change with the "Big Squeeze" format. The nine finalist were divided by three different categories — "Polka" (German, Czech and Polish music), "Zydeco" (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and "Conjunto" (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music).

The person crowned as "Polka" champion hails from Altair, TX. Garrett Neubauer, 23, first got interested in the accordion when he saw his late father playing it.

"After he passed away, I just wanted to pick it up," Neubauer said. "You know, make him proud."

He was eight years old when he first started squeezing. While his grandfather taught him a little bit, he is for the most part self-taught. He was pretty excited when he found out he advanced to the finals, he said.

When he was announced as the winner, he was stunned.

"I can't even describe the feeling," Neubauer said. "I didn't know what to think, I had really never won anything in my life."

Later that night, he went back to his hotel and jammed out with his friends until 2 AM.

Born and raised in Deep East Texas, Randall Jackson II became the first ever "Zydeco" champion. Currently living in Weatherford, he grew up surrounded by Zydeco and Creole music. As he entered his teens, he decided it was time to pick up the accordion.

"I liked the music," Jackson, 20, said. "I am Creole and I do have (family) roots in Louisiana."

His main influences are Keith Frank, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Clifton Chenier. From being a keen listener, he taught himself how to play the accordion. He took some time away from his music studies and homework to show the Texas Folklife judges what he was capable of on Saturday.

With his mom and aunt in attendance, Jackson was announced as the new kingpin of the "Zydeco" division.

"It felt pretty good," Jackson said. "It feels good to be with other musicians."

One of Jackson's highlights of his weekend was seeing Je'an-Trel Jolivette and DeJe'an Jolivette perform in the same category as him. He hopes that they, along with himself, move forward in keeping Zydeco and Creole music alive.

San Antonio's Aaron Salinas walked away with the "Conjunto" title. The 19-year-old credits his grandfather for introducing him to the accordion at the age of 8.

"He basically told me and showed me what it was," Salinas said, after one day he stumbled across his grandfather's accordion. "He sat me down and put on an instructional video."

Shortly thereafter, his grandfather started taking him to get lessons and got him involved with the local conjunto scene. In 2011 he auditioned for his first "Big Squeeze" contest but he didn't advance. He decided to give it another shot in 2014.

Salinas played "Maria Bonita" and a paso doble on Saturday. Noticing who was one of the judges made him a bit anxious.

"It was exciting," Salinas said. "On the panel of judges, one of them was Sunny Sauceda. Just having a two-time Grammy award winner there judging was a little nerve-racking."

When he found out they ruled in his favor, he was relieved.

"I felt very happy to have been there with my family," Salinas said. "Especially my grandfather, I was just happy that I could win it. Not just for me, but for him, because he's been the biggest supporter and influence for me."

The three champions received a brand-new Hohner accordion, a cash prize, and will have their careers advanced with a variety of opportunities.

Accordion aficionados interested in seeing a performance featuring all three "Big Squeeze" champions are invited to this year's "Accordion Kings and Queens" event. The squeeze-box celebration is scheduled to be on June 7, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston, TX. More details will be available soon at