Friday, July 25, 2014

Carlos Guzmán

Carlos Guzmán at Madison Square Garden
In Carlos Guzmán's home in Mission, you will find a small room near the refrigerator in his kitchen. The room contains several items — guitars, model cars, boxes, vinyl records and awards. But what he is most excited to show me is a collection of binders that his wife Melva assembled to tell the story of his long and storied career. Each binder represents a chapter in his life. They each contain photographs, newspaper articles, contracts, advertisements, checks, letters, and a wide array of other documents from 1958 to the present.

You pick one volume out, and you see glimpses of his years with Los Fabulosos Cuatro, one of the hottest acts in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1960's. Another entry will take you back in time to when he toured with internationally recognized singers. If you want to explore Guzmán's life, going through these pages would be the perfect place to start.

"The mistake a lot of us artists and musicians make is not collecting," Guzmán, 74, said. "I do have documentation though. Tons and tons of it. All those binders there."

Guzmán takes me to his kitchen, and asks me to relax. He had just finished cutting the grass on his large yard. His wife brings him over a bloody mary, and we start on page one.

Margarito Guzmán was born in Chihuahua, TX, a small community that according to the Texas State Historical Association was located six miles west of Mission, on February 22, 1940. Guzmán describes that occasion as a "bitter cold day".

He grew up with eleven siblings, plus three other children that joined the family after the death of a relative.

"We were people that migrated up north for the fields to work," Guzmán said. "My dad used to save as much money as he could and come back to sharecrop in the area with other farmers. So that was our lifestyle back in the old days."

He was first exposed to music by his father Teofilo, who loved the accordion. When his father would play card games or roll the dice with his buddies, he would often call his son to come sing for them.

When he wasn't singing at home, in the fields or at canals, his father would take him to the programas de aficionados (talent shows) at local theaters. He loved to sing Isidro Lopez's "Mala Cara". Guzmán sung it so often that he started being referred to by that title within the theater crowd.

One day when he was sixteen, Guzmán and his friends went to an armory in McAllen to see Isidro Lopez y su orquesta. Lopez was ill that night and began losing his voice. One of Guzmán's friends went up to Lopez, and blurted out that his buddy could sing his tunes. Lopez replied, "Tell him I will pay him to come over here (on stage) and sing a couple of songs."

"I was scared like crazy," Guzmán remembers. "He gave me a twenty dollar bill. That was a lot of money, I said, 'Wow!'"

He sounded strong enough that a musician from Los Continentales offered him a paying gig that night. That was the first band he regularly played with.

Guzmán then got to meet chromatic accordionist Oscar Hernandez through Armando Hinojosa Sr. He accepted an opportunity to record with Oscar Hernandez y Sus Alegres Del Valle for Del Valle Records around 1960.

The name of the album was Dedos Acrobaticos, which is a fine way to describe Hernandez's fingers on the accordion.

"One of the finest, if not the finest accordion player ever," Guzmán said. "(The album) didn't make too much noise but it was an experience."

In the early 1960's, he would still go by his birth name. That changed when his orquesta played at the Ranchito Club in San Antonio one evening.

Some patrons inquired what was the name of the group's singer. So the MC asked Guzmán what his name was.

"I said, 'Eduardo, Carlos, whatever,'" Guzmán said. "So he used the name Carlos. He told some of the girls, 'His name is Carlos.' So before you know it, the girls were like, 'Hey Carlos!'"

At this point, while Guzmán had enjoyed moderate success with his singing, he wasn't sure where he was headed. He had come close to becoming a certified optician, and wondered if that would be his future.

A new faction emerged from musicians that participated in his earlier collaborations with Hernandez. They were known early on as Carlos Guzmán y su conjunto. They would become better known as Carlos Guzmán y Los Fabulosos Cuatro.

"Los Fabulosos Cuatro," Guzmán said. "Great musician, great friends, and el nombre (that name) fit perfectly. Because during that time, which was the early 60's, the Fab Four from England came on-board. So as they were innovators in their own way, so were Los Fabulosos Cuatro. They were so advance in their music talent that other musicians would freak out."

The original four members were Carlos Guzman on the vocals, Ramiro "Snowball" De La Cruz on the guitar, Armando Hinojosa Jr. on the bass, Mel Villarreal on the accordion, and Balde Muñoz on the drums.

