Friday, February 27, 2015

Wally Gonzalez

Wally Gonzalez in his home in McAllen.
Conjunto comic Wally Gonzalez resides on 25th ½ Street in McAllen, an area of the city he's called home since the 1940's. Gonzalez and his wife Rosa were on the side of the house when I dropped by one Thursday afternoon. Gonzalez greeted me and lead me to a room that was filled with photographs, posters, a few accordions, a keyboard, and recordings that touched many hearts.

"Le doy gracias a dios," ("I give my thanks to God,") Gonzalez told me when looking at what he's accomplished in his life.

Behind Gonzalez, a poster on his wall noted that he was born on February 17, 1940 in McAllen. I asked to confirm if he had just turned 75.

"Tres pesetas, three quarters, 75," Gonzalez said, confirming and laughing.

While some friends suggested a fiesta to celebrate, Gonzalez decided not to do anything special for the occasion.

When Gonzalez attended a local store in his barrio, instead of buying dulces like his two younger brothers and sister, he used the few coins his parents gave him to listen to music on a coin-operated pianola. In his youth, he fell in love with music and became a fan of conjunto accordionists Pedro Ayala, Tony De La Rosa and Valerio Longoria. He got his hands on his first accordion through his friend Mel Villarreal.

"We started learning to play the accordion, both of us," Villarreal said. "We were just children, we used to go to the same school."

One day, Gonzalez went to visit his classmate on his bike. He saw Villarreal throw away an old, two-row button diatonic accordion in the trash. He questioned why he was throwing it away when he went up to his buddy.

"Yo necesito una acordeon, pa' tocar yo," ("I need an accordion, to play myself,") Gonzalez remembers telling him.

"Pos mira, llevate esta," ("Well look, take this one,") Villarreal replied.

"Le di un dolar," ("I gave him one dollar,") Gonzalez told me.

When Gonzalez got home, he soon found out why it was being thrown away. The accordion was a mess, and when he opened it up, a rat leaped out!

"Honest to God!" Gonzalez claims. "He had a nest inside!"

I asked Villarreal if he remembered this story. He recalls getting $2.00 as opposed to just $1.00. When I brought up the rat, he just started laughing.

"I wouldn't doubt it, (the accordion) was all torn up," Villarreal said after he collected himself from laughing. "Back then, we used to live in frame houses, no dry walls or anything. They were on concrete blocks, there was all kinds of animals there."

The accordion was patched up, tinkered around with and used until Gonzalez's mom bought him a three row, button diatonic accordion when he reach his teens. A photo of him and that second accordion is displayed on his wall, next to a bed.

Gonzalez credits Lupe Cabrera and Rumaldo Zapata for teaching him the accordion during those early years. His first experience playing in front of an audience came at school assemblies at the now demolished Sam Houston Elementary school in McAllen. Eventually he left school as a teenager, and went up north to work as a migrant worker. When he wasn't picking cotton, he would be playing his accordion on the side for extra money.

"Tocaba alla y le mandaba feria a mi mama," ("I would play over there and send money back home to my mom,") Gonzalez said.

One of the first public places he performed at in the Rio Grande Valley was La Concordia in McAllen. His conjunto consisted of him on the accordion, Roberto Mata on bajo-sexto, Israel Segura on bass, and Gilberto Garza on drums.

Why did he use the name Wally instead of his real birth name of Guadalupe Gonzalez Jr.?

"Porque yo compongo mis canciones en ingles  y español," ("Because I compose my songs in English and Spanish,") Gonzalez said. "Por eso le puce Wally, porque Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?" ("That's why I made it Wally, because Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?")

What Gonzalez was showing me was that "Gua" and "Wa" sound the same in their respective languages. He moved forward with his new name in his 20's.

Gonzalez points to a photo of the late bajo-sexto player Mario Saenz up on his wall and says, "See that right there..." He then begins to tell me the story of him and Saenz.

In the mid-1960's, the two teamed up to form Los Gavilanes de Mario Saenz y Wally Gonzalez. Gonzalez estimates that they recorded 4 LP's for Falcón Records. Their repertoire carried "El Riky Riky", "Del Moño Colorado", "Frijolitos Pintos", "La Minifalda De Reynalda" and "La Triste Gata".

"Lo fuimos en gira," ("We went on tour,") Gonzalez said after their recordings got positive response on the radio.

They spent five years together before they went their separate ways. In 2011, they reunited at La Joya High School for a conjunto workshop and as part of the district’s third annual Conjunto Festival. Gonzalez described that experience as beautiful. Saenz would pass away in 2014 at the age of 87.

