Checking In: Conjunto Los Pinkys Readies for the New Normal

“Conjunto has survived [here] for decades and will continue to do so”

Bradley Jaye Williams remains a one-man folkloric preservation society in Austin, except he’s more than one Eastsider. He IS his community – of conjunto lifers skipping rhythms across time and stage. The Conjunto Los Pinkys cabal leader provides an epic glimpse into that corner of local music like a true educator: with all his heart.

Cisco’s power trio: (l-r) Javier Cruz, Ysidro Samilpa, Bradley Jaye Williams (Photo by Bob Zink)

Austin Chronicle: Where are you sheltering and under what circumstances? Who else is there and howʼs that going?

Bradley Jaye Williams: My wife and I are living in our home in East Austin. We don't leave the house very much at all. I go to the post office, ATM, HEB in the early mornings, and for medicine. Now, that the restaurants are closed on the block, it's been very quiet around here.

We are fine and we can handle the lockdown period, for now. We stay in contact with our family and friends via email and a landline telephone. She’s sewing masks, knitting, and making bluebonnet watercolors. She has a small garden. We watch old TV shows and movies. We make small meals.

“I received certification from the Hohner company to tune and repair diatonic accordions. I have something to fall back on. Since the pandemic hit, accordion work has been my only source of income.”

I've been fixing the screen doors and painting around the house. For musical enjoyment, I practice acoustic guitar, bajo quinto, accordion, mandolin and fix instruments for neighborhood musicians. I've been watching a lot more Youtube videos, learning new songs, and getting turned onto new music.

I find that listening to music is way more enjoyable than playing it, right now.

Ysidro Samilpa is at his home in Cedar Creek with some of his family members living with him. He has received some assistance from a H.O.M.E. grant, which helps with living expenses. He is 85 years old and widowed. We are both fortunate to have small incomes, pension, social security, etc.

Ysidro spends most of his free time cutting grass and fixing lawn mowers. He can’t sit still for too long. He needs to get outside of the house and work. He tells me that he spends afternoons on the front porch, watching and feeding the birds and listening to the radio. We all like to listen to KOKE Tejano 1600AM on Saturday mornings.

We practice separately at home, but we find that it's hard to stay focused on the music long enough to finish a song. We’re only keeping our fingers nimble. The way we play music, it really clicks when you feed off other musicians and the dancers. It's hard to play “conjunto” music in an isolation setting.

Javier Cruz, our bassist, is working and doing land surveying. He has a multi-generational family in the home. His brother, Chris Cruz, is working from home. Drummer Henry Tello is driving trucks for the city of Austin and living with his mother. I also stay in touch with other older accordionists in the neighborhood.

Sonny Trujillo and I talk every week about music and the radio “news" from Bobby [Velasquez’s KOKE] show. I've talked to accordionist Chencho Flores, who is now 90 years old. He's doing ok. I saw him cutting down a small magnolia tree the other day. He is living with his daughter. Everyone is in good health.

Manos A Manos: (l-r) BJW, Ysidro Samilpa, Chris Cruz, Henry Tello y Javier Cruz at Austin’s Pan Am Park (Photo by Bri Samilpa)

I know we miss the music and socializing. It's all about having a few beers, letting off some steam, and playing some polkas for fun. It's not about the money. There is a need to play music and also for the dancers to dance. Music is a great release for our stress and energy. It's medicine. I have back problems, but when I play rock-solid music for three or four hours, especially with Henry on drums, I feel like I've been to a chiropractor.

We are all missing that good feeling. I get calls from our friends from the dance scene, asking if we are going to get together. Some just want to talk and find out how everyone in the band is doing. Of course this pandemic is particularly hard on the essential workers, mostly the Spanish-speaking community around here – the people with strong family-ties and multi-generational households.

My wife, born in hard-hit South Texas, summed it up, sadly: “Generations of families pulling together is a way of life. The very thing that helped us survive and thrive, our togetherness, is the thing that is killing us now.” Thankfully, we are all healthy and playing it safe.

Gracias a dios.

AC: At what point did COVID-19 shut down operations for you, and what went down with the ship, so to speak, both personally & professionally?

“There’s no sense in putting anyone at risk. Our crowd is older with health problems, etc. and we all need to be careful for the sake of each other’s health. We are now ‘closed’ until further notice.”

BJW: Conjunto Los Pinkys’ last public dance was a double birthday party at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern on March 15. I was well aware of the growing COVID-19 pandemic from a friend in Italy, who advised me to quarantine, immediately. He told me not to wait for the CDC or health departments to issue orders. Then SXSW cancelled.

Ysidro, Sonny, and I had already closed down our Cisco’s lunch gigs. I was a little nervous about getting together, but we did the birthday party anyway. To be a little safer, I brought our own sanitized microphones and we did the elbow bumps, etc.

