Twenty years ago, Max Baca built upon his experience playing traditional conjunto music and the rock 'n' roll crossover sound of the Texas Tornados, and formed Los Texmaniacs, a conjunto group equally at home playing rock, schottisches, cumbias, and ballads. Baca, a master of the bajo sexto, plays in the group with Noel Hernández (bass), Lorenzo Martinez (drums), and Baca’s nephew Josh on accordion. Their new album, "Cruzando Borders," is a timely collection of stories from both sides of the Rio Grande. Max and Josh Baca joined TPR in the studio recently to share some music and talk about their new album. You can listen to the interview or read it below (condensed and edited).
Los Texmaniacs will be playing at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s annual Tejano-Conjunto Festival this weekend, which takes place at Rosedale Park from Friday through Sunday, May 18-20.
Nathan Cone: Max, you grew up in New Mexico-- not Texas.
Max Baca: I grew up in Albuquerque New Mexico. Born and raised. And I guess in 1997 I moved to Austin, Texas and lived there for five years and then finally found my way to the Alamo City of San Antonio.
Nathan Cone: So before you found your way also to conjunto music you grew up listening to and hearing a style of music that was I think you've described it as kind of like conjunto, but without vocals, called “chicken scratch” music in New Mexico. I want to know a little bit more about that.
Max Baca: My dad taught me the accordion when I was five years old. But by the time I was like 8, 9 years old I used to play with my dad's band, I was his bass player. He had his conjunto, and I remember going to the different Indian reservations performing at jamaicas fiestas, festivals that they would have, and they would they would hire my father and his band. And then they would say they would say “we love the way you play that chicken scratch music” and then it never you know until years later on there's actually a music [called] Chicken Scratch music, which is basically Native Americans playing Tex-Mex music and accordion and bajo sexto without singing, just instrumentals.
Nathan Cone: The rhythm is similar?
Max Baca: The rhythm is the same, the same thing, the same songs, same… just no singing. And they call it Chicken Scratch.
Josh Baca: They sing the melodies of the lyrics for the song, and they'll sing the melody of the lyrics with the accordion and the music stays, remains the same, the same rhythm and beats.
Max Baca: Well they'll play the music the melody because they don't really seem don't know the play...
Nathan Cone: They're using it to play the vocal line...
Max and Josh: Yeah yeah yeah yeah.
Nathan Cone: So I guess the first time you really heard genuine conjunto was when you were in Lubbock as a young man, or young boy, seven years old or thereabouts, I guess?
Max Baca: Yeah. My father was when I was an accordionist you had a conjunto so I was listening to my dad's music but I remember where he picked it up from was he admired Narciso Martinez's music and Narciso Martinez was the one of the pioneers of this type of music, which he and I along with Santiago Jimenez Sr., Flaco Jimenez's daddy, were listening to the European sound of the of the German and the European settlers that settled around the turn of the century so they brought over the button accordion. It was here in Texas where they were listening to the sounds of the polka and oompah sound. And so they decided to pick up an accordion and that's what we did. We'd picked up accordion, started playing and what we did different was incorporate the instrument called the bajo sexton, which is a 12-string guitar with bass strings and guitar strings, and it was pretty much designed to take the place because they wanted to they wanted you know the Germans or the Czechs and Poles they would accompany themselves with this side of the accordion. The left hand side so they want they wanted to get something that would sound like this you know to accompany meant that would that way would allow the accordionist to have more freedom to play the leads and stuff faster. It's hard to accompany yourself if you're going in and out and you know playing the left side. So we ended up coming up with the bajo sexto which came from from Mexico from Michoacán. And then later on it came into the states you know so that's where you get the Tex. This is the Tex, and this is the Mex.
Back then, it was just these two instruments so it was the barn dances and campfire music what they would call and you know, the migrant farm workers were you know working the fields all week and then our means of entertainment were these two instruments you know they'd have barn dances you know hang up the lanterns on the tree and you know under them they sweep the dirt whatever you know and then…
Nathan Cone: You got a dance floor.
Max Baca: They got a dance floor! And so was so this. Yeah the two and at the beginning it was pretty much instrumentals that we would play. Polkas, schottisches, you know. And then later on they started adding the lyrics and the singing which came from the trios from Mexico the mariachis and real music the beautiful trio music that had these beautiful voices you know three-part voices and stuff so we started adding you know some of the poets and songwriters were from Mexico and so we would hear those beautiful songs and incorporate them into the Tex-Mex sound and so that's how it evolved.
Nathan Cone: Why don't we hear a tune right now from your new album.
Max Baca: Sure. Yes we have a brand new CD called Cruzando Borders on the Smithsonian Folkways. So this is a song. It's called "Soy de San Luis" and we did it in two different languages so it's in Spanish and in English. That's a good thing about the great state of Texas. All the mixed cultures and so forth... it's the only place you can go and say, "Hey, my name is Billy Bob Jimenez!"
Nathan Cone: Your new album, "Cruzando Borders," is really very timely given the news this week about a crackdown on asylum seekers. It seems that the issues in several of the songs on this album--some some of which are old songs, and you have new songs on here [as well]--they really haven't gone anywhere and they've been with us for decades. This album is very timely.
