Interstate 35, which runs from Dallas to San Antonio, slices through the middle of Austin north to south. It's also the traditional dividing line between West Austin, where most of the white population lives, and East Austin, which is largely black and brown. The South by Southwest Music Conference has rarely ventured east of the highway, but on Thursday night, SXSW hosted an evening of Tejano music in a grassy vacant lot dubbed Kenny Dorham's Backyard (after the late jazz trumpeter from Texas). Headlining the show were two Grammy winners: Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution and Little Joe y la Familia.
It was a welcome reminder of SXSW's early days, when it was a created as a showcase for regional talent, before it turned into a giant casino where young rock-n-roll dreamers could play career roulette. And few sounds are as distinctively Texan as Tejano, the music created by Mexican immigrants who fell in love with the R&B horn bands of Fats Domino, James Brown, and Otis Redding and the honky-tonk bands of Hank Thompson and Ray Price, but whose parents still sang the old songs from the homeland. Putting those two elements together, pioneers such as Ramos and Little Joe Hernandez created a fusion that sounded like neither Monterrey nor New Orleans.
As the show opened with the conjunto veteran
and the young, impressive Tejano group El Tuce, the outdoor stage was slowly surrounded by a large crowd of Mexican-American families from the East Side and a few conference-goers. Backstage, Ramos explained how he started playing in his brother's Austin band during the '60s: "I wanted my white and black friends from high school to see the band because I thought we were hot shit, but they wouldn't come because it was all in Spanish. So I started singing the English songs, and my brother sang the Spanish songs. When I started my own band in 1970, I hired some horns and tried to sound like Ray Charles."
When Ramos took the stage, he looked like an aging movie star in his perfectly combed silver hair and natty double-breasted blazer with a white handkerchief poking out of the black pocket. He sang Smokey Robinson's "My Girl" with a Latin twist and the kind of horn charts that lubricated the rhythm. But it was only when his keyboardist switched from synth to accordion and Ramos's vocals from English to Spanish that the grass filled with dancers, spinning silhouettes in the early evening. The saxophonist snuck in real jazz licks whenever he got a chance to solo, and there was a harmonic sophistication to the bouncy Mexican melodies that made it unlike the folk music at its source.
Ramos announced that he will be reuniting with his fellow members in Los Super Seven (David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos and country star Rick Trevino) for a show at the Hollywood Bowl in the fall. That borderland supergroup has brought the singer his best exposure, but the key to his music is the dance halls of central Texas, where he is adored by crowds like the one that gathered in the midst of music-industry hustle of SXSW.
If Ramos merged his Mexican roots with R&B, Hernandez did the same with country music. As short and wiry as his moniker suggests, his salt-and-pepper goatee twitched as he sang Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You." Hernandez asked the crowd, "What the hell am I doing here singing country music with a gringo name like Little Joe?" He answered his own question by singing his hit, "Good Ole Mexican Redneck Boy," about his experiences growing up in Temple, Tex., where he still lives. When he got to the lines about picking cotton as a young boy, the singer got down on his knees and demonstrated the proper technique to pull off the cotton bolls.
"When I was growing up," Hernandez told the crowd, "I was made to feel ashamed of the color of my skin, of the way I spoke and the way I dressed. But I was never ashamed of the music in my heart, and I'm so glad that most of you will never have to go through what I went through."
He was a showman who acted out every song. When he sang a song in Spanish about a violent quarrel, he mimicked the drunken stagger of one combatant. The two trumpets played the signature Tejano horn riffs, but the guitarist played with an appropriate twang. Classic Tejano may have lost its dominance in Mexican-American neighborhoods in much the same way that old-school R&B has in African-American communities, but Ramos and Hernandez can still provide pleasure as reliably as Smokey Robinson or Willie Nelson.
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