The Bell Tolls for Tejano Music

Where it all has gone today and why

By Ruben S. Cubillos
Published on LatinoLA: April 6, 2010

The Bell Tolls for Tejano Music

Is Tejano music broken? Will it ever get fixed ?

The answer is multilayered, complicated; yet simple -- Tejano music lives! It lives in both a state of denial and a blinded victory.

The efforts to strategically reinvent or rejuvenate this market, much like what country music experienced in its evolution, is most often met with skepticism and lingering unwillingness to take action.

In an analogy, the center core of the long-standing Tejano tree is solid but the outer rings are infected with greed, self-indulgence and an overpowering lack of leadership.

The irony is that one may come across a t-shirt which screams "Tejano Ain't Dead Baby"; the reality is that Tejano music is in a deep coma. The gridlock of insecurity, lower creative standards and even basic business ethics is eroding the infrastructure of what was once fruitful ground.

The genre's prosperity once thrived with an army of headlining artists and acts for some time in the 80's and 90's. Tejano truly reigned domestically and internationally...not so today, and that reality has to be accepted by those that created it.

In an ideal world, Tejanos (aka Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Texicans, and so on) are no different than any other American artists trying to make a living while establishing their artistic identity. Tejano is more than just music; it's a culture of determined people with shared values concerning family, relationships, and a pride of living the best lifestyle possible.

Tejano has evolved from two worlds, the general market and Mexican heritage.

The questions still remain. Why have Tejanos abandoned their earned privilege to build up their genre? Why have they avoided participating in the Latino music world in an inclusive role? Where have the creative thinkers gone? Where has the deep-rooted passion to perform and deliver everything on stage--musically--disappeared to?

In seeking the brutal truth about the state of Tejano, what better opinion is there than that of a trailblazing pioneer? His is the voice we may believe since our legacy musicians spent years building an infrastructure of shared values and best practices on their victorious journey. The direct response delivered by this legendary realist? "Tejanos lack leadership."

Sadly, Tejanos are at the cusp of transcending from what once was an influential culture to a marooned cult.

This observation may not be scientific but it's calculated from experiences of miscommunication, the absence of investment at a serious level (funding and "ganas"), and a lingering presence of apathy.

Yet, the spirit of the Tejano culture survives on solid ground in several strongholds, from the Midwest to the Southwest. It seems "Tejano and Proud" is a phrase with greater significance outside the Tejano Triangle (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio), in many respects, because traditional values and heritage thrive in villages where culture congregates as tribes.

The post Selena era brought opportunity, yet only a small number of Tejano artists or acts stepped up to the plate and fewer still welcomed the avenue to venture toward greater Latino participation.

Moving outside one's comfort zone usually finds greater rewards in diversity, opportunity and self worth.

Unfortunately, VERY unfortunately, Tejanos artists-- including highly recognized names with national record label support-- side stepped from the chance to widen Latino music's popularity, and instead of increasing their market penetration, they chose a more exclusive arena -- their own backyard.

A departure from artistic values yielded isolation. While pioneering Tejano artists and acts of the 70's found glory through the influences of jazz, rock, funk and R&B, the newer generation decided to retreat toward roots music, the kind found in Mexican Regional music, or rehash the music of an "out of print" collective.

True, it is challenging to incorporate a new favorite instrument like the accordion into mainstream music, but it's not impossible to cross over into the mainstream. Hope has appeared on the Tejano landscape, from time to time, in waves with the incubating influence like that found in the music of A.B. Quintanilla, III, Joel Guzman, Texas Tornados, Gilbert Velasquez (San Antonio Sound), La Mafia, Intocable, and Jimmy Gonzales and Mazz, to name a few. But there are only a handful at best.

Almost humorously, most acts line up in great volume to be cloned, or recycled as part of the cookie cutter club. Music became the least important factor in the art of Tejano and few tolerated living the painful life of a dedicated, true artist -- way beyond the easy 1, 3, 5-chord structures.

In a synopsis, Tejano music lives! It lives in many forms across this great country. Tejano has had its moment: from the massive Tejano artists participation of "Canta a La Vida," a benefit recording for San Antonio Aids Foundation, to the battle for the return of terrestrial Tejano radio in Austin by the Tejano Music Coalition, up to the declaration of disenchantment of a 17-year partnership of "Go Tejano Day" with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Unity has been achieved on some level at this most critical time in Tejano music history, but unfortunately, the art of Tejano, by some accounts, is economically on the edge of bankruptcy.

Restructuring of the genre will begin when artists learn to focus their attention on the greater good and reform the fraternity to speak in one voice.

There is much to learn from other genres and cultures which have found their way to musical prosperity in America. Why not interact with the Hip-Hop influence or mentor and create a focus with the country world? Tejano music is an American original art form much like jazz, country, or Americana music. Why not take the equity of two languages and allow world music's influence to move this market on a path of rebuilding?

When Tejano artists and acts come out from hiding in the shadows of mediocrity and return to the competitive limelight, when they learn to share creative ideas and regain their self confidence (not arrogance), then we will see Tejano come alive once more.

It must treat LOYAL fans well, and build respect for a variety of opinions, even when there are opposing views.

Why not create an attitude of inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness?

Why not learn more about other American genre influences and incorporate those strategies to stimulate the markets for tangible results? When will these issues be addressed, if at all?

Without self-governance, Tejano warlords will continue polluting the waters of good spirits and god music, and denial will prosper until Tejanos suffer the indignity of lost pride and self-dignity altogether...the process has already started.

For Tejanos' sake, let's build participation, convert current social tournaments into industry summits fostering honest dialogue or brainstorming sessions.

Anything is better than sitting back to "see what happens."

Time has passed quickly in this post Selena era, but how much has been accomplished in Tejano? Insight dictates that Tejanos take action before the winds of change blow away our leaders' footsteps in the sands of time.

Tejano music lives wherever there is an affinity for the Tejano culture (and that's worldwide). ?íVIVE Tejano!

About Ruben S. Cubillos:
Ruben Cubillos is a musician and creative advocate for VIVE Tejano, Inc.
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