The next day, they shut it all down.

When the bars opened up in May, we still had Sam’s Town Point on the books and we had the option to play outside. The musicians wanted to get out of the house and start playing gigs again, but I was not 100% on that. We were considering playing parties and other outdoor venues. When it finally came down to a few days before the scheduled event at Sam's, the city went to Stage 4 and the Governor shut down the bars again.

I was actually relieved about the decision.

There’s no sense in putting anyone at risk. Our crowd is older with health problems, etc. and we all need to be careful for the sake of each other’s health. We are now “closed” until further notice.

Looking at a future of the band performing online, I was thinking we could do split screen videos and remote recordings. It’s not the same feeling, of course. We've encountered the same problem that other bands have experienced: some musicians don't have a home studio or equipment to make video/audio recordings.

We've done some experimentations with multi-track recording and mixing with iMovie and GarageBand. They’re posted on my Youtube channel. We still have a lot to learn. We have plans for more video collaboration with artist/director Ernesto Hernandez Ramirez. He did a beautiful job with our very first video “Mira Luisa.”

AC: As a global culture, people employ music for every purpose imaginable, obviously spanning religion to entertainment and everything in between. What happens to communities like ours when people can no longer access it in person?

BJW: It's hard to say. We will see what happens and we will ride this thing out as long as it takes. This isolation and distancing experiment may be far from over.

Like every music scene, everything about conjunto music is about getting together. Literally. Even though we can’t get together physically, the one way we can still experience that feeling is through old-school, grass-roots radio, and call-in dedications.

When you can listen to The Bobby Velasquez Saturday Morning Show on 1600am, you will not only hear some classic conjunto and Tejano music, but get a good connection to the community with many dedications, birthday shout-outs, and public announcements. It's a way for the community to “check in” and see what's going on and feel connected.

AC: Everyoneʼs had to shift or drastically alter their work situation. What does that look like for you?

“Music is a great release for our stress and energy. It’s medicine. I have back problems, but when I play rock-solid music for three or four hours, I feel like I’ve been to a chiropractor.”

BJW: Unfortunately, there is no income from any music making now. We had a request for original music for a local TV show. They were not paying a fee, sync rights, or royalties. It's not a good time to get in a recording studio with other people.

In 2016, I was part of a master/apprentice program with Texas Folklife and accordion repairman Agustin Escobar. Through my work with Gus, I received certification from the Hohner company to tune and repair diatonic accordions. I have something to fall back on. Since the pandemic hit, accordion work has been my only source of income. I am able to work from home and business had picked up since March, but it has slacked off now.

I get work sent from all over – Texas, California, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and the Tohono O'Odham nation in Arizona. I enjoy the work very much. I'm also happy to be of service to other musicians.

As far as the restart of live music, we may be in a good position as conjunto musicians to create a “new normal.” Regardless of commercial viability, conjunto music has survived in the community for decades and it will continue to do so. I've found there are many alternatives to the traditional venues in regards to performing conjunto music.

We will be there for the people when the time is right.

AC: Whatʼs your soundtrack for the apocalypse and what role does music play for you as a fan and scholar of it in times of hardship?

BJW: I listen to a wide variety of music. Lately, I'm immersed in all kinds of chamamé – a cowboy “gaucho” music from the Corrientes region of Argentina. It's sort of South Texan, a ranch feel to me.

There’s an amazing young bandoneon player named Milagros Caliva. The music has a groovy, 6/8 time and she plays it all like a dream. The time signature is something you'll find in many folk music styles: mazurka, oberek, huapango, tarantellam, or a syncopated jazz waltz.

For me, it's the beat that makes the world go around. I also like the fingerpicking guitar of Indonesian Alip Ba Ta. Hawaiian slack key music is a good, slow chill for me. For modern conjunto music, I like the sound and singing power of Santiago “Chago” Garza, Boni Mauricio, and Flavio Longoria.

Ysidro, Javier, Henry y Bradley at the Hard Luck Lounge (Photo by Bob Zink)

One of the true joys of being an older musician is watching and listening to younger musicians come up, to see how they organize their sounds and hear what inspires them. It's great to hear accordionists like JJ Olivarez, Josh Baca, and many others in their 20's just tearing it up. I know Ysidro feels the same way, too.

We can feel for the young, talented musicians who are just getting started in their careers and are stuck in limbo now. Fortunately, many have more skills and tools to create a new expression for music online in these difficult times. I ask Ysidro what he's listening to and it always comes back to the radio. For older people, who may not be tech savvy, this is still a very important form of communication.

I think these times will get a lot harder and we have to remember that although we may be isolated, we are not alone in this situation. To everyone, our friends and fans, stay healthy and hang in there! We are missing y’all and looking forward to getting together for some BBQ and conjunto music when it's safe to get together.

Stay tuned!

Check out the entire Checking In series.

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