Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mr. Art Car Does Marfa

Last Thursday afternoon, while hanging out across the street on Highland Avenue with my friends Boyd and Robert, we saw a '72 Dodge van covered with 1,705 cameras pull up to the offices of the Big Bend Sentinel which Robert edits. So we walked over to talk to a man and a woman who emerged from the van.

He started talking about wanting to make Marfa a satellite city for the big Art Car parade which is held in Houston every April so Art Cartisans in the region could caravan to H-Town. After talking about Art Cars, which the man seemed to know a lot about, I asked if he knew Harrod Blank.

"I'm Harrod Blank," he replied, setting off a long conversation about Art Cars, his film Wild Wheels, his book, Art Cars, his writings on various subjects including Burning Man, and his father, the documentary filmmaker Les Blank, for whom my wife, Kris Cummings, worked back in 1978 on the film "Always For Pleasure" that celebrated New Orleans music. Harrod, who lives behind his father's house in Berkeley, CA is moving to Douglas, Arizona. Why? "Because I can afford to live there," he said.

Robert took photos of the couple and the vehicle for the newspaper.

We walked around the car and checked out the cameras, most of which are functional, Harrod said.

Boyd poked his nose inside the driver's window.

Harrod sold us postcards of his art before going on his way. Check out his wonderful world at

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Tex and the Mex

I was reading this blog last week in the New York Times written by staff writer Joe Drape, expounding on an article he had written in the hard copy edition about Dallas Tex-Mex.

I give him props for tackling a touchy and very subject topic that inspires fightin' words,' and for citing Robb Walsh and his most excellent book on the history of the subject.

Having had several discussions with Robb on this subject in the past, I couldn't help but weigh in on the discussion thread following Drape's blog, an exercise in which I rarely partake:

  • 1.

    After having dined twice at El Mirador over the past three weeks,it’s reassuring to know I’ve done the Paris of Tex-Mex (although you did miss the Lyon of Tex-Mex, Austin, altogether and absolutely no mention of El Rancho and their exquisite chile relleno w/pecans and raisins demonstrates a certain Yankee ignorance).
    But I was crushed to discover in downtown San Antonio that Lupita’s Number 2, previously reviewed in the NY Times for being that quintessential Tex-Mex lunch joint, is no more, siempre cerrado, which made me feel muy triste.

    — Posted by Joe Nick

As it was, I was first on the thread and what followed was a most interesting meander through
Tex-Mex with most others' opinion of course wrong-headed and way off base although Tex-Mex in Paris inspired its own blog (note to those folks, you can't talk Tex-Mex in Paris pre-Mario even without talking about Le Studio, which I believe was started up by two guys from Dallas back in the early eighties. I do remember it was good enough to return to several times. Number Twenty Five, down towards the bottom of the thread, made what was already a pretty great week. Thanks, whoever you are. Plus, you're on the money on the other comments.

  • 25.

    Lo siento mucho, folks, but it’s true. Tex-Mex travels neither well to distant plate nor page. It’s nice that folks in New York and K-town recall their Tex-Mex meals, but it just doesn’t fly very far. While it is natural that critics and authors flock to urban surrounds and laud their experiences, the heart just isn’t there.

    One visit to Mirando City or Donna will yield up the tradition of Tex-Mex in a way quite beyond renderings flopped on a bolillo’s plate in Dallas or Paris. NM, AZ, and CA all have their Mexican influenced foods, but none have a culture fully intertwined with norteño Mexico as does Texas.

    Thanks Mr. Walsh, but quesadiillas made with white añejo from Castroville are the genuine article - not a crepe gruyere. And a good bowl of menudo on a Sunday morning doesn’t follow Mexican beer (which I came to love before I knew there was a drinking age) on Saturday night - it cures a headache from too much Shiner (no longer Pearl or Lone Star). Your cookbook’s bullseye is on a target situated way north of the Red and Canadian.

    For the dearie who touts her Pacific Coast guisada, well the issue is simple - attend a quinceañera just about anywhere in a Texas town with a population under 5000. Have some barbacoa on fresh tortillas while you’re at it. How many such gatherings are catered in Grandview? Oh, and my apologies to folks in Johnson County. A short jaunt to Cleburne used to, on occasion, treat you to a harp serenade from a fellow considered a national treasure in Mexico.

    Since New York seems to consider Dallas a center of the folkways of Tex-Mex, I’m surprised you missed a conversation (or at least a meal) with Matt Martinez. Matt came to Dallas from Austin where his folks fed Texas University students and Texas’ elite and powerful side-by-side for decades from recipes more like what you’d find in a home kitchen in the Valley. Unless you’re lucky or friendly, though, what you get from his restaurants’ kitchens these days is now more aimed at the tastes of northern immigrants. (Matt, we miss ‘No Place’!)

    Matt is not a presupposing fellow, but he probably qualifies as the closest thing to a Tex-Mex food anthropologist. And it doesn’t hurt that Julia Child asked him once for a second helping of his milanesa. His books on cuisine never mention the event, I believe.

