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Artist Biography: Los Alegres de Terán

Los Alegres de Terán, a vocal duet founded by a pair of humble migrant workers from northern Mexico, stands as one of the most influential, long-lived and commercially successful regional music acts from the last half of the 20th century. The duo of Tomás Ortiz and Eugenio Ábrego are today remembered as the fathers of modern norteño music, the accordion-based country style that traversed borders as fluidly as its immigrant fans.

            Founded in 1948 in the town of General Terán, Nuevo Leon, about 130 miles from the border with Texas, Los Alegres became the first norteño act to break out of the genre’s regional boundaries in northern Mexico, gaining wide popularity on both sides of the border, from McAllen to Mexico City. The prolific duo wrote scores of songs and recorded over 100 albums, backing themselves on bajo sexto and accordion, while delivering emotional vocals that blended in a warm, natural unison.

            Although Ortiz and Ábrego followed in the tradition of popular vocal duets from the 1920s and ’30s, they were the first to combine their harmonizing with the accordion. Until they came along, accordion music was mostly instrumental and vocal duets were primarily backed by guitar accompaniment.

            Beyond their singing and playing style, Los Alegres were able to tap into the massive migrant market because they were a part of it. They modernized the themes of the traditional corrido, or narrative ballad, making the music more relevant to migrant workers who were not only moving north across the border into the US but were also flooding urban centers such as Mexico City in the mid-20th century.        

             “As the first popular norteña ensemble, Los Alegres made an impact that was greatly aided by their ability to tap into the feelings and experiences of the growing Mexican migrant population of the late 1940s and 1950s,” wrote Cathy Ragland in her book, Música Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation Between Nations. “The working class community in Mexico embraced (them) because of the group’s ability to merge sophisticated vocal harmonies and arrangements with an updated corrido narrative form that, in addition to love songs, included themes of travel, alienation, and nostalgic images of rural and ranchero life.”

            Eugenio Ábrego García was born May 2, 1922, in Rancho de La Soledad, within the municipality of General Terán, a town named for a military hero of Mexico’s War of Independence. Tomás Ortiz del Valle was born two years and one month later, on June 2, 1924, in Terán’s Rancho San Rafael community.

            Their full names and birth information are cited on the city’s Facebook page, which includes the most complete profile of the duo available on the web. Other sources, such as Wikipedia, provide scant biographical details. In fact, the group’s Wikipedia page is only a stub (a short article deemed encyclopedically insufficient), which links to a defunct website for the duet. A book-length biography of the band, Alegres de Terán: Vida y Canciones by Francisco Ramos Aguirre, is available only in Spanish and somewhat hard to find. (The book does not appear prominently in Google searches by the band’s name.) This article was compiled from multiple sources, including album liner notes, in both English and Spanish.

            Aside from its musical native sons, Terán is considered the birthplace of Mexico’s once dominant political party, the PRI, and was once home to the party’s controversial founder, President Plutarco Elías Calles. From there, it’s approximately a 90-minute drive to the state capital of Monterrey, and approximately 2.5 hours to the U.S. border at McAllen, Texas. That geographic triangle – Terán to Monterrey to McAllen – would be the original base of operations for the two migrant musicians who were destined to make history in their field.

            Both Ortiz and Ábrego picked up their instruments at a young age, and started performing around town independently.  Depending on the source, the two men met either playing at a bar or at a gathering in a private home. Be that as it may, sources agree they hit it off right away.

            “When they improvised a duet at a family fiesta, they felt a certain chemistry,” states a profile at Sabados Rancheros, the website for a Chicago radio program featuring Mexican music. “They were pleased with the ensemble, and thus was born the duet which was named Ábrego y Ortiz.”

            In 1948, the newly minted duo started making the rounds of clubs and cantinas in their hometown’s red-light district (zone de tolerancia). Their crowd-pleasing performances spurred them to travel to nearby Monterrey to pursue their careers. The following year, they made their first recording on the Orfeo label, a 78-rpm single titled “El Corrido de Pepito,” backed by “La Matrera,” a polka composed by Ábrego.     

            Today, Orfeo discs are extremely rare. The Frontera Collection contains 145 recordings on the label, all 78s, including 25 original tracks by Los Alegres de Terán. In addition, there are works attributed to other incarnations of the duo, such as Ortiz with other partners, as well as one song by Dueto Ábrego, though its members are not identified individually.

            Although tales about how bands got their names are often apocryphal, the Facebook bio tells a plausible story about how Dueto Ábrego y Ortiz became The Happy Ones from Terán.

            The duo was making an appearance on a radio program called “El Pregonero del Norte,” broadcast on XET, a Monterrey radio station that was key to their early success, with a signal reaching the border and beyond. While on the air, the two artists broke out in laughter, prompting popular deejay Juan Cejudo to ask what was so funny. The answer: “That’s just the way we are, the people from Terán, very happy. (Es que así somos los de Terán, muy alegres).” From that moment, the deejay christened them Los Alegres de Terán.

            Los Alegres were no overnight sensation. It would take years for them to score a major hit and their popularity rose “at a desperately slow rate” (con desesperante lentitud), as another radio website put it. Meanwhile, on bus rides from Terán to Monterrey for radio appearances, they would still play for fellow passengers and pass the hat for tips.

            In 1950, Los Alegres moved to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a border town directly across from McAllen, a Texas town that was then emerging as a focal point for the border music industry. In 1948, the same year Los Alegres came together, Arnaldo Ramírez had founded Falcon Records, the McAllen-based label that would become a major player in the field. It didn’t take long for the label and the duo to join forces, setting Los Alegres on the path to stardom.

            Los Alegres had their first major hit on Falcon in 1953 with “Carta Jugada,” about a spurned man who discovers that the object of his hopeless love was, as the titles suggests, like a card that had already been played. Their early Falcon albums, Los Ojos de Pancha and Más y Más Corridos, are considered classics of the genre.

            “ ‘Carta Jugada’ reveals some of the stylistic nuances employed by the group to update the traditional border corrido form, rendering it more musically expressive,” writes Ragland, associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of North Texas. “Ortiz and Ábrego sing in parallel thirds, but with the second voice sung in a high register that produces a vocal strain, thus bringing more emotion to the song and its subject matter.”

            The regional success of Los Alegres coincided with the growth of the Mexican record industry in Mexico City. The duo ­– with its blend of country and romantic styles showcased in polished arrangements – drew the attention of producers in the capital, who historically had looked down on the working-class music of the border regions. In 1956, according to the Facebook biography, famed composer and producer Felipe Valdez Leal signed Ortiz and Ábrego to a contract with Discos Columbia, the Mexican CBS affiliate and a Mexican music powerhouse.