"A good man, a real good friend," Gonzalez said of his late partner. "We helped each other out. When we were in las giras, we took care of each other."

In the 1970's, Gonzalez went on his own as Wally Gonzalez y su conjunto. He became known for his comedic compositions that covered everything from local cultural observations, to parodies of mainstream hits, to whatever was being discussed in the news at the time.

"Something funny," Gonzalez said was his mission. "Not like a clown (laughs), funny like in songs and the way I am."

Gonzalez started by poking fun at himself. His short height and lack of hair became his favorite targets. He began drawing ideas from listening to people talk and observing what was going on around him.

"Platicando con la gente, se vinieron las canciones," ("Talking with the people is how the songs came to me,") Gonzalez said.

Director and actor Pedro Garcia first met Gonzalez during this time frame.

"It was 1973," Garcia said. "He played at a 'Political Pachanga' for my dad's campaign in Hidalgo, when he was running for City Commissioner as Pedro Pirucha Garcia. I remember Wally energetically setting up his instruments and cables with a couple of his bandmates. I'd be running around excitedly anticipating the music and dancing that would come that evening. He was funny, cheerful and when he played, it was magic. Everyone loved him and my dad knew he would draw a large crowd, so more people could hear his political speech."

Some of Gonzalez's most popular hits were released during this period. They include "El Taco Kid", "El Tiquetito", "Las Mujeres y Las Novelas", "Traigo Un Hickey", and "La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante".

"Wally is an awesome talent," Garcia said. "I believe lots of his songs can be like good medicine, as they cheer you up."

"La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante" is about the legend of the giant bird who supposedly haunted the Valley in the mid-1970's. Nano Ramirez of Falcón Records asked Gonzalez to write a song about this mysterious creature after four weeks of local buzz.

"Tuve que ir al Monitor," ("I had to go to The Monitor,") Gonzalez said, explaining he used the newspaper coverage to do research on this bizzare tale.

Near Gonzalez's door, he has a promotional photo of himself wearing a full-body bird suit, and his friend Carlos Guzmán yanking off the head of the costume.

"Me quito la cabeza del pajaro, eso no estaba planeado," ("He took away my bird head, that wasn't planned,") Gonzalez said smiling.

"I do remember que se vistio de pajaro," ("that he dressed up like a bird," ) Guzmán said.

Guzmán praised Gonzalez's success and concluded his thoughts by saying, "Wally and I have been friends for the last 100 years and when I get older, I want to look just like Wally."

The popularity of his work led him to tour outside of the Valley in the 1970's and 1980's, and even landed him on a December 1983 issue of the Texas Monthly.

Sandra Ortega, Gonzalez's granddaughter, has been enjoying her abuelo's comedic spirit since she was a little girl.

"Growing up with someone like my grandfather was always interesting and there was never a dull moment," Ortega said.  "I'd come home from school and my grandfather would be rehearsing his funny songs with my uncle Abel. I'd forget about my homework and just watch them. Now those were the good ole days!"

He continued into the 1990's, although now with a Yamaha keyboard at his helm instead of a conjunto. He delivered amusing tunes like "El Chupacabra", a parody of "El Coco Rayado" and a playful take on the chupacabra craze, and "Que Me Entierren En Walmart", a cult classic about how he wants to be buried at Walmart, so his wife could at least see him regularly.

Gonzalez credits the idea of the Walmart song to a late friend of his, whose name he can't recall. By the time he finished recording it, his friend had unfortunately passed away. For publicity, he would often perform this number at local Walmart locations.

"They didn't pay me," Gonzalez said. When he asked the manager permission to showcase his music at stores, he remembers them saying, "Orale ta' bueno, no mas no muy recio." ("Alright, just don't play too loud.")

In 2011 and 2012, Gonzalez was inducted into both the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice and the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito. Ortega accompanied him to one of those ceremonies.

"When I attended his induction into the Hall of Fame in San Benito, I felt amazingly proud of him," Ortega said. "He's accomplished so much in his life with his musical talents and now he's being honored for it. All his music, his hard work, and his contribution to the Tejano music industry, everything he's done with so much passion and enthusiasm. Seeing him on stage being recognized was inspiring and emotional. He's an amazing individual."

Gonzalez considers himself retired now, but will still take the occasional, rare gig if it's during the day and nearby. No more performing in the evenings or in distant locations for him. He likes to relax at home with his wife of 53 years and spend time with his family. When he is near his instruments, he enjoys challenging himself on a 7 button, toy accordion. He has been experimenting by going from using all 7 buttons to slowly working his way down to just using 3 of them. He tells me proudly that he figured out how to play a vals using 3 buttons.