Max Baca: Yes we the thought of the concept you know along with a program coordinator from the Smithsonian Folkways and we said OK it's a good time for it so let's go ahead and record some songs about you know immigration and the borders. You know how Mexican Americans are you know crossover to come get a better life or whatever and just like the song “Across The Borderline,” you know. It's a perfect example of that. And then just to find out that you get sent back you know and that kind of stuff. So yeah, we really put our heart and soul into this one and we've had the opportunity and the honor to have special guest Lyle Lovett to record on Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" and Rick Treviño did a song with us too. So it's pretty cool. And then in between the songs we added the instrumentals, some of the old classic redowas, schottisches and stuff, to kind of let the album flow so when you're listening to the album it kind of flows really nice you know and something that’s a must have.
Josh Baca: It was awesome to talk with Mr. Dan Sheehy from the Smithsonian. He had an idea a concept of doing a on off like a storybook album. That's what the record is pretty much corridos and some people think corridos are just they portrayed to be a different style of of music or a different rhythm or a common rhythm which a corrido is just pretty much just a story and it could be English or could be Spanish it could be whatever. The album consists of stories, instead of just you know tags or hooks. There's a story behind you know like the song we just played, “Soy de San Luis,” [sings] like “Now I'm back in my homeland, back where I was born.” And it's telling a story and every song on the record is pretty much telling a story. Even the instrumentals that we recorded were all traditional instrumentals that derive from this region of South Texas and from a lot of Mexican Americans that learned to play the accordion. That came from Germany like Max said, it's just German music played by Mexicans. That's what conjunto music is.
Max Baca: Well they call it Tejano nowadays. And they've managed to incorporate, it's more of a hybrid now you know? And what does Tejano mean? It means 'Texan' you know it's Texas Music. And what does conjunto mean? It means 'a group' you know so back then in those days they would they just kind of say you know I have a group 'tengo mi conjunto' or whatever and it kind of just you know conjunto back then then meant just a four piece band.
Josh Baca: And I thought that maybe that the instrumentals that we performed on the record fit the concept of the of the album because you know we're telling stories and Cruzando Borders of either crossing the border or trying to make it back home or just working you know as a legitimate working just to make money for your family or food. And a lot of the songs are like “El Porron” and "Chicharronera" and stuff like that, it's all cultural it's all part of our culture. All those words and sayings are used throughout us talking amongst each other. So it was pretty awesome to come up with the concept of a storybook record.
Nathan Cone: You referenced the German and Polish influence on the music and you've toured all over the world right now I'm curious about when you're in Europe and you play for audiences that are in Germany or in Switzerland as you played there before. How do they respond to this sound?
Max Baca: Oh they love it it's because it's unique and different you know and I mean you know the accordion is the international instrument of the world. So there's an accordion in every in every culture you know and so they can relate to the accordion sound but then when you add that bajo sexto and then changes it to our own style you know the Tex-Mex sound. It's really cool you know! And then you start seeing their foot tapping and like the first time I remember we went to tour in China we did several cities… Beijing and Shanghai, Mongolia... We got back home and people say “oh there's Texas people, there's Tejanos there in China?” And I'm like no, it’s all the [Chinese] people and the culture. So we would just do what we do, and they loved it! It speaks for itself, and what it is, is how you approach it you know how you how you put your feeling. And I like to say our Texmaniac music is “alegre music,” happy music, you know? And I mean there's a lot of different opinions or whatever but I like personally and we like the alegre sound, that real happy sound and and that would make him do something to put tap your phone or make you want to get up and dance or drink a beer or something like that.
Nathan Cone: Then you get even happier and you want to dance even more!
Josh Baca: We toured from one end of Russia to the other and we were there for about a month I think came back for a week and went back and Russia, Switzerland we've been to and Italy and you know like you said the accordion is in every culture. But every culture has its own vibe. Every culture has its own energy, has its own flavor. They have their own style, and I've learned a lot of traditional German pieces that they perform over there in Germany, but the way our culture interprets their music is different, and there's a different energy to the music that brings out the Mexican American in the sound and the quality of what we're performed authenticity what we're performing for them. And I think they appreciate it more that they've influenced us to be part of what they do as well.
Max Baca: Yeah and even the first time we went to tour China the promoters said “Hey why don't you learn this traditional beautiful Chinese piece and just the fact that you're playing that song with these instruments and the Tex-Mex sound of it, they would appreciate it.” So we learned it. We didn't learn the lyrics or the singing, but we ended up having a female guest singer come and sing the song with us but we'd play we played the song and once we started playing it they went crazy. They loved it yeah it was amazing.
Josh Baca: It was a popular pop song they had over there.
Max Baca: “The Moon Represents My Heart” is the name of the song and it's beautiful song.
We started playing it and the whole theater just stood, got on their feet. And we were heroes after that!
Josh Baca: I think the forefront beat of our music is the pulse sound and the polka. So the boom boom boom boom in any culture or any music...
Nathan Cone: It's a heartbeat.
Max Baca: You walk into Germany in a club and you know you hear that that boom boom boom boom boom!