            Musical trends in the capital were driven at the time by wider cultural forces in a country rapidly developing within a proud, post-revolutionary climate. Record executives sought out acts that reflected a modern, nationalistic, urban ethos. Los Alegres, who had already modernized the rustic, rural sound of norteño music, fit the bill.

            At Columbia, Los Alegres had graduated to the big leagues, marketed nationally as “the first stars of norteña music.”

            “Los Alegres knew how to connect with their local audiences,” writes Ragland, “but they were also aware of their role as representatives of a regional genre that was compelled to compete with the urban popular music singers” marketed by major labels and movies in mid-century Mexico.

            In the country’s highly centralized capital, the duo became beneficiaries of the industry’s powerful promotional machine, which vastly enhanced their international profile. They joined the famous “caravanas artísticas”—a caravan of stars composed of a rotating bill of major acts that hit the road as a touring attraction. The lowly country musicians found themselves rubbing shoulders and sharing stages with first-rate luminaries such as José Alfredo Jiménez, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Las Hermanas Huerta, Chelo Silva, Lola Beltrán, and others.

            Traveling with the caravans throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, Los Alegres appeared at premiere venues, from the capital’s Teatro Blanquita to The Millon Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles. They also made cross-genre inroads, invited as guests at the first international polka festival held in Chicago in the early 1960s, where they shared the ethnic bill with other immigrant musicians from Eastern Europe, Germany, and elsewhere.

            At the same time, Los Alegres made their first forays into film. They appeared in 1962’s “Pueblito” (Little Village), by famed director Emilio Fernandez, though they are uncredited on the International Movie Database.  They also appeared as musical performers in “El Contrabando del Paso” (1980), and later in “El Güero Estrada,” based on a corrido about a “fearsome” criminal who robbed and killed innocent immigrants as they crossed the border, then threw their bodies in the river.

            Over a career that spanned four decades, Los Alegres recorded more than 100 albums, according to conservative estimates. They scored a long line of hits, including "El Ojo de Vidrio," “El Golpe Traidor,” “Moneda Sin Valor,” “Dos Gotas De Agua,” “La Mesera,“Alma Enamorada,” and “Entre Copa Y Copa,” to name just a few.

            The duo split up for two years in mid-career, but they happily reconciled. They continued recording and touring, pushing norteño music to global heights with fans as far away as Japan, Iraq, Spain, and even parts of Africa. 

            They received many honors as ambassadors of their proletariat folk style. Their hometown was especially appreciative that the duo carried its name proudly around the world.  And to show its own appreciation, beginning in 1964, Los Alegres performed an annual free concert on Mexican Independence Day in the central plaza of General Terán, with proceeds going to the city for social works.

            Los Alegres marked their 25th anniversary with fanfare in 1974. They were the guests of honor at a state banquet held by the governor of Nuevo Leon. To mark the occasion, Falcon Records released a comprehensive, three-record set entitled “Bodas de Plata,” using the Spanish term for silver wedding anniversaries, befitting this long musical marriage.

            The duo was also feted that year back in Terán. Their hometown established a symbolic sister-city relationship with Mission, Texas, where the mayor at the time was none other than Falcon founder Arnaldo Ramírez.

            In 1980, a street was named in their honor, Avenida Los Alegres de Terán, in their hometown. Today, an entire neighborhood also carries their name, Colonia Alegres de Terán, with its own zip code (64700). And in 2011, the city fathers erected full-size statues of the duo playing their accordion and 12-string guitar and elevated on a stone pedestal in the city’s Plaza Juarez.

            Three years later, on the duo’s 35th anniversary, Falcon Records organized a major tribute held at the landmark Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. That same year, 1983, Los Alegres de Terán were inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in Texas.

            Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection, also documented the cultural importance of Los Alegres over the years, as record collector, music executive, and film producer. The duo was prominently featured in Strachwitz’s 1976 documentary about border music, Chulas Fronteras, directed by Les Blank. Twenty-eight years later, his label, Arhoolie Records, released a compilation of the duo’s earliest recordings on the Falcon label, Los Alegres De Terán, Grabaciones Originales: 1952–1954, introducing the band and its music to a new generation. Those tracks were culled from Strachwitz’s own archives, where he had amassed hundreds of recordings by Los Alegres, now accessible to the public through the Frontera Collection website.

            The duo’s remarkable run came to an end with the death of Ábrego in 1988. Ortiz survived him by 19 years, continuing to perform with another partner, Leobardo Pérez, on accordion and vocal harmonies. Ortiz died in 2007, in Edinburg, Texas.

            Even today, almost 40 years after the duo’s demise, Los Alegres remain revered and beloved by fans. With feet firmly planted on both sides of the border, they became working-class heroes for fans who, like them, were always on the move.

            “As migrant workers and folk musicians, Los Alegres represented norteño culture and peasant life on many levels,” writes Ragland. “Their music reflected the nomadic lives of working-class Mexicans, and they were viewed as traveling workers, crossing to the other side when necessary in an effort to take care of their families.”


– Agustín Gurza


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My Memorable Meet-and-Greet with Los Cadetes de Linares

In the late 1970s, in between journalism jobs, I worked in the music industry, on the selling, not the producing, side. With absolutely no direct experience in the market, I took a job as Latin-music buyer for Pickwick International, a major record distributer on a national level. With a gargantuan warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, the company operated its own chain of record stores, Musicland, and supplied hundreds of record departments in national retail chains, including Sears, Woolworths, Montgomery Ward, and Kmart.

The problem was that Latin music wasn’t selling well in these outlets, despite a heavy Latino clientele in many of the stores. So I was brought on board in hopes I could fix the problem. The managers took a chance on me because in my previous job as an editor at Billboard, I covered the business and also tracked the sales charts for top sellers in Latin music.

That’s when I discovered that writing about the business and actually being in the business are two very different things. I was nervous, but truthfully, the solution wasn’t very hard to find. The records weren’t selling because the company simply wasn’t putting out the right product, for various internal reasons.  In a nutshell, the stores didn’t have the big hits by the big stars, so shoppers were turned off.

My job was to make sure we got the right records in the racks, then did enough promotion to win customers back. Sometimes even I was surprised by our success.

One of our biggest promotions featured an in-person visit by one of the major norteño acts at the time, Los Cadetes de Linares. These promotions were typical in those days. An artist would agree to visit a retail store and sign autographs for fans, while the dealer sold a pallet of records in a few hours. A win-win, as the cliché goes.