"Los Fabulosos Cuatro were a little bit ahead of the times," Muñoz said. "Snowball brought a lot of experience from different genres to the band. When he brought the guitar, instead of the bajo-sexto which is usually used in conjunto music, that was something not too often used. They were all great arrangers, everybody would contribute. The voices were great, it was Carlos, Snowball, and Mel. Great vocal harmonies."

Muñoz says the name change also reflected that they had gone beyond traditional conjunto music.

"There was conjuntos, and there were orquestas, with a four or five horn section, and we came in the middle (from those two styles) with a different sound," Muñoz explained.

Muñoz would later leave the crew to go serve his country, and Juan Hinojosa stepped in to be the new drummer.

In-between touring, the ensemble worked on a new album for Bego Records in 1964. They just needed one final track to complete the release.

They decided to go with an E.J. Ledesma composition that had previously been recorded by Los Cruisers. Guzmán notes that they went with it since it had a simple melody and arrangement.

Guzmán could not have imagined what would happen next.

"It caught fire on all the radio stations," Guzmán said. "That was the beginning of a long journey for Carlos Guzmán y Los Fabulosos Cuatro."

That cancion was "Vestida De Blanco", which continues to be Guzmán's most requested song.

Their success continued when they released Tiempo De Llorar (1967) on Bego Records. The LP featured strong interpretations of the title track, "96 Tears" and "She's About A Mover". Guzmán tells me that "96 Lagrimas", as it was re-dubbed due to it being sung in Spanish, became a surprise hit in Mexico.

As Guzmán entered the 1970's, members of Los Fabulosos Cuatro branched out, and founded new groups. In this decade, Guzmán worked with bands like Los Super Jets and Los Jovenes to back him up.

"They knew my songs," Guzmán said. "It just fell into place easy."

In the late 1970's, he grew tired of the constant traveling, and decided he was going to retire after a New Years Eve event in Chicago. Before he could make his exit, Rafael Ramirez of Discos Falcón requested that he record some of his material. Guzmán agreed to do so.

Ramirez sent the compositions to arranger Rigoberto Pantoja and scheduled Guzmán to record with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in Mexico.

One of the tracks he recorded was "La Costumbre".

"It was a really nice tune," Guzmán said. "The arrangement was incredible. So I started getting calls again to go tour."

He stuck around and accepted an agreement with a promoter from California to travel with a company that also featured Vicente Fernandez, Lola Beltrán and Juan Gabriel.

"They offered me a good chunk of money," Guzmán said. "I was one of the headliners in most of the areas, cause the radio was playing my songs more than the others."

One moment he will never forget is his first time meeting Gabriel. Sitting in his plane seat, the Mexican music superstar walked down the aisle and noticed the Mission-native.

"Are you Carlos Guzmán?" Gabriel asked, according to Guzmán. "Oh my gosh, yo se tus canciones (I know your songs)."

He started singing several Guzmán hits on the spot.

"I am freaking out," Guzmán said. "How can this monster of an artist know my songs? I'll never forget that. We became real good friends to this day."

After he told me this story, Guzmán played a video for me on his living room TV. It showed Gabriel referring to Guzmán as "un buen amigo" ("a good friend").

While taking a tour around his house, Guzmán pointed to a poster and a prop that he secured through his filmmaking adventures.

The first film he appeared in was Los Siete Proscritos (1968). One of the ads describes it as being Mexico's answer to The Magnificent Seven, which was an American remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai. The leading actor in the picture was David Reynoso.

"I remember a scene that we were shooting," Guzmán said. "We were the cowboys shooting back at the Indians, and there was lineas de electricidad y autobuses (electrical lines and buses). Someone pointed it out to the director, (and he said) 'It's okay.' They left it on the scene, how could it be?"

Guzmán would go on to work on other productions with Lalo "Piporro" González, Edward James Olmos, and Pedro Armendáriz Jr. Outside of the motion picture industry, he was also a regular presence on local television stations. Arnaldo Ramirez Sr. handed Guzmán the reins to host "Fanfarria Falcón" on KRGV during the 1970's and 1980's.

"The old man taught me so much great stuff," Guzmán said, referring to Ramirez. "I was his representative for business affairs in Mexico. I became somewhat of an ambassador for him."

After that stint, he created and hosted his own TV show titled "Desde El Rio Grande" on KVEO in the 1990's.

