Keepin' it conjunto

When the syrupy silliness of early ’50s pop music became too much for the young to put up with, rock ’n’ roll came to the rescue. The Beatles turned it into rock, a legitimate art form, and since then popular music has reinvented itself (punk, New Wave, hip-hop, grunge…) whenever it seemed to be running out of surprises.

Tejano, on the other hand, continues going in circles with old formulas (horns, keyboards, a watered-down polka rhythm, and lame love lyrics), and it is more preoccupied with entertaining and giving people what people want than in becoming a serious creative force. Worst of all, only some old-timers are experimenting with the most precious element of Tejano music: conjunto. You take the conjunto out of Tejano, and you get dick.

“There are very few kids playing polka,” Augie Meyers told me in an interview three years ago for a story in the Austin American-Statesman, and today things aren’t much better. (Augie was referring to young Tejano kids like Abraham Quintanilla III, leader of the Kumbia Kings and the Kumbia All Starz). “Kids are playing what I call ‘Florida music,’ the hip-hop, or whatever works in Florida and New York. In the ’50s it used to be wine, women, and song. Then came the ’60s, and it was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Now it’s all rap, rehab, and rubbers.”

And when someone does try something different, just pushing the envelope a little bit, the award-show establishment and street critics ignore him/her rampantly, as if the natural forces of the Tejano universe unite in order to destroy anything that doesn’t completely suck.

Max Baca Jr. (Albuquerque, 1967) is not precisely a kid. He’s the son of a conjunto legend, and himself a bajo-sexto player since the age of 8. He’s toured and/or recorded with the Texas Tornados, the Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge’s “Sweethearts Together” featurs Baca on bajo sexto and Flaco Jiménez on accordion), Los Super Seven, and others, and since 1997 is the leader of Los Texmaniacs, a band that knocked my socks off when I first saw them open for Los Lonely Boys at the Majestic in 2004.

Their third — and, in my opinion, best — album Borders y Bailes (Borders and Dances) is the latest in a long list of top-notch musical achievements released by the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series. The album is a gem, but I’m predicting it won’t get any nominations at the 2010 Tejano Music Awards, which at this point should be a badge of honor (the Texmaniacs’ strong second album was completely and unfairly ignored at the 2009 TMAs).

Although I’m partial to a Texmaniacs’ lineup with Speedy Villanueva on bass and David Farías on accordion, it seems to me Baca’s group is a collective that utilizes different musicians according to time, place, and circumstance. For Borders y Bailes (recorded in three frantic days of alcohol- and steroid-fueled sessions), Baca and Farías were accompanied by two superb California musicians — Oscar García on bass and Lorenzo Martínez on drums and vocals — and Flaco Jiménez made a guest appearance. Originally, the Smithsonian’s idea was to record in Washington, but Baca preferred to record at Joe Treviño’s Blue Cat studios.

“We’re more comfortable here,” said Baca at Blue Cat, where he is recording an album with Juanito Castillo. (Guillermina Zabala, my wife, is currently filming a documentary about Castillo.) “We got a bottle of tequila, a case of beer, and just rolled the tape.”

If recording 16 tracks in three days wasn’t enough of a challenge, Baca also faced an unexpected foe.

“I’m in the middle of the recording, with camera crews from the Smithsonian, while I’m doing the guide vocals for the third song, and I lose my voice completely,” he said. “This can’t happen now, man, I thought. But my doctor gave me a steroid shot, and a couple of hours later my voice came back.”

The result is a compelling collection of traditional polkas, rancheras, cumbias, redovas, boleros, and huapangos in a more traditional vein than the usual Texmaniacs’ work, but no matter how hard they try, the guys can’t help showing their feathers.

“The album has both the traditional conjunto plus our trademark ‘turbo’ sound, in which we incorporate blues and jazz into our licks, into las pisadas `the stepping on` of the accordion and the bass,” Baca said. “Instead of straight-straight traditional, we did something different.”

Don’t tell the TMA committee.

“Oh, well … I can’t worry about that,” he says. “The root of all the members of the Texmaniacs is conjunto — that’s where the authenticity comes `from`. If you get conjunto out of Tejano music all you get is an R&B band or whatever What identifies, or should identify the Tejanos, and especially the Texmaniacs, is our conjunto roots, but we use conjunto as a starting point to experiment. Yeah, we want to please, but you can’t please everyone when your main goal is to make good music.”

Listen to samples of Borders y Bailes at

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