Los Cadetes were hot at the time, so we knew they would draw a crowd. But we never expected the masses that showed up at the Kmart store in Delano, California, to greet the singing duo, Homero Guerrero and Lupe Tijerina.  Of course, this was farmworker territory, the natural fan base for norteño music. People waited in line for hours and packed the aisles so thick that other shoppers couldn’t get to the toothpaste or the TVs. It was a mob, but a most orderly and patient one.

I was impressed by the professionalism of the two musicians. They stayed to sign the very last autograph. They were not exactly charmers; they didn’t smile and you couldn’t call them outgoing. But they didn’t complain, either. Dressed in matching guayaberas, they were serious and respectful, and that’s all their fans required. People approached them with a mixture of awe and delight. Even the star-struck Kmart employees proudly displayed their personally autographed posters, as you can see in one of the photos I took with my old Minolta 35mm manual camera (which explains the lousy focus).  In the other photo, Tijerina takes a copy of the LP Pistoleros Famosos from a fan to sign, while his partner signs a separate autograph with a curious boy looking over his shoulder.

That day, records by Los Cadetes sold like hot tamales. In the end, promotions like this helped drive Latin music albums to the top of Pickwick’s western-region sales charts. I wound up being sort of a star myself at the company. But it’s easy to look good when you’re simply making available the music by artists that so many people love.

Both members of Los Cadetes have now passed away, but their music is still played and sold. You can read my full biography of this enduring norteño duo here.


-- Agustín Gurza


Artist Biography: Los Cadetes de Linares

Los Cadetes de Linares was a popular norteño duo composed in its prime by Homero Guerrero and Lupe Tijerina, both from the town of Linares, Nuevo Leon, south east of Monterrey, Mexico. They were particularly well known for their popular corridos, starting with their first single, “Los Dos Amigos” (The Two Friends), written by Tijerina. Their career together lasted a short eight years, until Guerrero’s untimely death. Yet, they left a lasting legacy through scores of recordings as well as appearances in films that carried the titles of their best-known ballads of outlaw bravado and tragedy, including “Las Tres Tumbas” (The Three Graves), “Cazador de Asesinos” (Hunter of Assassins) and “Pistoleros Famosos” (Famous Gunslingers).

Though often impersonated by bands that hijacked their name, the original Cadetes de Linares had an inimitable style that influenced a great number of conjunto and norteño groups, and many of their songs have been recorded by countless other artists. The Frontera Collection contains some 150 authentic Cadetes recordings, many written by Guerrero and Tijerina as individuals or as a team. They put such an unmistakable stamp on their music that they became identified as the interpreters of certain hits, even though many other top bands did their own not-so-memorable versions. There are almost two dozen renditions of “El Chubasco” in the collection, for example, including recordings by other top duets such as Los Alegres de Terán and Carlos y José, as well as Los Tremendos Gavilanes. But the one that is remembered, for its tight harmonies and irresistible accordion riffs, is the hit by Los Cadetes de Linares.

The full name of the band’s founder is Homero Guerrero de la Cerda, a singer and bajo sexto player born April 10, 1937, in El Popote, Nuevo Leon. His rancho, or small farming community, lies within the municipality of Linares, an area best known for its musical native sons. He was part of a large farm-working family that could not afford to nurture his childhood dreams to be a musician. Unable to buy a guitar, the boy made one by hand with wood and rubber bands. His older brother Benjamin taught him to play, and he performed at school and family functions, as well as in the main square of his hometown.

When he was just 16, Guerrero moved to Monterrey, the state capital and a vibrant mecca of norteño music in the 1950s. He took a job in a factory that produced paint pigments but continued to pursue his goal of breaking into the music business, frequenting the city’s well-known musical hangouts. There, he rubbed shoulders with other norteño musicians who would go on to make a name for themselves, including Salomón Prado, Juan Salazar, and Los Gorriones de Topo Chico.

Guerrero finally formed his own group in 1960, teaming up with Adan Moreno, the first in a string of accordionists who would work as his partner. Moreno, who was also from Linares, left the band in 1967 due to creative differences. Guerrero then hit the road, working his way along the migrant trail from Louisiana to Ohio and Michigan, then back-tracking to south Texas.

In 1968, the traveling musician wound up in the border town of McAllen, working at the record-pressing plant of Discos Del Valle, the famed regional label. Owner Cristóbal García not only gave Guerrero a job but also his first break with a chance to record. On his debut album, Guerrero teamed with his second accordionist, Samuel Zapata. According to a biography by his subsequent label, Ramex Records, this duo was christened Los Cadetes de Samuel y Homero, using the military term for the first time. The name “cadets” was chosen, so the story goes, because Guerrero as a young man aspired to attend Mexico’s military academy, but he lacked the resources to pursue his military career ambitions.

That first record included songs – such as “La Menudita”, “Estoy Pagando”, “Las Puertas del Cielo” and “Ven a Buscarme” – that Guerrero would later re-record as Los Cadetes de Linares. But they produced no big hits. Within a year, family issues forced Zapata to leave the group.

Still seeking success in the music business, Guerrero moved again, this time to Houston where he partnered with his third accordionist, Candelario Villarreal, originally from Matamoros. The pair performed in dance halls and nightclubs around town and were eventually noticed by Emilio Garza, founder of Ramex, the label that would finally hit it big with Los Cadetes. But before that could happen, Guerrero would need to make one more change to his musical partnership. Friends were saying that the accordion accompaniment of Villarreal didn’t fit his style, so he replaced him with Lupe Tijerina, the highly respected musician who would remain his partner until death did they part.

Since both Guerrero and Tijerina hailed from the same hometown, a lucky new name was born: Los Cadetes de Linares. In 1974, Ramex printed only 200 copies of their first record, which became a runaway hit requiring many more pressings. The album included the Tijerina corrido that would become their first major smash, “Los Dos Amigos,” written by Tijerina. This marked the true beginning of Los Cadetes de Linares, who would go on to enjoy a series of chart-topping hits, such as “El Chubasco,” "Las Tres Tumbas," "Pueblito," "Regalo de Reyes," "Polvo Maldito," “Cruzando el Puente,” “Pistoleros Famosos” and many more. Aside from making an outstanding vocal duet, Guerrero and Tijerina were also composing partners. They wrote 23 songs together, including “El Caballo Jovero,” “El Tejanito,” “Tu Nombre,” and the aforementioned “Cazador de Asesinos.” Individually, Guerrero also composed more than a dozen songs, including the tear-jerker about a grown son visiting his mother’s gravesite, “Dos Coronas a Mi Madre.”