By this period, Guzmán was spending part of his time working with his family in a TV repair store he opened in McAllen. One day, Rocky Beltran and Bobby Salinas walked in to talk with Guzmán.

"I was a fan because my dad used to play with him," Beltran said. "My dad gave me the idea. 'Why don't you do a song of Carlos from the 70's, but do it your style?'"

Beltran and Salinas played "Libre Como El Sol" with an accordion and bajo-sexto, instead of the keyboard.

"Blew me away," Guzmán said. "I said, 'Wow, that's awesome.'"

The duo asked him if he would be interested in participating on this new rendition. Guzmán joined the two young musicians at a studio in Edinburg, and the final product received a lot of airplay on Tejano radio stations.

With the help of that exposure, Guzmán had a late career resurgence in the 1990's. Freddie Martinez approached him with the idea of creating a supergroup of leyendas to record and tour together. The other two legends that were asked were Sonny Ozuna and Augustin Ramirez. The first CD the four cooperated on was Leyendas y Raices (1998).

"It was very successful," Guzmán said. "So we started touring the nation. We had a lot of fun."

"Que Es Musica Tejana" (2000) was the sequel, and earned the four musicians a "Best Tejano Album" Grammy Award in 2001.

"All this excitement late in my career is neat," Guzmán said. "The limos, the superstars, were out of this world (at the award shows)."

Guzmán still finds himself singing on a regular basis in 2014. He performed at the Monte Carlo Ballroom for a 50th wedding anniversary on July 12. He jokes that he had a fantastic evening even though he missed the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez vs Erislandy Lara fight that he was looking forward to.

The amount of people he credited throughout our conversion is immense. From fellow musicians to sound engineers, it would take up this entire issue of the Festiva to list them all. He tells me he likes to mention them because he "likes to give credit where credit is due."

After more than forty albums, and countless tours, Guzmán is thinking about organizing a farewell tour at the end of this year, or in 2015. When he does say goodbye, a new binder will have to be created to celebrate the final chapter of his legendary career.

"I'm proud of everything I've done in my life," Guzmán said. "I still feel good. I think I still sing good. I feel comfortable when I'm recording. I don't have any problems. But I look a little different. Los años start taking a toll."

Carlos Guzmán at his home in Mission, TX.

Q & A - Jaime De Anda‏

Jaime y Los Chamacos returns to San Benito this Friday night to showcase his moves on the accordion, and on his feet. De Anda, the longtime leader and accordionist of the group, talked to me about his accordion style, his dancing on stage, Johnny Canales, his influences, and what he is currently working on.

Eduardo Martinez: How did you develop your own personal style and adornos?

Jaime De Anda: That takes many years because when I played with Tony De La Rosa, Ruben Naranjo, Los Dos Gilbertos, these guys would tell me, 'Try to make your own style.' Because I was imitating everybody. I started doing it little by little. By dancing, playing, and combining a lot of songs. Making intros to our music, like rock intros at the beginning of our songs. So we were changing up conjunto (music).

Martinez: Your dancing and choreography has always made you stand out, what led you to want to add that to your stage act?

De Anda: Since I was growing up with the music, I loved to dance. I wanted to learn how to dance rancheras, polkas, huapangos. So we thought it would make it interesting on stage instead of just playing and standing there. I thought of it as spicing it up, to dance, and move around. To get kids motivated to watch conjunto (as well).

Martinez: You played "Idalia" a lot early on, were you a big fan of Paulino Bernal?

De Anda: Oh yes, of course. And I hear he is my second cousin, because I hear his name is Paulino De Anda Bernal. (Laughs)

Martinez: (Laughs) That is his name.

De Anda: He once saw me play the "Idalia" polka at the "Pura Vida Awards" with Johnny Canales.

Martinez: How was it like coming out on those Canales shows on TV as a youngster?

De Anda: It was amazing what Johnny Canales did for all the Tejano, norteño, and conjunto musicians. He's gotten people to watch us from across the world, from all over the United States, that didn't know about us. But through TV, he helped us get the exposure we needed. That's what got us recognized all over the United States, across the country, and Mexico.

Martinez: Along with the musicians we've already mentioned, who were some of your other influences?

De Anda: Esteban Jordan, Juan Villarreal y Los Cachorros, Ramon Ayala.

