Tejano-Americano? More Latino movers and shakers, Part III, whatever the genre.
1) Locals like Rosie Flores, Patricia Vonne, Sarah Fox, Mary Welch, and Joanna Ramirez are the first generation of female musicians/singers to transcend the old-school macho that kept most Latinas from lifelong careers in music.
2) Latino music is still largely misunderstood outside its own culture, because it's perceived as all being the same.
3) The Austin branch of the genre considers itself infinitely better off than five years ago because of the work of Raul Alvarez and the Austin Latino Music Association (www.austinlatinomusic.com), new Tejano station KXTN, Rich Garza and Alex Vallejo's Pachanga Festival, Rose Reyes out front of and behind the scene at the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, entrepreneurs such as Isidoro Lopez, and local Latino music magazine Austin Vida.
That's a good start toward Latino music taking its rightful place as part of Austin's vaunted music scene, but there's more to be done. Venues are limited, and musicians and their supporters will have to match the cyber-pace of the Internet – even the Austin Latino Music Association finds resources lacking to update its website regularly.
"The more exposure the better," states Grupo Fantasma's Adrian Quesada unequivocally. "A lot of people are quick to say, 'Why isn't Latino music covered more?' but there's so much music in Austin, no one covers all of it. With Austin Vida, there's an option of something that actually covers Latino music. And five years ago, you wouldn't have a festival like Pachanga."
DEL CASTILLO: Call It ¡Americano!
Tejano or cumbia? Salsa or mariachi? Ranchera or Norteño? Orquesta or conjunto? Most Latino musicians agree that Latino music is deeply misunderstood outside their community and often misidentified.
Nowhere is that conundrum better illustrated than in the Chronicle Music Poll's Best Latin Contemporary and Best Latin Traditional categories. For the past several years, Del Castillo and Grupo Fantasma – hardly traditionalists in a conventional manner – tussle for those top spots.
Confusion about distinctions in Latino music is widespread. For Austin's Del Castillo and its broad-based sound that uses Spanish and American influences as a springboard, one answer was to find a new term that didn't limit the group, according to guitarist Mark Del Castillo.
"Honestly, the Tejano market is probably the least favorable for us," he acknowledges. "They like it a certain way, and we're all over the map. We're a mix of all the styles we grew up with – rock, blues, Spanish, Mexican – but we're not Tejano at all.
"Grupo Fantasma and Del Castillo are always trying to break down the boundaries. A couple of songs we write might be traditional; a couple might be contemporary. Our publicists are starting to call it 'Americano.' We were at an Americana festival, and they'd labeled us 'Americana.'
"I thought, 'That's a first.'
"'We're more Spanish-Americana,' I told a friend. 'Americano,' he replied, and we've been sticking with that. For us, that's the best description for our music. It hints at the fact that it's Latino, but it's also American, infused with rock and blues and jazz. It's American with a Spanish flavor, so we call it 'Nuevo Americano.'
"But, whether it's 'Americano' or 'Nuevo Americano,' after eight years and four CDs, it's still really hard for me to accept labels."
PACHANGA FESTIVAL: Redesigning the Box
The first Pachanga Latino Music Festival in 2008 was a success simply because it happened. The brainchild of Rich Garza and Alex Vallejo, its intent was to highlight Latino music by illustrating its nontraditional spectrum. In its second year, Garza explains, the lessons of the first festival were heeded.
"I think we excluded part of the Latino population by focusing more on Latin alternative/left-of-center offerings," he posits. "We tried to address this by having acts like Michael Salgado, Mariachi Las Alteñas, and A.J. Castillo this year. People were literally like, 'Man, Latin music and no mariachis, what gives?'
"That was an easy fix and something that makes it even more fun and representative of the wild diversity in the Latino community."
In addition to Norteño superstar Salgado and local draws Brownout, Ocote Soul Sounds, and David Garza, the one-day festival at Fiesta Gardens on Saturday features three stages of music, folk arts, musician workshops, and the "Niños Rock Pachanga," noon-4pm, with dance lessons, artist appearances, and performances. Single tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the gate, with children under 12 free. Tickets at Front Gate Tickets, Estrada Cleaners, and Turntable Records. See www.pachangafest.com for a complete schedule.
CINCO GRANDE: Five to Watch at Pachanga
A.J. CASTILLO may be the hottest young Tejano musician around, having just picked up career honors in April at ALMA's Sonidos del Barrio. Accomplished accordionist and vocalist, the charismatic 23-year-old has locked down mucho on KXTN and KOOP with his most recent disc, Who I Am.
CHRIS PEREZ BAND can't be stopped with its latest project, the frontman's partnership with singer/guitarist Angel Ferrer. Perez, widower of slain Tejano pop star Selena, has proved himself a whiz at bilingual rock since her death in 1995, but new songs such as "Noche" are funk-laden crossover hits waiting to happen.