By the end of the 1970s, Los Cadetes had received multiple honors and gold records and had been featured on television programs that gave them international exposure, such as Raul Velasco’s Siempre en Domingo, the weekly variety show broadcast from Mexico City. Their appearancs in several classic Mexican films helped amplify their musical success.

Tragically, Guerrero died at the peak of the success he had sought for so long. The musician was killled in a car crash on February 19, 1982, while traveling on the road between Monterey and Reynosa in his home state of Nuevo Leon. After his partner’s sudden death, Tijerina composed a touching tribute that struck a chord with the band’s mourning fans. It was a bolero titled “Adiós, Amigo Del Alma," which roughly translates as Farewell, My Soul Mate, and it too became a hit.

Tijerina, admired by his peers as an accordionist’s accordionist, considered retiring after the loss of his longtime musical partner. But public clamor convinced him to continue with Los Cadetes de Linares.   So, the band’s original drummer, Ernesto Baez, took over as lead singer and bajo sexto player. Tijerina and Baez continued to play sold-out stadiums and appear on popular television variety shows.

After Baez left the band in 2006, he was replaced by Rosendo Cantu. But the glory days of Los Cadetes de Linares had now faded, and the band’s success devolved into a bitter business dispute when Cantu claimed the rights to the name of the original duet. Meanwhile, Tijerina started another band under an unmistakable moniker, Los Cadetes de Linares de Lupe Tijerina. This was not the first dispute over the name and legacy of the band. Other ex-members also formed splinter groups using the name Los Cadetes de Linares, prompting Tijerina to assert that only two people, in fact, could claim to be legitimate “cadetes.”

Thus, when Tijerina himself passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, he was honored as “El Último Cadete,” the last cadet. On the night of July 4, 2016, Tijerina had barely played two songs of a concert in a town outside the city of San Luis Potosi, another stop on a busy tour schedule, when he suddenly fell ill and had to leave the stage, accompanied by his daughter Yahaira, who is also a performer. While his musicans caried on, he was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died of heart failure in the early hours of the following day. He was 69.

A new generation now carries on the music of the famous duet, with a modern twist. Yahaira Tijerina, sporting long blonde hair under a black cowboy hat and tight stretch pants, shows off her accordion skills in this video during a Florida concert. She also posted a recent Facebook video to warn fans against scam artists pretending to represent her late father’s interests. Meanwhile, Homero Guerrero Jr. performs and records norteño music under the name his father founded, but with a hip-hop variation in the spelling, Los KDT’s de Linares. One of the band’s music videos about a racy love affair has more than 2 million hits on YouTube. In another video featuring the catchy love song “Mi Niña Bonita,” the new band can be seen perfoming before a large crowd in the open plaza of the city where it all started, Linares, Nuevo Leon.

The younger Guerrero also recorded a song in memory of his father, “Lagrimas de Tu Hijo” (The Tears of Your Son), which was included in a Ramex Records compilation marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Guerrero Sr. The posthumous tribute album, entitled Homenaje A Homero Guerrero...25 Aniversario, also included two farewell tunes: “Despedida con Mariachi” by Raul Ramirez, and  “Adios Amigo del Alma” by his friend and musical partner Lupe Tijerina.

In the latter song, Tijerina visits the gravesite of his friend and collaborator to bid his last farewell: “I remember the old days, that we lived together as brothers. We shared sorrows, we laughed and we cried. Goodbye, friend of my soul. In my heart, there is no calm, but I must resign myself.”


Yo recuerdo aquellos tiempos que vivimos como hermanos. 
Las tristezas compartimos, y reímos y lloramos.

Adiós, amigo del alma.

En mi corazón no hay calma; ya me voy a resignar. 



-- Agustín Gurza

Related Post: My Memorable Meet-and-Greet with Los Cadetes de Linares

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Artist Biography: Ramón Ayala

Accordionist, vocalist, and songwriter Ramón Ayala is a pioneer of norteño music who has sustained an active recording and performing career for almost half a century. As part of the trail-blazing duo Los Relámpagos del Norte, along with Cornelio Reyna, he defined the modern genre with signature songs and distinctive instrumental styling that have made him a superstar of the genre on both sides of the Rio Grande.

          He was born Ramón Covarrubias Garza in the Colonia Argentina of Monterrey, Nuevo León, on December 8, 1945. At age 6, the future “King of the Accordion” learned to play norteño music’s emblematic instrument from his father, Ramón Covarrubias, a local musician. Inspired and supported by his parents, he performed in different public places to help support his modest family. His first band experience was with a group called Los Jilgueros (Goldfinches) de Marin, and he later joined Los Pavorreales (The Peacocks).

          He was still an adolescent when a chance encounter in a cantina, where he first sought work as a shoeshine boy, put him on the road to early fame. At the city’s Bar Cadillac, he met bajo sexto player Cornelio Reyna, who was then part of a duo with Juan Peña called Carta Blanca. Later, when Peña left the group, Reyna invited Ayala to be his new partner. They launched a collaboration that in a few short years would change the sound of norteño music. They called themselves, appropriately, Los Relámpagos del Norte – The Thunderbolts of the North. The duo forged a distinctive sound and compiled a roster of songs that have since been covered by countless artists in contemporary Latin music. Unfortunately, there is little information about the influential duo online, although loyal fans have created a community page for the act on Facebook.

          After knocking on doors of several record companies, the Bego label of McAllen, Texas, finally gave the duo a chance to make its first record. That premiere single, “Ya no llores,” released in1964, became an instant hit, launching a chart-topping run that lasted eight years. (This video clip of the song, from a Mexican movie said to be set at the Bar Cadillac where the duo met, has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube.) Los Relampagos del Norte revolutionized norteño music, a genre that was then considered exclusively cantina music. They enlivened the music and lyrics in order to appeal to a wider audience, making a total of 20 albums together filled with hits that have become classics, such as “El disgusto,” “Devolución,” “Mi tesoro,” “Tengo miedo,” and many others. Many of those early recordings are included in the Frontera Collection, which has a total of 158 tracks by Los Relámpagos, the vast majority on the Bego label.