A few times during our meeting, Gonzalez recited excepts from his funniest songs. While spitting out wild verses about chupacabras and el pajaro gigante, he had this giant smile on his face. The self-described 'Short-Legged Texan' is most at home when he's making people happy.

"Toque muchos corazones," ("I touched a lot of hearts,") Gonzalez said. "No mas con comedy entre las canciones y el amor mio. It's just the way I am." ("Just with the comedy through my songs and the love I shared. It's just the way I am.")

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Big Squeeze" Showcase Recap

Post-event jam session.
This past Saturday morning, Texas Folklife opened their 2015 "Big Squeeze" season at La Joya High School. The first round of this statewide accordion competition for players under 21 includes seven showcases, held throughout Texas. 

"Being an arts administrator, there is lots to do," Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli said. "Paperwork, fundraising, budgeting, and we get stressed out. When we finally got in the car to drive down here, I thought, 'Tomorrow I'm going to listen to good music all day long.' And that felt great." 

The musicians are divided into three separate categories — Polka (German, Czech and Polish music), Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music) and Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music). Nine finalists, three per division, will be announced on April 3 on www.texasfolklife.org. Those finalists will then compete in Austin on April 25, with a champion being crowned per category. 

The following La Joya High School students entered the contest: Roel Sandoval, 16; Elvis Covarrubias, 17; Armando Gonzalez, 15; Raul Resendez, 14; Marco Ramos, 18. 

The five students performed a variety of pieces that included "Acordeones De Oro", "El Sube y Baja", "La Curva", "La Repetida", "El Circo", and a few huapangos. 

"This time around we didn't have as big a turnout of contestants," Balli said of this showcase, as the previous year's event featured eight participants. "We were actually competing with ACT testing. There were far more students that wanted to compete."

Hopefuls that still want to be included can do so by sending in their recordings via email or mail to Texas Folklife, no later than March 30. 

After the auditions were done, Tejano and conjunto icon Carlos Guzmán was introduced to the audience.  

"I'm very excited to be a part of this function," Guzmán said. "I've recorded over 400 songs in my career, in different genres. I try to integrate the accordion on most of my recordings. I've been so blessed because I get recognized everywhere because there is a little sound of the accordion on the accompaniment (of my songs)."

Guzmán was the special guest for the annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival, which took place later in the day at the La Joya ISD Performing Arts Center. 

An impromptu jam session broke out to close off this morning gathering. When the students collaborated on "Palabra de Hombre", a tololoche (upright bass) made an appearance. It was a nice surprise for fans of traditional border music. 

"I've seen these kids jam all the time," Balli said. "They are great musicians. All you have to do is prod them a little bit, and encourage them. We had a little bit of extra time, so that's why I said, 'Come on guys, lets jam.'" 

Balli also asked the first ever "Big Squeeze" champion Juan Longoria, Jr. to perform. He played a waltz, polka, and schottische (aka chotiz). Conjunto event regulars Amelia and Raul Martinez started dancing during his brief set. 

I asked Longoria about his "Big Squeeze" experience in 2007.

"You're excited, but you're also nervous," Longoria said about how he felt when he tried out. "I felt good about it (afterwards). I did mess up but it was just the nerves kicking in."

The former champion had some advice for the performers that will attempt to walk away with a "Big Squeeze" title in 2015. 

"Play with passion," Longoria said. "Play with originality as well. Play as clean as you can. Have a stage presence, look comfortable. Enjoy what you're doing and have fun with it." 

The next showcase stops are in Houston on February 15 and 28, Los Fresnos on March 7, Corpus Christi on March 8, Dallas on March 21, and San Antonio on March 27. Balli tells me that this isn't just a competition, but also a way to bring all these talented young musicians together. It's a great learning experience for all those who are involved in the "Big Squeeze" program. 

"I always just love hearing these kids," Balli said. "We see them repeat, we see them graduate, we see the new ones come in, we remember things about them, they get to know us, and we get to know them." 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Heriberto Rodríguez and his "Big Squeeze" win in 2009‏

Heriberto Rodriguez
Heriberto Rodríguez was a freshman attending Edcouch-Elsa High School when he participated for the 2nd annual "Big Squeeze" showdown in 2008.

"It was nerve-wrecking," Rodríguez said about his semi-finals appearance. "It was one of my first times performing in front of people."