MARIACHI LAS ALTEÑAS more than fill promoter Rich Garza's desire for a more traditional edge at Pachanga this year, reigning as Texas' finest female mariachi band, a burst of glorious harmonies from San Antone. Their delightful string-and-horn arrangements are highlighted in traditionals such as "Besame Mucho" on their latest CD, Sentimiento de Mujer.
MEXICAN INSTITUTE OF SOUND's new disc, Soy Sauce, feels like a shout-out to the 1990s, with guests Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys and Joselo Rangel of Café Tacuba, not to mention tributes to De La Soul and N.W.A amid electronic cumbias and Mexican sonidos. The Mexico City collective's POV constitutes a whole new way to hear Latino music in a modern context.
GABY MORENO is based out of L.A. by way of her native Guatemala, and her bilingual indie-folk is an eye-opener. Her song "Escondidos" recently won the Maxell Song of the Year, the first Latina to take that prize. Onstage, the singer-songwriter has style and presence in spades.
MAYO PARDO: El Mayor de Sur Austin
On a humid May afternoon, in the office of Jovita's owner Mayo Pardo, the Doors provide a soundtrack. "Mr. Mojo Risin'" intones Jim Morrison dramatically as Pardo shuffles through some photos. Pardo's got mojo all right, from the powerful pastiche of Jovita's posters on his wall to a copy of Ward Albro's Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution atop the stack of books beside his desk. He produces Richard Avedon's portrait of Cesar Chavez and hands it over.
Chavez is a guiding light in Pardo's world; his face adorns the walls of the South Austin eatery and live music venue, where Mesoamerican lore is brightly and iconically illustrated by Austinite Joyce DiBona's murals. Jovita's revolutionary consciousness is almost a world unto its own, built up from an old South First Street cantina Pardo saw as a kid growing up in the area, where he attended Becker, Fulmore, and Travis schools.
"This was a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody, and we went to school together – the black families, the Mexican families, the white families," explains Pardo. "We'd have fights, yes, but tomorrow was another day."
Always a Rebel would make an excellent title for Pardo's own autobiography, though the trickster twinkle in his dark eyes makes him an ideal candidate for a Carlos Castaneda book. He's also got a streak of Latino good-ol'-boyishness that comes out when he reflects on his childhood – watching Jailhouse Rock and Love Me Tender at the Austin Theatre, underage drinking at a Manchaca juke joint called the Blue Moon, going to the Eastside to hear Ike & Tina Turner and Fats Domino. And finally, Mayo Pardo at 61 still has a fiery political streak.
"I've always been political," he says with pride. "I've always been conscious of the fact that if you do not have economic solvency, you cannot have political power. [When I was younger] I read Das Kapital, about who determines wages and labor. The light went off that there was another way to live, a better way of doing things."
That lesson resonated with Pardo, whose political activities extended to organizing a boycott of an elementary school in Houston and "going to the City Council and Austin school board and giving them a hard time." Still, nothing has been as gratifying to his social conscience as being able to marry a love of his culture with politics and music at Jovita's.
"I used to walk by here and always thought, 'I'm gonna open up this place,'" Pardo grins boyishly, nodding. "It's like a dream you keep having over and over."
On the wall, a Chronicle "Best of Austin" award from 1993 reads, "Best New Approach to a Mexican-American Cultural Center." Indeed, Pardo's vision for "a world in which all worlds fit" seems to be located squarely inside 1617 S. First.
And if the title of Mayor of South Austin has languished since Danny Roy Young's death, Mayo Pardo is the hombre for the job.
ADRIAN QUESADA: Grupo Fantasma and the Making of 'Gimme Some'
"'Gimme Some' was written by our trombonist, Leo Gauna, and started as a Brownout instrumental. At one rehearsal, I joked that it sounded like the Santana song 'Ain't Got Nobody,' so we added lyrics: 'Ain't got no money.' At a Grupo gig, we threw in a couple of Brownout songs, and people freaked out on that one, so we brought it to the Grupo side.
"As we were working on Sonidos Gold, we wanted something loose. We didn't really have any other lyrics than 'ain't got no money,' and we had an alternate version recorded with Black Joe Lewis. The day before we turned it in, we actually wrote lyrics and moved the Black Joe Lewis version aside. It was the last song recorded for the record. We're keeping his version to release down the line.
"We met Maceo Parker through Prince, because he used to play with Prince, too. When he was here in January at Antone's, we were on tour, but I flew in to record him. Getting him into the studio to record was kind of a nightmare, so we showed up at Antone's during sound check with a bunch of microphones.
"We actually recorded it in Antone's greenroom backstage. One take.
"We weren't even trying to hide that it's a nod to Santana. We even had to look into the possibility of giving credit on it to Carlos, but he didn't write it. It's Willie Bobo's song. [On the song], that's Black Joe Lewis saying, 'Blow your horn, Maceo,' but we had to cut 'Maceo' just to be safe. Because of weird stuff with James Brown's estate, you can't say Maceo's name on record.