          In 1971, Cornelio Reyna left to pursue his own ranchero career. Though he was not as successful with mariachi music, he still continued to perform until his death in 1997 at age 56. Ramón Ayala, meanwhile, also set out on a solo career and immediately formed his own band, Ramón Ayala y sus Bravos del Norte, which also became a legend in the genre. By 1972, he was gaining renewed fame with his new vocalist, Antonio Sauceda, who also played bajo sexto. They signed with the U.S.-based label Marsol, making a new record every four months. In 1973, they were picked up by the DLV label in Mexico, which gave them their first smash hit, “Ni por mil puñados de oro” (Not even for 1,000 fistfuls of gold).

          However, that duo also broke up when Sauceda decided to join a Christian seminary. In 1974, Ayala teamed with a new lead singer, Eliseo Robles, who would stay with him for the next 14 years, marking what is considered the golden era of Los Bravos del Norte.

Robles had formerly played with Los Satelites de Fidencio Ayala, led by Ramón’s brother. During the Eliseo Robles years, the group’s album sales reached a peak in Mexico and the United States with hits such as “Un rinconcito en el cielo,” “Chaparra de mi amor,” “Tragos amargos,” and many others. Many of Ayala’s early DLV recordings can be found in the Frontera Collection, which includes a total of almost 200 recordings by Ayala and his band.

          In the mid-’80s, Ayala found himself again without a lead singer when Robles left the band. Antonio Coronado became the fourth lead singer, but his tenure was short-lived, recording only eight albums with the group. In 1993, the fifth lead singer, Mario Marichalar, brought a new style to the band, appealing to a younger generation.

Ramón Ayala has been nominated for a total of 10 Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards. In 2001, he won a Grammy for his first live album, “En Vivo… El Hombre Y Su Música,” released by Sony. He has also won two Latin Grammys for the albums “Quémame Los Ojos” in 2001 and in the following year, “El Número Cien,” titled for his 100th album.

          In 2003, Ayala celebrated his 40th anniversary in the music business. He has appeared in 13 movies alongside stars such as Antonio Aguilar and Cornelio Reyna and has recorded over 105 albums, a catalog that still steadily racks up sales of 750,000 units per year. He turns 70 this year but still performs at over 100 concerts annually in both Mexico and the U.S.

          Ayala’s influence on modern norteño music continues to grow, as young musicians study and emulate his distinctive style. His enduring appeal is evident in recent performances where enthusiastic audiences sing along to memorized lyrics. It’s an appeal that cuts across generational lines, with young and old fans cheering side by side, as seen in this relatively recent concert clip of one of his signature songs, “Tragos Amargos” (Bitter Drinks). Fans exuberantly sing along with the memorable refrain, an emotionally charged melodic hook drenched in a distinctly Mexican sense of pathos, nostalgia, and yearning.

The exact date and location of the concert is not identified, but there’s a clue in the video that clearly indicates the group is  performing on the U.S. side of the border. At one point, the singer – with the same rasping, tequila-soaked vocal style that evokes the original Relámpagos – exhorts the crowd to belt out the famous chorus so they can hear it across the border: “¡Que se oiga hasta México!”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      --Agustín Gurza

Blog Category



Artist Biography: Los Tigres del Norte

The four brothers who make up Los Tigres del Norte, the world’s premier Mexican norteño band, have been playing corridos since they  were boys growing up in Mexico. In keeping with the music’s oral tradition, they learned their first songs from older musicians in their hometown, a tiny rural hamlet with the poetic name Rosa Morada, the Purple Rose, in Sinaloa state. The Hernández boys had no sheet music, no songbooks, no albums or tapes to guide their instruction in this rustic folk genre. In fact, they didn’t even have access to a radio in their rancho. It was the 1960s, and the brothers – Hernán, Luis, Jorge and Eduardo – were starting to perform informally as a local group. They could not have dreamed that they would eventually become known throughout the world as one of the most enduring, beloved, and critically respected bands in the Mexican norteño genre. Their story is one of struggle, family devotion, charmed choices and an unwavering commitment to a musical vision.

           Los Tigres’ hometown is no more than a cluster of homes surrounded by farmlands, near the city of Mocorito in northwestern Mexico. Its fame today is due entirely to its most successful native sons, who left over 40 years ago. Their parents were campesinos, small farmers who worked the land with ox-drawn ploughs. Jorge, the eldest son, born in 1954, still recalls one of the biggest events in the life of his little town—the day his grandmother brought home a Philco radio. It was the only electronic contraption of its kind in town, and nobody was sure it would even work, considering the area’s hilly terrain. Amid the static, it managed to pull in just one radio signal – a 150,000-watt powerhouse from Harlingen, Texas, which played pure norteño music, “música de acordeón.” That’s when the eldest brother heard the music of major norteño artists for the first time, groups like Freddie Gómez, Los Donneños, and Los Dos Gilbertos, who were already making waves across the border, who were known only in the United States at the time.

          During fiestas in the brothers’ hometown, people set up an old Victrola with a bullhorn for a speaker hung from a post and turned it up full blast. At those parties they were introduced to other big-name norteño acts such as Los Alegres de Terán, as well as national mariachi stars such as Pedro Infante. Aside from commercial music, they picked up on oral traditions from the older men of their town who taught the boys old corridos about bandits and rebels, horses and heroes. They memorized verse after verse about historic and folkloric figures such as Gabino Barrera, Lucio Vasquez, Rosita Alvirez, and Pancho Villa. “They knew them all, start to finish, and they knew them by heart,” recalls Jorge . “We would just sing them that way and we didn’t know if we were right or wrong, because we had no record or documentation to say this is the original. Later, when I came to read the lyrics of these corridos, they coincided with the lyrics they had taught us.”

          Jorge always thought of being a professional singer. He aspired to communicate through his music, “to convey to people our history, our way of life, how we act and who we are.” He yearned to let the world know that what they played was more than just cheap beer-joint music—“música de cantina”—that people with good taste looked down on. “When we started to sing this kind of music, everybody said we were crazy. The more they stubbornly stuck to the negative idea that what we believed in wasn’t possible, the more I was determined to show just the opposite, with deeds.”

          When the elder Hernández was not yet twelve, a tragic accident ironically became the catalyst for the launch of their musical career. In 1966, his father suffered a serious back injury that left him unable to walk. To raise money for his medical care, Jorge and his brothers decided to take their act on the road. As a band, they still didn’t have a name. They were known around town simply as the Hernández boys – “los hijos de Lalo y Consuelo” – called to play at parties. With the family in a bind, they decided to go out and look for regular work every night, in addition to their day jobs. “So we made a kind of pact among brothers to support our father,” says Jorge.

