Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Los Fantasmas del Valle

Los Fantasmas del Valle
Los Fantasmas del Valle have been making appearances in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond since the late 1960's. While other conjunto acts from that era have faded away, this one just keeps floating along, decade after decade.

"This conjunto continues to set the trend for the rest to follow," South Texas Conjunto Association president Lupe Saenz said. "They continue to record new music and evolve into the new era as Rodney, the accordionist, becomes the new lead singer and Bobby Salinas, on bajo, keeps the group moving forward."

From the original line-up, only one member still has a presence on stage.

Hector Barron was born to Rodencia "Lencha" and Alfredo Barron on November 24, 1943 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but was raised in San Benito and Mercedes. His parents separated shortly after he was born. He was raised by his single mother until she passed away in 1949. He would soon find himself living with his grandparents, Jose and Dolores Rivera.

"I remember that when my mom was alive, I used to go (up north for work) with her and a bunch of tios," Barron, band leader, vocalist and bass player, said. "When she passed away, my grandparents started going. They didn't go when me and my mom went (at first)."

First state Barron encountered outside of Texas was Arkansas. Then around 1953, he began traveling farther up north. He migrated to Indiana, Ohio and Michigan to work on the fields.

"I loved to sing while I was working, picking cotton, chopping beets, I was always singing," Barron said. "I used to sing those songs from Elvis Presley." (laughs)

An only child, Barron met lifelong friend Julian Figueroa when his family moved to Mercedes in the mid-1950's. The two bonded over jugando canicas in their barrio. As they got older, they stopped playing with marbles and started playing with musical instruments.

Los dos amigos picked up the bajo-sexto during their teenage years. Barron would later turned to the bass. Both were self-taught.

In the 1960's, the two teamed up with accordionist Gilberto Rodriguez, another Mercedes musician, to start a band together.

"He was a little older than me," Barron said. "Pero we used to live in the same barrio in Mercedes. We got together and played at the bars."

Rodriguez remembers being introduced to the pair through a friend named Mario Gonzalez.

"I liked the way they sing," Rodriguez said. "We started practicing under my name, which is Gilberto Rodriguez, and I think we made our first record with Discos Ideal from San Benito."

Their next recording was far more significant. They arrived at Gilberto Perez's Nuevo Records studios and recorded "Mis Pasos Andaran", a composition by Julian Garcia, in 1968. This eerie tune tells the tale of a man who died but comes back as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend.

After they finished recording at the studio, Alejandro Perez, Gilberto's brother, asked "¿Por que no les ponemos Los Fantasmas del Valle?" ("How come we don't name y'all The Ghosts of the Valley?") That name stuck for Barron, Rodriguez, Figueroa and Cruz Gonzalez.

"That's the song that the Fantasmas got very famous for," Rodriguez said of "Mis Pasos Andaran". "(After the song's success) I did a couple of tours with them. We went to Chicago, Michigan, Florida. So I went around with them."

The dynamic of the band was altered after one of those tours.

"(Rodriguez) got sick and he quit playing, so I took over the group," Barron said. "Pos yo y Julian los quedamos con Los Fantasmas del Valle." ("Well Julian and myself stayed with Los Fantasmas del Valle.")

Rodriguez says there was a difference of a opinion and he gave his two weeks notice to Barron. He later decided to form Los Originales de Gilberto Rodriguez.

Many different accordionists filled that hole until 1975, when Mike Gonzalez took over that position and made it his own.

With such a crowded conjunto scene here in the Valley, the band was struggling to break through.

"We struggled for a lot of years," Barron said. "'Taba duro porque estas comenzando y nadie te quiere grabrar." ("It was tough because you're starting off and nobody wants to record you.")

Barron was forced to launch Cucuy Records in the 1970's to provide his faction with a platform. At different points in their existence, the group would find themselves recording for Canasta Records, Reloj, Hacienda Records, Joey Records and JB Records. They currently record for Latin World Records. Overall, Barron estimates to have recorded over 60 releases, including 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and CD's.

Barron notes that at first, he would look for inspiration in musicians he admired like Gilberto Perez, Ruben Vela and Tony De La Rosa. After a few years of performing, he was able to branch out and create an original style for his brand of conjunto music. It's a form of music that has strong roots in the culture of South Texas.

Their biggest exito (hit) came in 1991 when they released the album Bellos Recuerdos. The title track, composed by Ramon Medina, became their signature song. The story is about an adult looking back at his migrant worker childhood in the 1940's. Several scenes are illustrated, like picking cotton, the constant traveling, eating a hamburger and going to the movies.

"Esa cancion (That song) really helped us out," Barron said. "La gente grande, yo miraba gente que lloraban. Porque se acordaban de cuando estaban piscando algodon con sus padres." ("The older people, I would see them cry. Because they remembered when they would pick cotton with their parents.")

In 1993, Que Bonitos Años followed, which dealt with a similar theme of nostalgia and migrant work.