"It's a soap opera, the only song on the album with this much of a story. They're not all this dramatic."
TORTILLA FACTORY: Vatos and Afros
"Tortilla Factory is a musical jewel," declares Isidoro Lopez, referring to the Grammy-nominated band now based in Austin. "They are so innovative. Like Esteban Jordan, they were ahead of their time."
Just how far ahead of the curve was Tortilla Factory? When San Angelo's Tony "Ham" Guerrero put the 12-piece band together in 1973, he chose as lead vocalist the voice he knew could sing everything from American pop to Mexican rancheras: a black man named Bobby "El Charro Negro" Butler, then living in Temple. Within six months, the band topped Billboard's Texas Latin chart, edging out the Latin Breed, Sunny & the Sunliners, and Alfonso Ramos.
For more than a decade, Tortilla Factory cooked almost nightly, one of the hottest Chicano soul acts in America. Guerrero remained a constant in the band after Butler left, and their ranks over the years have included noted trumpeter Luis Gasca (who played with Janis Joplin) and Doug Sahm's compadres Arturo "Sauce" Gonzalez, Charlie McBurney, and Louie Bustos. By the end of the 1980s, time had taken its toll, but Guerrero's determination and a move to Austin in 1987 kept Tortilla Factory operating.
By 1999, the group was renovated as a family band with Guerrero's daughters Cherith Bell and Laura Lynne, and son Alfredo Antonio II singing lead. A New Generation followed in 2002, but in 2008 Bobby Butler reunited with Guerrero to record All That Jazz. The results were such that the disc was nominated for a Grammy this year as Best Tejano Album.
"The fact that Tortilla Factory is now based in Austin makes us a five-star Latino music community," asserts Lopez. "Maybe Austin will recognize that."
He pauses for emphasis. "And maybe it won't."
JOEL GUZMAN: Don't Box Me In
"I may play a box, but I don't want to be put in one," Joel Guzman once remarked about his career as the Grammy-winning accordionist, producer, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who has appeared on more than 200 recordings.
"That statement follows me everywhere," laughs Guzman ruefully. "The box I meant is an accordion, because that's what I play, but in essence it's a much bigger box for me as a producer. My company is Guzman Fox Creative, and we handle soundtracks for movies, voiceovers, orchestrating commercials. We're a full-service company. So when people ask: 'What's your job? What do you do?' Well, this is it. This is my life. I was brought up in a recording studio. I've been trained to do this by my folks."
From the time Guzman could hold an accordion, he excelled at performing and was nicknamed "El Pequeno Gigante" ("The Little Giant"), for his virtuosity. Born and raised in Sunnyside, Wash., Guzman found his way to Texas in 1978, where he met his stage and life partner, Sarah Fox, and collaborated with Little Joe y la Familia, Joe Ely, the Flatlanders, Tish Hinojosa, Lloyd Maines, and numerous other acts. He and Fox devote themselves to numerous musical aggregations; their band Aztex inspired the formation of Los Super Seven, for which they took home a Grammy.
"We can maintain our diversity without pigeonholing ourselves," explains Guzman. "It's the fun part of being a grassroots organization with our own label. We're not under pressure to put out pop music every year. We're also careful about protecting and preserving what traditional music is."
The Ramos Family
No Tejano music fan can make that claim without knowing about the Ramos family. Ruben Perez Ramos, aka Austin's El Gato Negro, currently fronts Ruben Ramos & the Mexican Revolution, but it's a role rooted deep in family history.
The family has performed, in some incarnation, since 1919, when Ramos' uncle Juan Manuel Perez formed Los Serenaders. Meanwhile, Juan's sister Elvira Perez (a guitarist) married Alfonso Ramos Sr. (a violinist) and began raising their brood: Inez, Elijio, Alfonso, Ruben, Joe, and Roy.
As teenagers, the Ramos boys played with another incarnation of Los Serenaders, a big band-era orchestra known as His Ex-GIs. Alfonso Ramos eventually took over that band, while Ruben and the other brothers occasionally sat in. By 1969, in the midst of a changing social climate, Ruben and brothers Alfonso and Roy were seasoned enough to become full-time musicians. Ruben led the drive with the support of his siblings and extended family and never looked back.
The band has changed names several times, but Ruben Ramos & the Mexican Revolution stays true to its roots, playing cumbias and rancheras alongside R&B covers, while representing la onda Tejano with its thrilling fanfare of live horns and Ramos' distinguished, sultry vocals.
Ramos attracted a wider audience with David Hildago and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and country singer Rick Trevino in Los Super Seven, earning a Grammy in 1999. Ramos' Revolution has received many nominations and awards throughout the years, including nods from the Tejano Music Awards and most recently, a 2009 Grammy for Best Tejano Album. – Belinda Acosta