          Soon, they were in demand as far away as Los Mochis, the coastal city where the elder brother had gone to study to be a teacher. They played a regular gig at a restaurant, singing at tables for tips. But still they were the band with no name. “People sort of called us whatever they wanted,” says Hernández. “Los Norteñitos de Chihuahua. Los Alegres de Rosa Morada. Wherever they wanted us to be from, that’s what they called us.”

          Pressed to earn even more money for their father’s medical bills, they decided to move to the border town of Mexicali, where they hit the city’s busy bar and restaurant circuit. Here, to their amazement, they could draw a dollar a song. They got so busy they even took on a manager and acquired a van so they could work venues all across town from noon to dawn. It was here in Mexicali that they caught the break that would change their lives, and the future of norteño music forever.

           In order to send money home, Jorge made regular visits to the telegraph office in Mexicali. By chance, the telegraph worker who handled his business also happened to book acts for state-sponsored fairs all across Baja, California. One day the man told Hernández of an opportunity for his band to perform in the United States. A promoter in San Jose, California, had put the word out that state authorities were looking for Spanish-language acts to entertain Mexican inmates at the prison in Soledad. The gig did not pay, but it would give the boys exposure. And with a 90-day visa, they could stay and look for additional gigs in the area. The Hernández brothers jumped at the chance. They were hired as part of a caravan of artists brought in for the prison show.

          While filling out their visa papers, a U.S. immigration agent asked what the group called itself, but the boys still didn’t have a name. “Put down whatever you want,” Hernández told him. So the border bureaucrat came up with a name on the spot. In America, he said, boys who exhibit a go-get-’em spunk are often affectionately nicknamed “little tigers.” And since they were headed north, the agent dubbed them the Little Tigers of the North. But on second thought, he eliminated the diminutive so they wouldn’t outgrow the name—should the band remain together, that is.

          “He was the one who christened us,” says Hernández. “So when we arrived at Soledad and had to introduce ourselves, I said, ‘Tell them that we are Los Tigres del Norte.’ ”

          After the prison performance, the promoter brought the group to San Jose, which has been their base ever since. The city had a growing Mexican-American community at the time, and it planned to celebrate its very first official Mexican Independence Day the following month, on September 16, 1967. The band was hired for the event and the plan seemed to be working fine. But soon, says Hernández, they discovered that the other artists from their prison caravan had vanished, presumably back to Mexico. Also missing: Los Tigres’ passports. But being stranded turned out to be another lucky break: The band started working every Sunday at a spot on the Eastside of town called Paseo de las Flores. It was a popular open-air venue that people nicknamed “El Hoyo,” the Hole, because it was sunken between railroad tracks and the creek. For a time, the band lived in the promoter’s home behind his Mexican store, La Internacional, on Alum Rock Avenue. They made the rounds of bars and restaurants, still passing the hat. They also did live radio shows on KOFY (referred to as Radio “Coffee”), the only Mexican station at the time.

          At one of their early shows, a photographer named Richard Diaz approached the band with word about a British-born record distributor who wanted to meet them. His name was Art Walker, and he would become the first person to put the music of Los Tigres on record. At first, remembers Hernández, they couldn’t even communicate, because Walker didn’t speak Spanish and the Tigres hadn’t yet learned English. Fortunately, Walker’s wife was bilingual and served as an interpreter, thus laying the groundwork for what turned out to be one of the most successful relationships in the history of the Mexican music business. Walker (later nicknamed “Arturo Caminante” ) took the group to Fresno that fall to make their inaugural recording, a single titled “De un Rancho a Otro.”

          The band was far from an overnight success.  It took three years before they had their first big hit, “Contrabando y Traición,” about a drug-smuggling couple whose exploits end in betrayal and murder. Indeed, the song that launched their career helped create the controversial subgenre known today as narcocorridos. That was followed in 1973 by “La Banda del Carro Rojo,” another narcocorrido about a drug-smuggling gang in a red car. Soon, Hernández would realize his goal of bringing his music to an international audience. The big breakthrough came when Los Tigres  began to star in Mexican films alongside top performers of the day, such as David Reynoso and Lucha Villa.

          “And that’s the moment when it all changed for us,” says Hernández. “When people saw us on the screen along with these accomplished and revered artists, they started looking at us with different eyes. The whole panorama changed.” 

          In all, Los Tigres recorded eight albums over 16 years for Walker’s company, Fama Records, helping make it one of the most important Mexican labels on the West Coast in the 1970s. Yet, unbelievably, Hernández says the band was never paid a penny for those records. They made their money from the live concerts, but the label never paid royalties. “Out of gratitude to Arturo, there were never any payments or any of that,” recalls Hernández. “Instead, I recorded with him because we were friends … and Arturo always behaved like a gentleman with me.”

          Eventually, disagreements led the band to seek release from its contract, which in turn led to a lawsuit. Yet again, the band’s problems would become their good fortune. The judge ruled in the band’s favor, says Hernández, giving the group all rights to their songs as well as ownership of their recorded masters, rights which normally stayed with record companies even after artists left their rosters. That old catalog became something of a musical 401K for the group, which retains the rights to this day.

          Los Tigres went on to record for Fonovisa, part of the Televisa empire, and broadened its popularity internationally. They have toured Latin America, Europe, and Asia, making them the first global norteño band in history.  By the time the band celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008, they had recorded more than 500 songs on 60 albums, starred in over a dozen films, scored multiple Grammys and sold over 35 million units worldwide. (The Frontera Collection currently contains 145 recordings by Los Tigres, including many of those early Fama tracks.) In 2003 the group performed at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and four years later won the Latin Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 Los Tigres broke another barrier by becoming the first regional Mexican act to be featured in the popular recorded concert series MTV Unplugged. Last year, Los Tigres became the first norteño band to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

          From the very start, Los Tigres have always considered themselves storytellers, like travelling troubadours of old whose songs simply recounted the daily lives and struggles of common people. The corridos they sang were in the best tradition of the genre as journalism put to music, chronicling the exploits of villains and heroes who predated the Mexican Revolution.

          “For more than 30 years they have lifted up a music once looked down on for its lower-class roots, making norteño a commercially viable pop music,” wrote music critic Chuy Varela in a 2005 feature story for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Yet there is a higher sense of purpose to what they do. Los Tigres give strength to people who feel marginalized and under attack in these days of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.” 

          Perhaps the band’s most enduring cultural accomplishment has been its support for the Strachwitz Frontera Collection at UCLA, starting with a $500,000 donation made in 2000 for the digital preservation and promotion of the music. It was the band’s own thirst for knowledge that led to the massive UCLA project. They had been looking for an authoritative source to provide the musical history that the genre had always been missing. “We read books, but every author had his own version of the story, and they were all different,” says Hernández. “We wanted to know more and we wanted the real history of the corrido.” 

          The group’s grant to the university was the first of its kind from a community-based source, helping establish the largest library archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music in the world. Hernández hopes that future generations will also use the Frontera Collection to learn about their cultural history and traditions.

          The archives provide in an instant what Los Tigres took a lifetime to discover.  “Ours is a group which, like the music itself, came here and has had to work hard to be recognized and acknowledged,” says Hernández.  “We didn’t have the technology that exists today. We had to go from rancho to rancho, village to village, city to city, country to country. In other words, we did it all by hand.”

--Agustín Gurza



Blog Category



Conjunto Music: You Know It When You Hear It

Conjunto music, the accordion style so popular with Mexican Americans throughout the Southwest, comprises a cornerstone of the Frontera Collection. Yet conjunto as such does not appear on the list of Top 20 genres compiled for my book about the Frontera archive and published in 2012 by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press. That fact points to a confusion about the term that sometimes stumps even fans familiar with the genre.
So what is conjunto? The term itself simply means a group or collection of similar elements. And that could be anything: a conjunto of rocks, of stars, of delinquents, scientists, or social problems. As long as the set has something in common, it’s a conjunto. That easily translates to music where, generically speaking, conjuntos are ensembles of musicians that play a certain type of music. You could call it a combo or group. But in Latin America, the term has come to define specific types of music, such as Afro-Cuban conjuntos like Eddie Palmieri’s “La Perfecta,” which helped spark the salsa boom in New York during the 1960s and ’70s. In the Southwest, especially in Texas, the conjunto emerged as the U.S. cousin of Mexican norteño bands.
What’s confusing to people is that normally musical genres aren’t identified by the collective of musicians that perform them. We say rock, not guitar and drums music. Classical, not orchestra music. Jazz, not … well, sometimes we do say big band music. To add to the confusion, Tex-Mex conjuntos play styles of music that we recognize as clearly defined genres. They play polkas (No. 5 on the Frontera list of Top 20 genres), corridos (No. 3), boleros (No. 2) and cumbias (No. 9). (Similarly, Afro-Cuban conjuntos play mambos, guarachas, and cha-cha-chas.) 
Some sources, like this Wikipedia entry, try to define conjunto by its instrumentation: the button accordion, the bajo sexto, an electric bass, and a drum kit. Yet, that is also the basic makeup of norteño groups from Northern Mexico. Música norteña is also a genre unto itself, No. 20 on the Frontera list. Both genres, conjunto and norteño, are interconnected because they both developed along the border, part of the rural, working-class culture that flows freely between the two countries along the Rio Bravo. While closely related they are also distinct, comparable to the close relationship between British and American rock music. 
When it comes to conjunto and norteño, it’s difficult to pin down the difference. Norteño groups also feature accordions with vocals and they play polkas, corridos, boleros, etc. So what separates them? Most people just say they know it when they hear it. But there is a fine technical distinction that sets conjunto music apart. Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection and a recognized expert in the field, traces the evolution of the style to accordion player Narciso Martinez, the acknowledged father of conjunto music who grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The accordion pioneer emphasized the melody side of his instrument and left the bass lines to his bajo sexto player. “This established a new sound,” Strachwitz notes, “a sound which to this day is immediately identifiable as Texas-Mexican Conjunto Music.”
The record collector and producer also makes a distinction in vocal styles between conjunto and norteño groups, and he has a clear favorite.
“The conjunto musicians today generally do not sing well, while the norteños, who grew up on the ranchos and are often duetos composed of brothers, have that lovely high pitched rural singing style I much prefer,” says Strachwitz who produced the 1976 documentary Chulas Fronteras focusing on the border music styles. “Judging by what I heard at this last Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, I feel the conjunto genre is barely surviving because it is just one of many urban Latin music styles, while norteño still has a huge rural, lower-class following.”
Martinez began his recording career in 1936, but the earliest conjunto recordings go back a few years earlier. Strachwitz explains:
       “An accordionist by the name of Roberto Rodriguez was actually the first to make a recording in the conjunto style, on June 11, 1930, in San Antonio. The few sides he made, however, either did not have the sound the public wanted or the 75-cent record price at the start of the Great Depression was too high. For whatever reason, he was apparently not asked to return to the recording studio. The next day, however, on June 12, 1930, the same label – the OKeh record company – recorded a blind musician by the name of Bruno Villareal, who from all accounts played a small piano accordion. Billed as ‘El Azote del Valle’ (The Scourge of the Valley), he went on to record prolifically over the next several years, aided no doubt by the fact that by the mid-1930s, during the depth of the Depression, most record prices had dropped to 35 cents. He is today generally recognized as the first conjunto accordionist on records, many of which are found in the Frontera Collection. (The "Valley" in his nickname, of course, refers to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the border region, where all this music originated.)”
That passage is taken from the producer’s liner notes for the album Narciso Martinez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto (Ideal/Arhoolie CD-361). Luckily, you can find the full text online as part of a fascinating and informative collection of articles and essays called Border Cultures: Conjunto Music presented by the University of Texas at Austin.
The site is a terrific primer on the genre. As stated in its introduction, “The links on this page provide starting points for learning about the conjunto musical style, its history, cultural significance, and artistry.”
The site is divided into three sections:
1. An essay entitled “Música Fronteriza / Border Music” by Manuel Peña, published in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
2. “Yo Soy de Aqui,” a collection of photos of accordion players from central Texas, taken by Daniel Schaefer.
3. An extensive collection of essays and liner notes from Arhoolie Records titled “The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music.” Aside from the notes on Martinez, the Arhoolie material also includes articles on San Antonio conjuntos from the golden years of the 1950s and a focus on the women artists of tejano music. 
After perusing the articles, come back to the Frontera Collection and listen to the music. The Tex-Mex conjunto is amply represented here by stars such as Martinez, Flaco Jimenez, Paulino Bernal and Valerio Longoria. And women are also an essential part of the collection, with recordings made in the Southwest by artists such as Lydia Mendoza, Chelo Silva, and the duet of Carmen y Laura, to name a few. 
After a while of absorbing the conjunto sound, pretty soon you’ll know it when you hear it. 
-AgustÍn Gurza

Blog Category



Contrabando de El Paso

The Mexican corrido or narrative ballad has been described as a musical newspaper, since the lyrics are often based on actual events featuring folk heroes and revolutionaries. But don’t ever think of the genre as yesterday’s news. Some songs become so popular that they are passed down from generation to generation, becoming musical history lessons as well.

