El Pepe Polkas

Conjunto Spotlight

Okay, you've enjoyed dancing to polkas, cumbias, and rancheras for three weeks now at some of East Austin's finer hole-in-the-wall conjunto/norteño establishments. Now you say you need a little more room to stretch out, something more like a dance hall. Well, head to 1523 Tinnin Ford Road (just off of East Riverside and only two doors down from last week's romp at El Coyote) to El Pepe Polkas. It's not quite a dance hall, but it's pretty spacious, with plenty of room to move around through the tables on your way to the dance floor.

El Pepe Polkas is a pretty new club, and may be unfamiliar even to experienced dancers. Antonio Villanueva threw open El Pepe's doors only seven months ago, with a mission to preserve the sounds he heard in his native Mexico. He proudly declares this dedication on his business card, which proclaims his venue to be
"La Catedral de la Musica de Acordeon y Bajo Sexto."

Although we heard a true Texas-style conjunto on our visit, Austin's Los Chomacos, Villanueva said he specializes in the flashier norteño of Northern Mexico, often bringing up touring bands from the Monterrey area. "I want to bring good music for my people," Villanueva says, meaning Mexican-born Texans. "Tejano music is different. It's a different crowd of people." Although Villanueva's club is new, he has experience in the nightclub business, having run the Rockin' M lounge down near Lockhart for three years (where I spent one of the better New Year's Eves of my life watching the legendary Flaco Jimenez).

Los Chomacos provided us with plenty of good dance music. The band features a sturdy accordionist, although I was especially impressed with their drummer - not something I normally notice. He had a set of tom-toms mounted on his trap set, and hammered out some very funky, hip-shaking solos on the cumbias. The band was weighed down a bit by the sound system, although I'm not sure if the problem was in the speakers or the mixing; either way, it was a little too bass-heavy. However, after a few songs (and a few beers for us), everything smoothed out pretty well.

In the back, as is usually the case, there are a couple of pool tables when you need a break from the dancing, and if you get hungry, the front parking lot hosts a taco stand (unfortunately, we didn't have time to sample its fare).

Well, for the moment, this is the end of the conjunto/norteño club spotlight series, partly because I need a break to hear some other styles of music on my Friday nights, and partly because I only know about these four clubs (Happy Days Lounge #2, La India Bonita, El Coyote, and El Pepe Polkas). I'm sure that there are other locations around town to hear some accordion and bajo sexto, so If you have a favorite place that hasn't been covered here, call me at
474-0912. Please remember that I'm only interested in the old-style stuff, not the newfangled Emilio-type of thing.

As stated when I started this series, this has been aimed more at white lovers of the music (I doubt any Tejanos need help from a gringo with pathetic Spanish skills), and I hope you'll explore these places. As much as I enjoy hearing conjunto at West Side clubs (and commend them for booking it), it just doesn't compare to the experience of being in the "natural" setting - sort of like the difference between hearing Don Walser at Hole in the Wall versus the Broken Spoke. If you like to dance, it's a blast. - Lee Nichols

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