Morgan: Conjunto Rockers Taking It To The Streets
San Antonio is a crossroads of many things, perhaps nowhere more than in the world of music. And there’s one San Antonian who stands at the odd crossroads in the world of punk and conjunto music.
Alvaro Del Norte and his four-piece band Piñata Protest has toured extensively behind his high-energy punk conjunto blend. But when you sit down to talk with him, he seems worlds away from punk stereotypes.
“I've been living in the U.S. since I was a little kid,” said the Mexico native. “My dad was in the army so I got to see plenty of the nation."
The soft-spoken, eloquent 30-something from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, sounds very unlike the lead singer of a punk band. And if you listen closely, you'll hear an instrument that you probably have never heard in punk rock: the accordion.
"I don't think people really realize like what a great melodic instrument it is,” he said. “It really, really is. It really cuts through the mix really well and it gives a great melody."
Piñata Protest tours often, playing heavy metal venues, where many stand agape when Del Norte struts out with his button accordion.
"Yeah, that's exactly what happens to a lot of people I think are very thrown off with the accordion," he said.
It’s a huge challenge for a button accordion player to win over a guitar-centric heavy metal audience.
"Yeah. But it's cool. I like it,” Del Norte said. “I love that challenge of kind of winning over an audience and I'm very lucky that people dig it."
Most instruments are rigid and players pluck strings or press keys to get the notes they need. But the accordion requires pulling apart then pushing it back together to work the bellows. Del Norte says the accordion’s odd aspects don’t stop there.
"The weird thing about the button accordion is that the notes change whether you're going in or out, so it's like a totally different configuration that you're playing,” he said. “But the button accordion definitely has a certain sound that the piano accordion doesn't. That's what makes it special to the Tex Mex sound."
But the crowd-surfing front man for Piñata Protest has a softer side — a side he exercises by performing in front of people on the streets.
"When the opportunity comes, I do like to do some busking around the city of San Antonio downtown," he said.
WATCH | Piñata Protest performing on St. Mary's Street
Del Norte, like most buskers, performs for tips. And he has one place in particular he likes most.
"I'll go busking at taco trucks down on the famous St Mary's strip around midnight up until like 3 a.m. sometimes,” he said. “... When the bars clear out, people go straight to the taco trucks and … I love playing to them."
I met Del Norte at midnight on a recent Friday night in front of the Tacos Al Regio truck. Revelers walked by, many dancing as they passed, some stopping to listen, and still others dropping a few bucks in the tip jar.
"All right, thank you," said Del Norte when they tipped.
He was joined by two of his bandmates, Regino Lopez on electric guitar and Richie Brown on upright bass. Richie was playing so hard that a blister opened up on his thumb and bled. But he kept playing. Armando Martinez showed up a little later to play rhythm guitar. Del Norte is clearly in his element on the streets.
"Really, it's such a cool atmosphere. You have people just breaking out in dance. You know, people are doing Cumbia or, or polka-ing or whatever," he said.
While Del Norte loves playing on stage, under the spotlight in front of an audience, busking has its own allure.
"You're master of your own domain; you get to start and stop when you choose and you get to play really what you want, which is cool,” he said. “Although sometimes you do change up the tune depending on who the audience is. If it's, let's say, a family with kids ... I'll play something playful, like the ‘Chicken Dance.’ "
At about 1:15 a.m., Ruben Martinez rolled up on a skateboard, holding a large suitcase, which revealed two small drums a hi-hat and a cymbal. A pedal-operated kick turned the suitcase itself into a bass drum, and he immediately gave the band’s rhythm section its sizzle.
I was there until nearly 3 a.m. The musicians worked without a break to reach the night owls and college students.
"There's something really magical about just playing out to the street and the open air and being able to inspire someone that close and personal," he said.
Del Norte plays his music on the streets with an instrument brought here by eastern European immigrants, but repurposed with South Texas soul.
"It's a great time of night ... to hear some traditional Tex Mex songs about love and heartbreak and, you know, just fun songs to dance to," he said.
After the bars closed and the people came and left, Del Norte and his musician friends packed up their gear and headed home. Just another Friday night in the musical crossroads of San Antonio.
Jack Morgan can be reached at email@example.com