After being in the gang for 25 years, Gonzalez had to step away after becoming ill. Rodney "El Cucuy" Rodriguez stepped in for Gonzalez after Barron took a recommendation from his friend Freddie Gonzalez.

Barron would first come face to face with Rodriguez at the Burger King in Pharr on I Road, now called Veterans Road. That day, Rodriguez's father first introduced himself to the musicians.

"The Fantasmas thought that my dad was actually me," Rodriguez said. "That he was the guy that was going to audition. Dice mi apa, 'Pues dejame traer a mi hijo.'" ("My dad said, 'Well let me go get my son.'")

The 15-year old Rodriguez hopped out of the car, surprising the group.

"I'm short, and I look younger than I am," Rodriguez said with a slight laugh.

Barron remembers seeing Rodriguez and thinking,"Esta bien chiquito, I think he weighs about 75 lbs." (laughs) He was curious if Rodriguez could even carry an accordion.

Even though Barron had some doubt, they still went to Gonzalez's house to see what this teenager from Rio Grande City was capable of. Rodriguez strapped on the accordion, Barron grabbed a bajo-sexto, and asked, "Sabes (Do you know) 'Bellos Recuerdos'?" Rodriguez answered, "Pos, si. (Well, yes.)"

"Me arranque con ella," ("I started shredding it,") Rodriguez said. "They were surprised. They were like, 'O lo hizo igualito.' No mas oyeron esa y me dijo Hector, 'Alistate pa' el weekend.' Asi fue la cosa." ("'Oh, he did it exactly the same (as Gonzalez).' They just heard it and Hector told me, 'Get ready for the weekend.' That's how it went down.")

A few weeks later, the conjunto took off to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the Summer of 2000.

"We went to represent the Tejano part (of this country)," Rodriguez said. "There was a lot of cultural stuff, like matachines. It was awesome, all kinds of people. They were all having a ball with the music. It was an awesome experience."

Tragedies arose in the 2000's for Los Fantasmas del Valle. In 2001, Gonzalez passed away and in 2010, Figueroa bowed out from the spotlight after suffering a stroke. Bobby Salinas, a former member of Los Dos Gilbertos, covered the bajo-sexto playing duties.

One day Salinas was called on the phone and asked if he could help out one weekend.

"Dije, 'Yeah'," Salinas said. "They asked, 'How many songs do you know from us.' I said, 'Pos ni una.'" ("'Well none of them.'") (laughs)

Despite Salinas not knowing any of their repertoire, the band liked what they heard from him. He's stuck around for the past five years.

"It feels real good," Salinas said of his time with the group. "I'm thrilled being with Los Fantasmas and I'm glad they enjoy what I'm doing, tocando y cantando (playing and singing)."

Salinas and Rodriguez have helped keep the conjunto crisp in recent años.

"If there is any change (in the style), it's probably un poquito (a little bit more) more progressive," Salinas said. "Figueroa tocaba el bajo en una manera y yo toco el bajo de otra manera." ("Figueroa played the bajo one way and I play it another way.")

The retired Figueroa still keeps up with what his old camaradas (friends) are up to.

"Viene Hector por mi y me lleva a pasear pa' alla," ("Hector comes for me and gives me a ride (to a show),") Figueroa said softly.

Barron and Figueroa. 
Other members of this current incarnation of Los Fantasmas del Valle include Martin Cortez on the drums and Benito Fonseca on the bass guitar.

In their latest album Amplifique Tu Retrato (2014), Rodriguez and Salinas were handed over the vocal reigns from Barron for the title song.

"That's what I wanted to do," Rodriguez said. "I wanted people to hear como iba seguir el grupo (how this group was going to continue). That way if (Hector) ever gets out, they'll be familiar with the sound already. It won't catch (the audience) as much by surprise."

This past week on April 22, Barron celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary with his wife Graciela. He is currently celebrating the occasion in Louisiana. But he's already looking forward to next month, where he will lead his conjunto at shows in McAllen, Pharr, San Benito, Floresville, Sinton, San Antonio, Austin and Monterrey, Nuevo León.

"Because of his leadership in the conjunto, Hector is responsible for most of the success this conjunto has had for many years," Saenz said. "He ensured that the group remained constant and on course.  He never put up with nothing better than the best in his musicians. He pays them well and provides well. That is why this is still today the number one conjunto."

Looking back at the history of his ensemble, the moments that resonate the most with Barron are the difficulties he has faced. Disinterested recording labels, vehicles malfunctioning, losing instruments, the grueling road trips, the hardships that fell on his peers and so much more. He is proud that he's been able to persevere through it all, spirit in hand. While it's bound to happen at some point, he has no plans on disappearing from the stage anytime soon.

"I'm the only one from the original band left," Barron said. "Vamos a seguirle dando, a ver hasta cuando dios los deja." ("We are going to keep going, we'll see until how long God allows us to.")
Los Fantasmas del Valle at the NMCAC in San Benito.

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