Josh Baca: People just dig it whether it’s a cumbia or rock song or blues song, you hear that heartbeat, and people just they dig it so we play and all we have are we playing music a little uptempo alegre like we say fast or happy music and they just start feeling that heartbeat. And most of the time our lyrics are translated into their native languages on the side of those stages. And a lot of anybody can relate to heartache or beer drinking or whatever. And they read the lyrics and they can relate to like oh yeah this is cool or ID or I'm here I'm just going to have a good time.
Nathan Cone: So this new album as you said Cruzado Borders features collaborations with Lyle Lovett. You mentioned Rick Treviño and in the past you've recorded with the Rolling Stones right? On the “Voodoo Lounge” album? You ever think about calling up Mick and Keith and asking him to come down here?
Max Baca: [laughs] Yeah I had the honor to record one song on the “Voodoo Lounge” album of course along with Flaco Jimenez, myself… We were invited to Hollywood and recorded a song with him and I got to meet Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, the whole band everybody… and then Keith Richards decided he wanted to buy my bajo. I didn't sell it to him, but I was like “Where are you at now Keith?” [laughs] You know it was given to me by my father and the instrument, it's a Martin Macias--that's like the Stradivarius of the bajo sexto. So [Keith] asked me “Hey, what is that?” and I said it’s a bajo sexto. And I showed it to him and he's like, “Can I see it?” And I said “sure,” so he got it and he looked at it. He says, “I want this! I want it! Would you sell it to me? Name your price, I want it.” I told him my father gave it to me, you know, sentimental value… and he goes, “Name your price.” He told me like three times. I didn't sell it to him. So when I got home from the tour and stuff and I told my dad and he goes “Pendejo! You should have sold it! We could have bought 10 of them!”
So, just one of those things that happens and that's a true story you know. I can take that to my grave. You know it was interesting, and an honor to be recording with the Rolling Stones.
Nathan Cone: Well I think it's really interesting also we referenced some of the names that before, that the people that you regularly play with I mean their roots go back to the beginning of conjunto I mean because you said of course Flaco Jimenez's father Santiago was one of the architects of the conjunto sound. I mean that's kind of like playing with Mozart whose teacher was Franz Joseph Haydn. This is an amazing lineage.
Max Baca: They're the guys that paved the road. Yeah they're the pioneers, yeah.
Josh Baca: They helped create and develop the style of Tex-Mex conjunto music to make it what it is today.
Max Baca: And it's a beautiful sound. Of course the mariachis were from Mexico but then they were hearing the music of the north you know and they'd say la musica de norte. So they started picking up the accordion in the in the bajo sexto and incorporating a saxophone and then they started calling it norteño music. So it's started evolving you know and moving to different parts of the southwest.
And so when I first heard Los Alegres de Teran, or you know Carlos y Jose or you know groups Ramon Ayala, Flaco Jimenez, I started hearing these from my father… growing up I was intrigued by the sound and especially of the bajo sexto because it just has a really aggressive attack sound to it. And it kind of attracts you to it. It's kind of like in Cajun music you know you have the fiddle and the Cajun accordion you know together you know and so it's really a happy attraction.
Nathan Cone: And the Los Texmaniacs sound… I mean, going back 20 years when you first started the group. It's not just the conjunto sound that you have here I mean we're talking and even late 20th century fusion right adding in some rock elements on occasion as well and you know your soul influences. So who are these who are the groups that you listen to?
Max Baca: You know I grew up in a high school listening to CCR, man. That was my all-time favorite rock ‘n’ roll band-- still is today. You know John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival. I listened to rock ‘n’ roll, of course. I listened to the heavier stuff. You know AC/DC, whatever, Van Halen and stuff like that. But I really dug that vibe or that groove. If you listen to some of their stuff it's sounds really like a polka. You know even on the Sir Douglas Quintet song, "She's About a Mover," Augie [Meyers] played the Vox organ on that, you know, and he's playing like a bajo thing. So it's kind of like a polka you know so it's really that's what attracted me that rock ‘n’ roll thing.
Josh Baca: That's the beautiful thing about being a Mexican American and living on the side of the border in America but also keeping in touch with your roots and being true to who you are. That's why the instruments that we play and the bajo sexto [are attractive] to us. It's part of our culture. It's part of what we grew up with. Some people in all their homes you grew up with a piano or a guitar in every room. Here in South Texas in San Antonio, even in New Mexico there’s a bajo sexto and an accordion in every room in everybody's house. Everybody plays. Some people do it professionally. Some people just do it just as you know a novelty or just to learn a couple songs or whatever you know and I'm 26 years old, so I grew up listening to pop and rock and blues and country and all the modern stuff. I [also] grew up listening to my father and my uncle performing and playing. But I first heard Flaco Jimenez and Esteban Jordan-- those two guys are they really forced me to think out of the box on the squeezebox take this music to a different level and I'm not not this music I can't see this take this music but take these instruments and incorporate them into other genres of music.
Los Texmaniacs' new album is "Cruzando Borders," available from Smithsonian Folkways Records. The group performs at 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 20 at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center's annual Tejano-Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, Texas.