While out in the spotlight, with his button diatonic accordion strapped on, he saw his family out there in the audience. The judges in front of him were accordionist David Farias and bajo-sexto player Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs.

Rodríguez began playing the redova "El Porrón" and the polka "Idalia".

"That first year was a little rough," Rodríguez said. "My mechanics were very frigid, very stiff. I didn't really move a lot, I was just playing, looking at my fingers. Just trying to concentrate on my playing and not really entertaining the people."

Despite what Rodríguez thought about his self-admitted flaws, the judges were impressed, and advanced him to the finals that year.

"David Farias came up to me right after that," Rodríguez said. "He said, 'I really like your style of playing, it's very clean.' He told me that I needed to loosen up a little more. Enjoy the music, feel the music. I just kept that in mind."

Rodríguez feels that it was the challenging nature of his pieces that sent him to the finals, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.

"There was even way more people," Rodríguez said. "I was even more nervous that time around. I just remember playing my stuff, bowing and moving on."

Later that night, Johnny Ramirez of Houston was announced as the winner.

"I wasn't too disappointed," Rodríguez said. "Obviously I was sad, but I told (then Texas Folklife executive director) Nancy Bless that I am going to come back next year and hopefully win it all."

The following year he sent a recording for his audition that was produced at the home studio of his teacher and mentor Benny Layton. The two tracks were "Maria Bonita" and a potpourri of polkas that included "Viva Seguin", "Atotonilco", "La Piedrera" and "Dolly".

After his audition was reviewed, he was called up and returned to Austin for the semi-finals. From there, only two Rio Grande Valley natives advanced to the finals in Houston — Rodríguez and Gloria Jean Cantu.

To the observers at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in 2009, Rodríguez looked like a totally different performer.

"It was a big difference," Rodríguez said, compared to his first year. "I had more fun performing. I had a whole year to prepare for this again. I worked on my dancing skills while I was playing. I was smiling, giving the crowd something to feed off of."

Towards the middle of his potpourri, a loose screw caused a leak in the accordion's air flow. Rodríguez was forced to improvise on the spot. He signaled to the rest of the band, and rushed towards the final pasada (run) of his medley.

"That had never happened to me before," Rodríguez said. "I was so mad, I looked at Mr. Layton, and I said, 'I can't believe that happened. I'm so mad at this accordion!' (laughs) He's like, 'It's okay, don't worry about it. I'm glad you finished the song off, you just didn't run off stage or make it obvious.'"

Even though Layton was trying his best to cheer him up, Rodríguez couldn't help but feel disappointed at that moment.

"My performance is ruined," Rodríguez said. "I'm not going to win, I came all the way over here for nothing. That's what was going through my head."

When the award ceremony came up, Rodríguez says his heart was racing. Rodríguez points out that Cantu, his fellow Valley accordionist, did a great job that night.

The winner was going to be announced next.

"'And our grand champion...'," Rodríguez remembers of that moment. "'Heriberto Rodríguez!' Wow, I can't believe I won. It was a heartwarming experience, one of the best experiences I've ever had.

With that win, Rodríguez became the second Valley native to be crowned "Big Squeeze" champion. The first was Juan Longoria, Jr. at the inaugural "Big Squeeze" competition in 2007. The third locally produced title holder was Peter Anzaldua in 2012.

The 2015 "Big Squeeze" season will officially start on Saturday morning at La Joya High School. A "Showcase" will be held where local accordionists who are 21 years of age or younger are welcomed to audition, so they could have their opportunity to advance to the finals of the "Conjunto" category, which was created last year. As someone who has participated in two "Big Squeeze" seasons, what advice does Rodríguez have for young accordionists who will be performing this year?

"Honestly there is nothing to be nervous about," Rodríguez said. "Practice, practice, practice. That's the biggest thing. Get those songs down and enjoy the music. In the words of David Farias, 'Feel the music.' And just have fun out there. I can say that after this competition, it made me a more confident person and musician."

What: Texas Folklife's "Big Squeeze" Showcase and annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival. Bands include La Joya High School Conjunto "Los Diamantes", J.V. Conjunto "Acordeones de Oro", Palmview High School Conjunto "La Tradicion & the Silver Bullet Band". and Juarez Lincoln High School Conjunto "Sol".
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM for the showcase and 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM for the festival.
Date: 2/7
Cost: Free for the showcase, $6.00 per person for the festival.
Phone Number: 956-580-5160
Location: La Joya High School, 604 North Coyote Avenue in La Joya, Texas.