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Arts & Culture

San Antonio's Navaira Brothers: The Beat Goes On

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Jack Morgan
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Texas Public Radio
Emilio Navaira, from left; Diego Navaira; Derek James; and Jerry Fuentes backstage at Floore Country Store.

A band from San Antonio is having international success. At the core of the group is a pair of brothers, carrying on the family business: Diego and Emilio Navaira.

 

And if the name Emilio Navaira rings a bell, that’s because their father of the same name, who died in 2016, was the Tejano superstar.

 

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Credit courtesy Emilio Navaira IV
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Emilio Navaira IV, Cynthia Navaira, Emilio Navaira, Diego Navaria

"I think that was just an early education for us — for the career that we decided, the path we decided to choose," said the younger Diego Navaira, who plays bass.

Diego is 26 and Emilio is 28, and those musical roots run deep between the brothers.

"That comes from us playing with my dad for so many years because he took us out on the road when we were 15, 16, when we had summers off," he added.

Diego said they were raised in a home where music was always at arm's reach. Instruments were everywhere.

“There was, you know, pianos and guitars — I would say mostly,” he said.

And then the elder Emilio brought home “... the biggest drum kit a 15 year old could have,” Emilio said. “But see, the thing is that people don't understand, it's my dad.

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Diego Navaira, Emilio Navaira

"I mean, he was born and raised into Tejano music and country, but he loved rock and roll and he loved Van Halen. We didn't have playing catch or going fishing as much, but we played with them a lot."

Diego agreed.

"That was our father-son time was being onstage, playing music," he said.

They both said music was never forced on them, but once they had decided on music, their dad had a lesson for the boys in the form of a movie. He picked them up at school one day and took them to the Bijou Theater for a showing of the Beatles' “A Hard Day’s Night.”

“I could feel my hair growing into this mop top that I have now. And I was just enamored with the Beatles,” he said.

WATCH | Last Bandeleros performing live, along with Sting

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZsv1Nn5BDM

Emilio remembers something his father said.

“He was just like, ‘If you're going to write songs, you got to write songs as good as these guys.’ So he was a really good coach. Never pushed it on us,” he said. “But when he realized that this is what we wanted to do, he gave us really good teachers and lessons."

In their teenage years, the two brothers played in a series of bands, trying to find their own musical voices. Then about three years ago, through mutual connections, they met San Antonian Jerry Fuentes, who was living in New York, and decided to begin a project. AndThe first song they wrote together was “Where Do You Go?”

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Accordion player Percy Cardona sits in with the Last Bandoleros.

That song would eventually become the group’s first release. Fuentes was living in New York with Derek James, who he introduced to the brothers, and the four kept writing together.

"So we'd fly there. They’d fly here,” he said. “In about two months, we had a whole record and we're like, ‘OK, this is more than a writing project. This is a band, and we need to see how far we can take this thing.’ "

So they settled on the name The Last Bandoleros and were soon signed to Warner Brothers Records. A label mate caught wind of what they were doing, and "Sting heard our music," Emilio said.

Sting’s interest turned into asking the Bandoleros to work with him.

First, Fuentes was asked to add guitar to one of his songs. Then, the Bandoleros joined Sting for an NBA All-Star game halftime show in 2016. Emilio said after a few more little projects, Sting made the big ask.

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Emilio Navaira

"You guys want to do a world tour with me? And when Sting asks you if you want to do a world tour, I don't care what you're doing, but you say yes," he said, laughing.

Sting’s son Joe Sumner would open, followed by the Last Bandoleros, who Sting would sometimes join onstage to sing a couple of songs. And after the American portion of the tour, Sting’s interest didn't stop.

"We were just supposed to do the U.S. and then we did that. And then about halfway through he said, ‘You want to do Europe?’ And we said yes, and we did Europe and then he said, ‘Would you guys like to come to Central America and South America?’ And we said yes. And then he said, ‘This is going good, would you like to come to Asia?’ And we said yes. And it was just like — it was that organic."

Emilio said one of the highlights of touring the world was visiting spots they had only seen in the movies.

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Jerry Fuentes uses a bottle for a slide.

"We played a bunch of venues that the Beatles played and me and Diego were such Beatles nerds,” he said. “Every night when we play one of those venues, we played the same set that they (the Beatles) would to warm up on acoustic, and one night he came and joined us and we did the whole set and it was amazing to hear Sting singing Beatles songs with us."

And the Last Bandoleros weren't just playing with Sting. They were hanging with him. And soon, Emilio said, they were being advised by him.

"Every night he was coming into our green room and telling us what he likes about the set,” he said. “Maybe we should change some stuff.”

Diego jumped in: "And he would make suggestions like, ‘Oh, I love that hook.’And so he was watching the set every night, which is incredible and also a bit nerve-wracking because I would look to the side of the stage and they're like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sting."

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Derek James, Jerry Fuentes, Percy Cardona, Emilio Navaira, Diego Navaira

As it turns out, though, touring with Sting wasn't the first time the brothers had seen him, Emilio said.

"My dad loved the Police. If you had told me that night, in about five years, you're going to be playing with Sting every night for a year. I would've said ‘What are you smoking? And get me some’ because for him to be so down to earth and come to talk to us every night, it was incredible. You can't ask for that," he said.

The Last Bandoleros work out of Nashville, and are slated to spend much of July touring in Germany.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org