    If you’re still in Dallas and insisting on menus in English, you might want to check in with Jorge, Jake, and Michael Levy - a family with an ability, likewise, to treat Dallas’ pallid palate as well as those of us needing a verdadera Tex-Mex fix. Just make it clear to the kitchen that’s the experience you want.

    Last, trust whatever Joe Nick has to say - he’s your first comment on this blog. His command of Texas’ real culture - not the one folks from Ohio and Illinois imagine they see from sterile suburbs - is one in the tradition of the “Tres Sabios”. And he’s mercifully more adept at brevity than I am. Patoskie, they’ll add your likeness as a fourth in Zilker Park one of these days.


    Post for Kareem -
    Texas has a border with eight states and some people in a national capital, the sixth nearest one to Austin, presume to tell us we need a wall against four of our neighbors. Meanwhile, in several non-bordering states, more property taxes are billed to Texas addresses than to addresses within those states. Time for a re-think of the dog and tail analogy? I think so and six generations of my family would say the same. We are Texas and we thank you for your sentiment.

    — Posted by Edward

Sunday, October 14, 2007

International Accordion Festival

You’ve heard the accordion jokes:

What did people say when the ship loaded with accordions sank in the ocean?

Well, it's a start.

The song most requested of accordionists?

Can you play Far, Far Away.

What do a true music lover and an accordionist have in common?

Absolutely nothing.

No one was telling accordion jokes at the Arneson River Theatre Friday night in San Antonio at the kickoff event of the three-day International Accordion Festival. Everyone was too busy digging the triple bill of accordion maestros to make fun of their instruments, although laughter was heard throughout the evening. .

This was an evening of accordion artistry, with San Antonio as the musical as well as physical centerpiece of the night’s music, small wonder since the accordion is regarded as the National Instrument of Texas, played by a number of different cultures and accompanied by voices singing in English, Spanish, French, Czech, and German.

San Antonio was founded more in the 1700s at La Villita, the site of the accordion festival, by immigrants from the Canary Islands, the home of opening act Brandan, a young under-40 sextet formed around a timple, a stringed instrument that looks like a ukulele but sounds like a mandolin, played by Benito Cabrera and the piano keyboard accordion played by Jeremias Martin. The group’s emphasis was on traditional sounds with hints of Irish reels and gypsy swing creeping into the lilting instrumental melodies that had me wondering if they were about to break into “Stairway to Heaven.” There was no Led Zeppelin quoted, however, nor much showmanship and even less patter from the stage other than an apology in broken English for not speaking English well – much of the crowd of 1,000 perfectly understood their more detailed explanation in Spanish. But the timple-accordion combo did sometimes recalled the harp-guitar blending of son jarocho music from Veracruz state in Mexico. Although none of Brandon’s material packed quite the emotional punch of “La Bamba,” drummer Siddhartha Carrasco powered the melody with a back beat that made Brandan more than a folk group.

Santiago Jimenez, Jr. y su conjunto performed the hometown sound of conjunto, the polka-centric music of Texas-Mexicans for a hometown crowd that lustily cheered from the first note on his diatonic button accordion and filled the sidewalk by the river at the foot of the seating area with dancers. His quartet featured the bajo sexto twelve string guitar that pushed the rhythm along with the drums and bass, leaving Jimenez to let his fingers do the dancing on his instrument’s buttons. demonstrate his fingerplay on the buttons. Like Brandan, Jimenez is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English but he attempted to explain his music bilingually sometimes trying to make light jokes (“I’m been playing 47 years and I’m just starting, OK?”, “This next song is ‘Los Tres Sabinos’ which in English means the three sabinos, OK?”) as he worked his way through redovas, huapangos, danzon, boleros, and waltzes – musical styles that have all but been abandoned by modern conjuntos in favor of cumbias. Unlike his modernist brother, Flaco Jimenez, best known for his work with the Texas Tornados, Santiago is his father’s son, and honored Senior, one of the pioneers of Texas conjunto accordion by playing several of his originals during the set. He played with drama, often pulling the bellows as wide as his arms would extend while trilling high notes, but not too flashy as is the style of contemporaries such as Mingo Saldivar or Nick Villareal. When he sang, it was gusto, in a full-throated, almost Germanic voice that as muscular and assertive and thoroughly engaging, as if no one could refuse his order to dance. When he played, especially the polkas, pushed by the tight marching cadence of the drums, bass, and bajo setting the pace, he was without peer, acknowledged by the rousing applause from the audience and their voices, singing along to “Volver, Volver.” By the time the slight Jimenez, resplendent in black shirt, blue jeans, and black patent leather cowboy boots, segued into a snippet of the popular Mexican standard that even uneducated gringos recognize “El Rancho Grande” he had the whole house rocking to the accordion.