Such is the case for one of the classic corridos from the Frontera Collection, “El Contrabando de El Paso.” Written in the Prohibition Era, it describes the tale of a border smuggler being transported to the prison at Leavenworth. But unlike modern narcocorridos that glorify the drug trade, this tune offers a cautionary tale in which the protagonist himself laments his lawless ways. The song was the focus of an important essay by the late Professor Guillermo Hernandez, a corrido expert who was instrumental in bringing the Frontera Collection to UCLA. Although no composer is credited, Hernandez managed to identify the likely subject and songwriter.  Hernandez examined prison records showing that a prisoner named Gabriel Jara Franco had extensive correspondence with Leonardo Sifuentes, half of the musical duo that first recorded the song. His findings were published in the journal Aztlán under the title “En busca del Autor de ‘El Contrabando de El Paso.’ "

Considering the corrido’s enduring appeal after almost a century, it may not be surprising to find a relatively recent copy of the recording for sale at Amoeba Records, the huge music retailer in West Hollywood. What is a little unexpected is that the LP, by the popular norteño duo El Palomo y El Gorrion, was among the more expensive items in the store’s used vinyl bins, priced at $11.99. The album was sealed and may have been a recent re-release, on a label called Oro Norteño, with no other company information. The only clue to the original source is found in fine print on the back cover: “License: DLV.”

As any fan of Tex-Mex and norteño music knows, those initial stand for Discos Larga Vida, which in English means Long Life Records, apropos of our theme. Discos D.L.V. was one of the most important recording companies in the genre, founded in Monterrey, Mexico, the cradle of norteño music. The industrial city is also home to the musical duo named for a pair of warbling birds, The Pigeon and The Sparrow. The original version, on a D.L.V. 45 rpm disc, was released on this side of the border by Falcon Records, another powerhouse in the field, based in McAllen Texas. It can be found in the Frontera Collection here, along with some four dozen other versions of the song. But beware: The title is spelled two different ways. Some with the Spanish contraction “del,” as in the D.L.V. 45. And others with the spelling “de El Paso,” properly referring to the border town without the contraction. The latter spelling is used by the original interpreters, Luis Hernandez and Leonardo Sifuentes, the source who figured in the professor’s research paper. That version, on an old Victor 78, was recorded as a two-part corrido, one part on each side. The Frontera Collection has one of the most extensive archives of two-part corridos, which were popular until the advent of Long Play records that accommodated more music per platter.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         -Agustín Gurza


Blog Category



Conjunto Painting

The two norteño musicians were strolling down the main street in the border town of Nuevo Progreso when a woman stopped to talk to them. She was an artist from just across the border, in McAllen, Texas, and she wanted permission to paint their portrait. Her name was Reefka and she had an eye for character in the subjects she spotted along the porous border along the Rio Grande Valley. She would snap pictures and ask questions about their lives, the better to capture their essence in her art. Her husband and creative partner, Steven Schneider, would then write poems or short prose paragraphs about the people they met, inspired by the paintings.

Of all the dozens of paintings in their collection, this one jumped out at me. It feels alive and vibrant, like the music itself. The hues in watercolors and pastels are warm, like the men’s expressions. And their strong bicultural identity is symbolized by their gear: white tejano hats on their heads and iconic instruments strapped across their shoulders, the accordion and the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar played primarily by norteño groups.

“I start with the colors that express feelings of the people, warm bright colors,” said Reefka Schneider in a phone interview.

She also tried to capture what she calls “this interaction” between her two subjects, who somehow feel joined, though they’re not looking at each other. It’s simply titled “Conjunto,” which literally means joined in Spanish but which is also refers to the ensembles which play norteño music, the accordion-based style which forms such a major part of the Frontera Collection.

These two anonymous musicians were part of a band that played in restaurants and cantinas around the small town in the state of Tamaulipas, between Brownsville and Reynosa. During the day, the duo wandered the streets playing for tips.

In his companion piece for the painting, Steven Schneider captures the small-town Mexican scene in a slice-of-life paragraph he calls “Playing From the Heart” :

"Tonight you will join the other members of your conjunto ensemble to play at a wedding. Guests will come from as far away as Tampico and Reynosa. It will be a cool and starry night, and the dance floor will be full with couples dancing…. The years you have played together, the labor you have done, the families you have raised, la música that you play from your hearts: here, where the smell of grilled fajita wafts in the air, where tequila is suave, where couples young and old hold each other close, dancing beneath the luceros and colorful balloons in the hall. Your white shirts and white sombreros, your happy faces, so amable, suggest la música has no enemies: your proud, bright music with its long and deep roots."

There are hundreds of anonymous musicians roaming the border towns, trying to make a living, playing the music they love. They would go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world if it were not for visitors who see something soulful in their faces, and something joyful and heartfelt in their music.

The work of Reefka and Steven Schneider reminded me in a way of the early cultural explorations of Chris Strachwitz, the roots music producer who spent half a century amassing the physical Frontera Collection. Originally interested in blues, country, Cajun and other American styles, Strachwitz was drawn to the sounds of Tex-Mex and conjunto music even though he didn’t understand the language. He too would visit border towns in search of the best bands and singers, often with a guide to show him the way. Just like the Schneiders, he rambled the streets with his ears tuned like musical antennae. In fact, that is precisely how he came across the first Mexican conjunto he ever recorded for his label, Arhoolie Records. They were called Los Pinguinos de Norte, and he found them in the tiny town of Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. The story – or adventure – behind the making of that 1970 record is a whole separate blog post for another day. For now, suffice to say that Chris also hoped to capture and share the feelings those musicians conveyed in their music.

The Schneiders plan to publish a new collection of their paintings/poems titled “The Magic of Mariachi,” featuring 24 pastel paintings of dancers and musicians. It includes two portraits of members of the famed Mariachi Vargas, in poses captured a few years ago during an annual arts education festival sponsored by the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, where Steven Schneider is Professor of English and Director of New Programs and Special Projects for the College of Arts and Humanities. The “Conjunto” portrait will be one of the few pieces in the book not directly related to mariachi music. The couple previously published an award-winning volume titled Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives, which features 25 drawings of average people who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Through their art, the Schneiders hope to “promote creativity and cross-cultural understanding.” A mission certainly shared by the creators and curators of the Frontera Collection.

-AgustÍn Gurza

Title: "Conjunto"
Artist: Reefka
Media: Watercolor and pastel
Dimensions: 34" x 26"