Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hybrid Roots: TexMex Kings Take Different Paths

In several recent posts I have emphasized a movement toward cultural integration of musical styles between black and white recording artists of the 1950's. While this trend is deserving of further analysis, there is another lesser known phenomena that occurs at the same time: the unique Hispanic musical expression that is a another variant of the cultural amalgamation between blacks and whites. While the fusion of jazz and latino musical styles such as the Cuban jazz of Mario Bauza and the Pachuco swing of Lalo Guerrero extends back to the 1930's, in this post I will discuss the sound that came evolved in Tex-Mex and conjunto music during the 1950's and 1960s.

The panoply of musical styles percolating in Texas in the post war period make the state a fascinating region for ethno-musicologists. The admixture of urban and country blues, Texas swing, country western, Mexican norteno, polka music, Tex Mex conjunto and jazz open the door to the unique sounds of Texas musical recordings in the early 1950's. TexMex conjunto music emerges in this cultural framework. It is a uniquely hybrid form of American roots music in that it is essentially derivative of the Mexican norteno style while at the same time receptive to appropriating American R&B and Country Western influences. Linguistic code switching between Spanish and English in song lyrics provide an additional layer of cultural texture to the genre. A much more thorough analysis of this unique genre and its use of the accordion can be found here.

While the roots of TexMex accordion music stretch back to the late nineteenth century, two living Texas legends who are emblematic of TexMex conjunto music are the contemporaries Esteban "El Parche" Jordan and Flaco Jimenez. Born the same year in Texas, these two master accordion players embody the spirit and evolution of Tex Mex: always willing to appropriate without straying from the roots of the style. Jordan is a transcendent musician in that he has taken the accordion to uncharted territory, stretching the traditional boundaries. In many ways, Jordan accomplishes on the accordion what Coltrane, Hendrix, Gatton and Thelonious Monk do for their respective instruments. Early association as a guitarist for Cuban Jazz innovator Willie Bobo in the early 1960's was a formative experience. Since then, through technical experimentation and unparalleled prowess, Jordan has become a true roots legend of his time among TexMex conjunto aficionados. Listen to Esteban smoke on the Hohner product here.

Grammy award winning legend Flaco Jimenez grew up playing for migrant workers in Texas and has gradually gained acclaim from all that have heard him play. Appreciated on both sides of the border, Jimenez career was boosted by early association with Tex Mex R&B rocker Doug Sahm in the early 1960's. He later joined Sahm and Freddy Fender as part of the legendary conjunto The Texas Tornados. Check out Jimenez and Fender ripping it up here on the famous "Hey Baby Que Paso" in a bit of a tribute to Doug Sahm, whose death in 1999 marked the end of the original Texas Tornadoes. Flaco remains very active today in a band with Texas vocalist Nunie Rubio.

The advent of rockabilly and rock n' roll is felt all over the U.S. by 1955 and influences Texas Chicano musicians who are eager to record and leave their own imprint on the novel musical fusions being heard. While California born Ritchie Valens is the most well known example, Texas is not immune to the new trends. Born near San Antonio, Texas, Rudy Grayzell was swept up by the sound and landed a contract with Capitol Records that gave us the classics "Ducktail" and "Let's Get Wild" . Rudy's popularity waned as the tamer styles of the sixties took over and ended up playing lounges in Las Vegas until the second rockabilly revival of the 1980's. In 1998, Rudy returns to the studio, cutting an outstanding record in the studio of Lou Whitney of the Morells in Springfield, Missouri with D. Clinton Thompson (guitar) and Lou backing him up. Very highly recommended.

Baldemar Huerta was a contemporary from southern Texas. Seeking exposure among anglo audiences and looking to extend his popularity beyond Texas, Baldemar changes his name to Freddy Fender. A great example of Fender's fifties style can be heard in "I'm Gonna Leave"
and "Crazy Baby." Eventually, Freddy breaks through with his hit single 1960 "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" . His new-found fame leads him to association with Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm whom he had known since the late fifties. After achieving fame and charting several number one pop hits in the 1970's, Fender returns to his roots by collaborating with Doug Sahm as a member of The Texas Tornadoes. In a sense, Fender's joining the Texas Tornadoes in 1990 with Flaco Jimenez represents the culmination of the modern TexMex sound.

A sound much more akin to Doo Wop and soul can be found in the 1950's recordings of the eclectic Sonny Ozuna and his SunLiners. "Out of Sight Out of Mind" and the 60's recording "Smile Now Cry Later" capture the sentimentality of the period. Recording in both Spanish and English, Ozuna melds the popular 1950's Latin bolero style with elements of Doo Wop and American Soul music to forge a unique sound that garnered some national attention. Sonny, like Flaco and Rudy, remains active as a musician.

Finally, continuation of the traditions forged in Texas in the fifties and sixties remain alive among contemporary Latin musicians here in the U.S. Perhaps the best example from Texas is the group Los Lonely Boys, an authentic Texican phenom band, and the L.A. based group Los Lobos is internationally renowned. There are also some very strong roots oriented Latino groups in California. A couple of my favorites are Big Sandy and his Fly- Rite Boys for versatility and the retro chicano sound of Pepe Torres.

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