Martinez: There are a lot of young accordionists here in the Valley, do you have any advice for them?

De Anda: Yes, first of all stay in school. Education is number one. Practice the accordion. If you love music, give it your all. Play with feeling, play with your heart. Be dedicated and have respect for the music. Respect your fellow musicians that play in the band with you. They are like your brothers. You become a family on stage. Before you know it, you enter another world when you're on stage.

Martinez: Are you currently working on any project?

De Anda: Right now, yes. We are recording a single called "Alma Enamorada". Second single is supposed to be "Ojitos Negros". We are up in the air with the (record) label so I want to say Chente Barrera (from San Antonio) is the guy we're talking to (about the release).

Martinez: Is there a time table set as to when those two singles are going to be released?

De Anda: I want to say maybe a month or month in a half later (from this week).

Martinez: What can the people in San Benito expect from you y Los Chamacos?

De Anda: Como siempre (As always) our classics. You are going to hear "Yolanda", "Mi Musica Favorita", "X-Novia". A little bit of huapangos. You can expect a lot of music, old school and the latest.

Martinez: Thank you for the interview.

De Anda: Thank you so much.

Who: Jaime y Los Chamacos
Time: 9:00 PM
Date: 7/25
Cost: $15.00
Phone Number: 956-202-3753
Location: El Patron, in San Benito.

Friday, July 18, 2014

STCA's 16th Annual "Conjunto of the Year" Award Show‏

Lazaro Perez y su conjunto with his "Conjunto of the Year" award.

This part Sunday night, the South Texas Conjunto Association hosted their 16th Annual "Conjunto of the Year" Award Show at the KC Hall in Mercedes. This event has recognized the very best of conjunto music from the Valley and beyond since 1999. The first "Conjunto of the Year" recipient was Gilberto Perez y Sus Compadres.

A display near the entrance was set up by Roy Rodriguez and his Hub City Conjunto & Tejano Museum from Pharr. Vintage photographs of legendary musicians like Laura Canales were posted there for attendees to enjoy.

Before the prizes were handed out, four individuals were honored with a lifetime achievement award. Those four honorees were Linda Escobar, Salvador "El Pavo" Garcia, Juan Del Toro, and June P. Garcia. Escobar's big announcement during her speech was that she would be celebrating her 50 years in conjunto music next month in Robstown, TX.

STCA president Lupe Saenz sat at a table in front of the stage, directing the ceremony in front of a monitor. Different musicians performed up on stage in-between the award announcements. La gente got up and danced as soon as the music hit the speakers. A charismatic man in a yellow zoot suit stood out the most to me.

The early winners were Super Tejano 102.1 for "Radio Station of the Year", Tornado y Conjunto Los Vengadorez for "Upcoming Conjunto of the Year", "No Pienso Despertar" by Los Badd Boyz Del Valle for "Song of the Year", and Un Jardin De Rosas by Los D Boyz for "Album of the Year".

The next two were for "Female Vocalist of the Year" and "Male Vocalist of the Year". The fans selected Tejano Roze of La Nueva Sensacion and Marky Lee Riojas of The Hometown Boys for those two honors.

I talked to Riojas after his big moment.

"I get real excited on stage but this took the cake," Riojas said. "(I want to) thank all the Hometown Boys cause they back me up 200 percent, all the beautiful fans, my family, and especially my wife Paloma."

The next four categories represented the key components of the conjunto — Bernardo "Bernie" Martinez Jr. of Bernardo y Sus Compadres won for "Drummer of the Year", Sergio "Checko" Gonzalez of Ricardo Guzman Jr. y Los Tres Aces won for "Bass Player of the Year", Jerry Flores of Lazaro Perez y Su Conjunto won for "Bajo Player of the Year", and Victor Tejeda of Santos Sosa Y Sus Estrellas won for "Accordionist of the Year".

Before the final category was announced, a raffle was held for an accordion that was donated by Hermes Music. The winner was none other than accordionist Lazaro Perez. This was his second trip to podium, as he had walked there previously to accept the "Bajo Player of the Year" plaque on the behalf of his absent bandmate.  

The night wasn't over for Perez just yet. Right before he was set to perform, the announcement was made that Lazaro Perez y Su Conjunto had won the "Conjunto of the Year" award.