Chango Spasiuk, the man and the quintet of the same name from the Misiones region of northeastern Argentina showed the future of traditional accordion music. Playing a style called chamamè which is considered the deepest swing music in Argentina, the ensemble, all dressed in black, included a standup bass player, acoustic guitar, a beatbox, and a violin which provided the musical counterpoint to the accordion, which was so large, with an extra long keyboard that from a distance appeared to hold all 88 keys, that Spasiuk the accordionist played sitting down with the instrument resting on a blanket on his lap. Although the five players are all native Argentines and tied to the accordion music of Astor Piazzola, Argentina’s best known accordionist, the leader’s Ukrainian roots showed in his physical presence – he was the one with the wild blond hair in contrast to the dark features of the rest of the group – and in his playing which included hints of Roma, Czech, and other eastern European sounds. The interplay of accordion and violin recalled the passion of mariachi music while their concept of swing summoned sonic images of Texas-rooted western swing with snippets that could have been borrowed from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ “Stay All Night, Stay A Little Longer,” once again proving swing, like polka, transcends language and culture.

Chango Tango

The last song of the set was a tango, the national sound of Argentina, and the reason one couple showed up at the Arneson. The couple seethed sexuality (the man, dressed in black, wore a black fedora with a Royal Flush of playing cards in his hat band) and their dance by the riverside drew as many cheers from the audience as the band did, with cameras flashing to capture their dramatic, passionate syncopated moves.

The evening concluded with all three accordionists taking the stage to play a huapango, rooted in Mexican traditions and concluding with “Viva Seguin” the instrumental polka written by Santiago Jimenez, Jr.’s father more than seventy years ago. If Jimenez had an edge over the other accordionists, Spasiuk gave him a run for his money with his own riffs.

There isn’t a prettier venue in Texas for hearing music than the Arneson River Theatre with the San Antonio River separating the stage from the audience and a backdrop of mission-style stone arches flanked by ancient palms, despite the steady procession of passing tourist barges and the tacky banners advertising Bud Light and other sponsors draped at the foot of the stage, behind it, and on both sides. Those drawbacks were trumped by the sight of ducks on the water and a small Great Blue Heron winging past. Between those visuals and the sounds pouring from the stage Friday night, it was one of those Nowhere Else but San Antonio nights.

dancing to the Chanky0Chank with Pollard-Ardoin

Southern Scratch knows polka

The festival continued through the weekend on three stages around La Villita. On Saturday the Cajun-Creole ensemble led by Ed Pollard and Lawrence Ardoin had the crowds rocking with infectious “chanky-chank” music from southwest Louisiana while local heroes The Texmaniacs featuring bajo sexton guitarist Max Baca and accordionista David Farias presented state-of-the-art conjunto music that showed the music’s future is secure. They had the house singing along to their polka-fied rendition of Bruce Channel’s (and Delbert McClinton’s Made-In-Texas pop-soul classic “Hey Baby.” What little I got to hear of Southern Scratch, the Tohono O’odham Native American group specializing in “chicken scratch” underscored the fact that Tejanos aren’t the only Americans to put some kick into polka music.

Yuri Yunakov Ensemble smokin'

But for me, the biggest revelation of the festival was the Roma music and dance of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble. Playing what the great unwashed would describe as gypsy music and what began as Bulgarian wedding music, leader Yunakov fused his tenor sax with a cornet and a piano key accordion into a wicked harmony that whipped the band and the audience into an intense frenzy. Yunakov built on that collaborative energy to launch into extraterrestrial free jazz riffs that entered the realm of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman while physically demonstrating the joy of music in a way that my wife says she hadn’t seen since Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band ruled the planet. Whether he’s the Clifton of his time or the John Coltrane of Bulgaria, Yuri Yunakov was on another plane compared to the rest of the acts I saw for his passionate stylistic playing and the obvious pleasure he personally derives from it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Zydeco Rocks

While heading south on US 281 to the Valley a couple weeks ago, pondering turning off to drive to the shrine of noted healer Don Pedro Jaramillo to get all the God on my side that I can, the Texas Fred Zydeco Show on XM Channel 12 convinced me to keep moving. Zydeco had already saved me. Say what you will about the declining state of folk music in America. The folks making Zydeco, that gumbo of traditional white Cajun and black Creole sounds made modern for the young people, are on fire with their skills for philosophizing while maintaining a hepped up rhythm meant for booty-shaking and other traditional forms of physical expression.

Over the course of thirty minutes, Texas Fred had me barking. Actually, it was Chubby Carrier, covering “Dog Hill” the song made famous by Boozoo Chavis, singing about going to a place “where the pretty women at” interspersing the verses with carnal “woof-woof”s - Zydeco women love that. Then it was Nathan Williams’ declaration of wisdom, “I Was Born at Night (But I Wasn’t Born Last Night)” making sure no woman was going to pull one on him as he squeezed his box while the rest of the Zydeco Cha Chas rolled behind him, the Zydeco Force doing some more barking on “Shaggy Dog Two-Step,” Beau Jocque rolling around in the gutter doing his best Howlin’ Wolf asking “Woman, Why You Wanna Drive Me Crazy?” Somewhere inbetween Step Rideau and his Zydeco Outlaws burned raw heat, showing why he’s got the stuff to be invoked by UGK, the lords of Texas rap, representing Port Arthur and all of the greater H-Town megapolis.

Step Rideau (photo by James Fisher)

Boozoo Chavis (photo by Michelle Leder, taken two days before his death in Austin in 2001)