A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Keeping a Tejano Sound in Michigan

One Saturday night last June, I walked into the Eagles Club near the Lansing, Michigan, airport, recording equipment in hand, in the midst of a big family celebration for a high school graduation. The guests were finishing a dinner of home-made Tejano (Texan Mexican-American) specialties, and the dance floor was still empty, strobe light glittering above. Members of Lansing’s Tejano Sound Band were setting up: keyboard, drum set, electric bass, saxophone, diatonic button accordion, and the 12-string guitar bajo sexto.

It felt like déjà vu. There was a time when I was known as “the woman who was paid to go to Mexican bars” (a reference to the numerous Saturday night dances that have been a staple of Texas Mexican bands in Michigan and elsewhere). “Paid” because—as a staff member of the MSU Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program—I had spent eight years from the late 1980s to mid-1990s studying Michigan’s Mexican American music. My research had taken me across the state to communities where this music was played in bars, clubs, and at family parties such as weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras (a girl’s 15th birthday coming of age party), and graduations. Then, about the same time that Tejano Sound Band was formed, I moved out of state. This was my first foray back into state’s Tejano music scene in twenty years.

The evening’s event had brought together family from Michigan and Texas to celebrate the remarkable achievement of young Marco Solis, who had not missed a single day of high school in four years. His proud great-uncle and grandpa respectively were Tejano Sound’s co-founders, Johnny and Richard Vasquez.

Brothers Richard (left) and Johnny Vasquez, co-founders of Lansing’s Tejano Sound Band, 
play bajo sexto and diatonic button accordion. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2014.
The brothers grew up playing music. Johnny and Richard, along with siblings Frank Jr. and Fred, started the band Los Hermanos Vasquez (Vasquez brothers) in the late 1950s when Johnny―the youngest―was just eight years old. The family had come north from Texas as part of the migrant stream that introduced Tejano culture to Michigan in the years following World War II.

The 1950s were also the golden age of conjunto music, a regional style of the Texas-Mexican border that has at its core melodies of the button accordion and rhythmic accompaniment of the bajo sexto, along with drums and electric bass. The Vasquez brothers practiced in their living room, learning songs recorded on 45 rpm records by the great conjunto musicians of the day: Tony de Rosa, Paulino Bernal, Ruben Vela, Gilberto Perez. “We’d take a little bit from everybody,” Johnny recalled, “learn it, sometimes add new music to it, sometimes take it just like it was.”

Los Hermanos Vasquez played at dances and family events, traveling in an old bus with their parents and siblings. They rarely performed at clubs or bars because Johnny was too young to be allowed to stay. Johnny started as the group’s drummer, but early on he was attracted to the button accordion and soon replaced his brother Fred as the group’s accordion player. When, during the mid-1960s, the older Vasquez brothers began joining their father working for General Motors in Lansing, the group disbanded.

Johnny continued his passion for the accordion with other Lansing bands, such as Grupo Aldaco, La Corporación, Los Capitolinos, and Latin Sounds Orchestra. Finally, in 1994, he asked Richard to join him in starting their own group. Tejano Sound Band was born, its name drawing on the popularity of “Tejano music” that by this time included keyboard or synthesizer (sometimes in place of the accordion) and had more influence from rock and roll, jazz, and country than did the older conjunto styles.

Tejano Sound Band has kept the grassroots sound of accordion and bajo sexto, but modernized with the inclusion of synthesizer, saxophone, jazz improvisation, and sophisticated arrangements of original songs and old standards. The current line-up includes Johnny Vasquez on accordion and vocals; Richard Vasquez on bajo sexto and electric bass; Lupe Moreno on vocals; AJ Garcia on bass; Andy Pizaña on drums; MSU Jazz Studies faculty member Diego Rivera on saxophone (or various current and former students); Rolando Revilla Jr., on keyboard, vocals, accordion, as well as sound and musical arrangements; and Mark Garcia (manager).

Tejano Sound Band plays for a family graduation party, 2014. 
From left, Rolando Revilla Jr., AJ Garcia, Mike Heimstra, Bobby Gonzalez (guest drummer), 
Lupe Moreno, Richard Vasquez, and Johnny Vasquez. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

The band has produced three CDs. To hear examples from Tejano Sound Band’s latest CD “Cierra Los Ojos” (2012), click here. The CD includes “Por El Amor de Una Mujer”― featuring vocals by Lansing native Ricky (Villareal) Valenz and band member Lupe Moreno―which won “Vocal Duo of the Year” at the 2013 Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio.

The latest CD includes original compositions by band members and others as well as standards.
For Johnny Vasquez, however, this music is still about the diatonic button accordion sound he fell in love with as a child. In addition to becoming an accomplished performer of the instrument, he has also developed a cottage industry in accordion repair. Tejano musicians from throughout Michigan send him their instruments. One day after the graduation party, I caught up with Johnny in his home workshop, a small space full of accordions, accordion parts, and memorabilia from his music career.

Johnny Vasquez in his accordion workshop, Lansing, Michigan.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2014.
One of the common adjustments his clients request is to create the preferred “Tejano sound” by removing vibrato from the instrument’s sound. Button accordions come from the factory with vibrato, or the pulsating sonic effect caused by rapid and slight variations in pitch. On accordion, vibrato (or what Johnny calls the “wow”) is produced by paired reeds of slightly different pitch. To eliminate the “wow,” Johnny raises or lowers the height of the reeds.

See Johnny Vasquez demonstrate accordion repair as he removes vibrato from a reed block. Normally, Johnny does this work with the reed block still inside the instrument, but clients often send him just the reed blocks to save on shipping expense.

Tejano Sound Band continues the rich legacy of Tejano music in Michigan. And Johnny Vasquez ensures that his fellow button accordion players can perform with the truly Tejano sound they prefer.

Back at the graduation party, Tejano Sound Band’s light machine was flashing different colors, and the strobe light was whirling above the dancers as they moved to the beat of cumbias and rancheras. For family parties such as this, the band mixes in a few original compositions but tends to stick with the old standards that people know and love. Every once in a while, they’ll throw in an instrumental polka, where Johnny Vasquez can ripple the keys of his button accordion. “People just love the feel,” Johnny told me. The instrumental dance music of button accordion and bajo sexto helped shape the very beginnings of this musical style. Why let go of a good thing?

Dancers enjoy the music of Tejano Sound Band, June 2014.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers
Click here to hear Johnny Vasquez and Tejano Sound Band play the classic polka, “Atontonilco.”

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Fieldwork with Johnny Vasquez and Tejano Sound Band was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.