"It feels really great," Perez told me after the event was over. "It just goes to show hard work does pay off. That's life. It goes with anything in life, you work hard, good things happen. Everyone dreams about getting this award, and I'm glad it finally happened."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Leti y El Conjunto Central

Leti y El Conjunto Central
Leticia Urbina had just graduated from Odem High School, and was about to celebrate her mother's birthday. Family and friends gathered at the JRM Convention Center in Sinton, TX for the occasion.

Leticia's present to her mother Eloisa was a singing performance that would launch off her conjunto career.

Afterwards, Leticia watched a VHS tape of her stage debut.

"I remember seeing it the first time, I was like, 'Wow I'm pretty good,'" Leticia thought of her work.

As she spent more time honing her craft, it suddenly hit her.

"Wow, I really wasn't that good," Leticia laughed about what she saw on that VHS tape. "I totally changed my mind on that!"

The decision to sing was not a spur-of-the-moment type situation. It's something that had been building up for years.

Raised in Odem, a small city that has a population of less than 3000 people, Leticia found herself in a family of conjunto musicians.

Her father Beto, and her uncle Juan were original members of El Conjunto Central.

"He just sung beautiful," Leticia said of her late uncle, who she has been favorably compared to. "I remember hearing him, and just being amazed at how strong he could sing."

It was not only her dad and uncle who were impacting her future. Seeing the attention that her two singer brothers — Albert and Mark — were starting to receive made her feel left out.

She began to ask herself, "What about me?"

"So in a way, I kind of started music out of being a little zelosa (jealous)," Leticia said. "That's what pushed me to start performing."

She first dabbled with the keyboard when she was 16. Two years after that was when she really got serious about that instrument.

"My dad is a master accordion player," Leticia said. "He would play something on the accordion, and I would just start to copy him (on the keyboard)."

After her first performance, some of her shyness went away, and her confidence grew. She started playing the keyboard and singing with El Conjunto Central.

Some time passed, and Leticia soon advanced to the front of the stage, as the groups new lead vocalist in the early 2000's.

"I always liked playing keyboard," Leticia said. "But now my passion is more to be in the front. Talk to the crowd, to sing, to bring kids up to dance with us. I totally love getting children involved, and I think they enjoy it to."

With Leticia leading the way, the decision was made to rename the band to Leti Y El Conjunto Central. The current line-up of the group includes: Leticia on lead vocals; Beto on the accordion; Ronnie Delgado on bass; Ramon Hernandez Jr. on bajo-sexto; Ricardo Lerma on drums.

She credits her father with helping her grow as a vocalist over the past 15 years.

"My dad instilled in me what I think a true musician should be," Leticia said. "I owe it all to him."

Outside of her family, one of her key influences is longtime singer Linda Escobar.

"She's one of the biggest pioneers in the conjunto industry for women," Leticia said. "I admire her so much cause she is one of the (few) women that I know of in conjunto music."

Leticia doesn't see too many other women performing at the top conjunto festivals. She hopes to see the day when more women get involved in the conjunto scene.

"It's very much a male industry," Leticia said. "There's not a lot of us. I would love to see more females out there in conjunto music. I believe there is not enough."

She estimates that she's recorded five CD's. Her catchiest recording is also her favorite —  "Limbo Cumbia". Hearing that charming song on KMBH-TV was how I first found out about Leticia's work.

The tune is a conjunto cumbia interpretation of "Limbo Rock". Leticia tells me that her father came up with the idea one night, at 3:00 AM.

"That one is my favorite one," Leticia said. "That was one of our hits from our last CD (Un Mundo Raro). I can't tell you how many times I've heard it."

Last year, she missed the STCA "Conjunto of the Year" Award Show, so she's eager to return to the annual event this year.

"We did miss out last year," Leticia said. "It's always been a great experience (in past years). I commend Lupe Saenz for having that (award show). Him and the staff. Everyone that works together to make that happen."

As far as that VHS tape goes, Leticia still has it in her possession.

"Got it on VHS forever," Leticia said. "Good thing a lot of people don't have VCR's anymore."

Leti Y El Conjunto Central, along with 13 other conjuntos, will be performing at the 16th Annual "Conjunto of the Year" Award Show. 

What: South Texas Conjunto Association's 16th Annual "Conjunto of the Year" Award Show
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 7/13
Cost: $10.00
Contact: Lupe Saenz at 956-463-6909.
Location: KC Hall, in Mercedes.
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