Robert Olivarez has been involved in music for nearly 20 years. That’s about two-thirds of the 33-year-old’s life. The musician said he hopes this is his year — when he finally takes Eztilo, his tejano group, to the next level.
Olivarez’ first learned to play the guitar when he was 12 from his older brother. His dad played a piano accordion, and he would often get together to play polkas with a friend who played the bajo-sexto. That’s how Olivarez was first exposed to the 12-string instrument.
“One day I saw my dad’s friend play the bajo, and I was like, ‘Wow, man, I love the way that sounds. I want to learn that!’” Olivarez remembers. “I already knew a little bit of guitar, but that (bajo-sexto sound) was just like, ‘Whoa, man.’”
He soon started learning the basics of the bajo. A few years later he founded Eztilo. Their first paid gig was a huge moment for the young bajo-sexto playing kid from Santa Rosa.
“My first gig, we opened up for Los Palominos at a quinceañera in San Benito,” Olivarez said. “It was crazy, we were just so excited. We were little, we were 15 years old, opening up for a huge band. It was awesome, man. We were just freaking out.”
Eventually the group disbanded, with everyone landing other music-related opportunities. Olivarez spent four years performing with Los Hermanos Garcia de San Antonio. The late Santiago “Jimmy” Garcia, the group’s founder and accordionist, left a huge impression on Olivarez.
“I learned from Jimmy, a lot,” he said. “(What I learn is that) it’s not about how much you know. You can know a lot of stuff, it’s just really how you feel it. He just really played his heart out every time.”
Olivarez feels like he gained a lot of confidence performing with Los Garcia Brothers. When he felt the time was right, Olivarez left San Antonio and returned to the Rio Grande Valley. That’s when he struck up a friendship with accordionist Arnold Benavidez.
A San Benito native, Benavidez would often go to bailes with his parents. Like a lot of young Tejanos, he became an admirer of accordionists Jaime De Anda and Albert Zamora. At 12, he started taking button diatonic accordion lessons from Juan Antonio Tapia.
“I started playing with local bands, when I was 15, as well,” Benavidez said.
He got his first big break in his early 20s, when a friend told him that Cali Carranza was searching for an accordionist since he had become sick and couldn’t play the accordion anymore. Benavidez got the job, and he made most of it.
“(At) about 23, 24, I played with him for at least two-and-a-half years,” Benavidez said. “From there, Cali (Carranza) taught me tejano, old school tejano, what is tejano. That advanced me a lot in my playing.”
He treasures the brief time he was able to spend with Carranza.
“One special memory was when we went to Alice, Texas, and he got inducted into the Tejano (Roots) Hall of Fame. We did a performance, and that was the day he got inducted. So, I was a part of that. To me, that was an honor,” he said.
While the group continued after Carranza died in 2012, Benavidez decided to shift his career in a different direction.
“It wasn’t the same as when Cali (Carranza) was alive. I guess it was like the same thing with Robert (Olivarez). When Jimmy (Garcia) died ... it wasn’t really much the same anymore, so he got out. That’s when I got out of Los Formales, too.”
That’s when Olivarez and Benavidez decided to bring Eztilo back to life.
“We got together, we said, ‘Let’s make a band, let’s start Eztilo up again’,” