Please pardon the cliché, but it's a long way from the conjunto bars of San Antonio to Carnegie Hall. It's also a long way to Washington, D.C., Africa, and the Middle East, but in the last couple of years, Mingo Saldivar has made all of those trips.
After decades of establishing himself as a major accordionist in the Tejano world, Saldivar is literally going places. Due partly to the efforts of him and his hard-working band, and partly to the perseverance of Texas Folklife Resources (TFR), Saldivar has been getting the kind of recognition both in and out of the Lone Star State previously reserved only for Flaco Jimenez. While he still has a ways to go before catching up with his fellow San Antonian's crossover fame, Saldivar's accomplishments of late are far from modest.
"The whole thing started about two years ago when we were nominated for a Grammy [Best Mexican-American Performance for the Rounder album I Love My Freedom, I Love My Texas], but we were asked to go to Carnegie Hall about a year before that," says Saldivar, referring to the show pairing him with Dallas rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson. "And we did the Bill Clinton inauguration the same year. This thing just happened. We've been working hard over the years. I guess sooner [or later], it catches up."
Catching up with Saldivar can be tough. After notching a few hits in Mexico, he suddenly began enjoying new popularity south of the border and says he spent all but three weekends of 1994 touring down there. Then the U.S. Information Agency sent him on a tour of four African countries, plus Syria, Jordan, and Israel, during March and April of this year.
Texans who may not have previously been familiar with Saldivar received numerous lessons from Texas Folklife Resources, the non-profit organization devoted to preserving Texas culture. TFR loves working with Saldivar - they have featured his talents in their stellar Accordion Kings shows and most recently in their Texas Culture Bash, among other productions, and they paved his way into Clinton's inauguration.
"While we feel very strongly about artists who play a significant role in the history of the music," says TFR director Pat Jasper, "we also think it's important to present the music in its contemporary sense. Mingo is a really vibrant artist who has a strong following in a lot of different audiences. And Mingo is really ready for the opportunities that have been given to him, whether with us or others. There are lots of wonderful artists out there who just aren't ready for that. He wants to take it as far as he can."
Saldivar believes that maintaining his own style over the years, rather than following whatever trend whips through popular Tejano music, is what has driven this wider recognition. It's a unique style that frequently intersperses classic country - usually translated into Spanish - among the more customary squeezebox work; not many other performers can dish out a cover like "Rueda de Fuego" ("Ring of Fire"). Saldivar says he first tried the combination in the early 1950s, after discovering Hank Williams, Faron Young, Red Foley, and others while his family did migrant farm work up North.
"I started listening to the songs, and found that the stories told in their
songs were very similar to the stories told in our songs," Saldivar says. "They
related to what people do each and every day of their lives. Any of the songs
would apply to a lot of people, beer drinking, truck driving, women, fights,
love songs. I took songs from Hank Williams and started translating some into
Spanish. When I tried to do it in the late Fifties, nobody was ready for
it. I tried it again [in the mid-Seventies], and about that time you had your Freddy Fenders and Johnny Rodriguezes into the picture, and that opened up big doors for everybody." He's even added a harmonica to the band, an extremely unorthodox move for conjunto.
"They told me one time, `Don't ever try to mix an accordion with a harmonica,
it's not going to work, they'll just fight with each other'," he says. "But in
the back of my mind, I always used to think, `It's got to work.' I would just
imagine the sound together. Finally, one night, this guy came in and sat in,
and he followed me on some country and western songs, and he joined the band
that night. This was Gary Lopez; he used to play with John Lee Hooker, and he's
the band. I even wrote a polka with the
harmonica, and it sounded so weird I titled
it `What the Hell Is This?' ([[questiondown]]Que Diablos
es Esto?')" n