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Last Bandoleros take a deep dive on their Texas roots on European stages

Diego and Emilio Navaira, and Jerry Fuentes onstage in Munich
Karoline Ihns
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Publicity photo
Diego and Emilio Navaira,and Jerry Fuentes onstage in Munich.

Though The Last Bandoleros no longer call San Antonio home, they are in a sense more connected with their roots here than ever.

Emilio and Diego Navaira are multi-instrumentalists and singers. They're also the sons of Emilio Navaira, the Grammy-winning Tejano star. Jerry Fuentes plays guitar and sings, and they all write. They spoke with TPR in late October, after they stepped off a whirlwind of a tour they’d been riding.

“We just got back from Europe this summer. We were touring there, released a record — our first full length in the States — called Tex Flex in June,” Diego said. “And we did Good Morning America like two weeks ago. And we're home now celebrating Dia de los Muertos here at home in San Antonio, eating tacos.”

That Good Morning America gig was live coast-to-coast and debuted probably their most danceable song to date, sung in English and Spanish.

“We made [host] Robin Roberts dance so I could take that off the bucket list,” Emilio said.

Vamos a Bailar - Bilingual Version (Official Video)

The band’s history goes back eight years now. Two years ago, with the departure of Bandolero and New York guitarist and singer Derek James, the quartet became a trio. But their return-to-roots process didn’t begin with his departure.

Jerry Fuentes said it began with a pair of relationships, starting with superstar Sting, who was recording his album 57th & 9th.

“Through our manager, who also works with Sting, he connected the dots and was like, ‘why don't you try some of these younger guys?’ he said. “And so it was a huge opportunity. And I just remember sitting in the studio and I'm like, ‘am I jamming with Sting in the studio for his new album?'”

The Bandoleros sang backups for Sting for that session. The song was selected as a single, and it shot all the way to #2 — Sting’s first hit in 12 years.

And even better, Jerry said Sting apparently liked the guys.

IMG_4196.JPEG
Martin Kierszenbaum
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Last Bandoleros with Sting

“He invited us to do four or five shows in North America. After like the fourth show in North America he's like, ‘I want these guys with me for the whole world tour,’” he said.

And so they did. Emilio said they ended up playing a lot of places the Beatles had, like Tokyo’s Budokan and the OIympia in Paris. At those stops, the Bandoleros would play Beatles songs for warmup.

“We're all Beatles freaks so any venue that was on the tour that they did [was included]. We did Olympia in Paris — that one was the cool one because we actually were warming up backstage acoustically, and Sting came in and started singing with us too. So that was super surreal,” he said.

Touring the world as Sting’s opening act was good for their collective professional confidence. They found their footing and began writing more and more. They also recorded their Live In Texas album.

Sting - I Can't Stop Thinking About You

Jerry said the pandemic spurred an almost constant stream of writing.

“We had been amassing songs all throughout COVID and lockdown,” he said. “And obviously, you couldn't really go out and play music. And we use that time to to write, write and write.”

In the middle of all that, the Bandoleros manager had another collaboration suggestion: rapper and Reggae star Shaggy.

“Man, this is crazy, but why don't we try writing at Shaggy's place?” Jerry said. “We went to Long Island, New York, and Shaggy just put us up in his studio compound, and we all slept at the studio. Made us pancakes at three in the morning after the session. And we spent a week writing and just doing music.”

The Last Bandoleros perform 'Hey Baby Que Paso' | The Last Bandoleros live on GMA | Asad Empire

Diego said the sessions were freeing, allowing them a kind of group carte blanche to look toward the future.

“I think we were all just having fun and with no expectations, just kind of throwing stuff against the wall,” Diego said. “And yeah, I believe that's kind of the start of we found the Tex Flex DNA.”

“Two of those demos that we did at Shaggy's wound up making the next Tex Flex album,” Jerry said.

Tex Flex is what they named that next album, which, he said, hearkened back to their San Antonio roots.

The Last Bandoleros & SHAGGY - "Let Me Love You"

“From a sonic standpoint you hear the instruments of our culture, which are flamenco guitars,” Jerry said. “You hear bajo sexto. You hear bass lines that are akin to cumbia.”

You also hear musical embellishments to bring it into today.

“And then we would throw in some electronic or modern sounds, marrying it with this sounds of our heritage,” he said.

In the meantime, the fourth Bandolero Derek James had decided his time in the band was done, and he departed for new horizons.

Tex Flex.jpg
courtesy the artists
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Tex Flex album cover

Not long after, the world was also opening up for live performances again. They got booked on a June through August tour of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to open for a band that Diego says is huge in Europe.

“They’re called The Boss Hoss. They have a really, really massive following and were gracious enough to take us on their tour this past summer,” Diego said.

As part of their embrace of roots, the Last Bandoleros had Mariachi suits made of black, with silver buttons. Diego said it was an unexpected look to European audiences.

“At first we could tell they were kind of like, ‘who are these guys walking out in mariachi costumes? And they're singing in Spanish?’ But music is the universal language,” Emilio said. “And we're grateful that by the end of our set, they were dancing along with us.”

Bandoleros.jpg
Jack Morgan
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Last Bandoleros at the Will Naylor River Walk Plaza outside the Tobin Center

Video they posted on their social media backed up the claim. They had 25 nights to try out their newest music, and they were well received. They used the tour for yet another function.

“In our off time, we made the next record in hotel rooms and in vans and buses and green rooms,” Diego said.

After leaving the stage, they picked up their instruments in their downtime and recorded an entire new album at the hotel: Tex Flex Folklorico.

It’s an even deeper dive into their musical roots.

So the band that lives to play and write is planning more of both. First, a huge country music festival in the spring.

“We hope to have a new record out in April before we play Stagecoach out in Indio, California,” Diego said.

These three guys in their early 30s still live in Nashville at this point, but their muse is clearly still Texas.

“Being in lockdown away from home and family, I think really helped us to embrace the culture and what we didn't even know what was in us,” Diego said.

“Now that there's just the three mijos from San Antonio left in the band, I think, especially going over to Europe and playing this stuff in Spanish and Spanglish and it working … I think it just gave us the confidence to say, 'let's just let's do it,' ” Emilio said. “We all grew up playing this stuff. It feels right.”

Now, in the new year, some of the city’s favorite musical native sons continue to create and perform with a re-energized fervor ... and with a re-defined focus on new and bigger horizons.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii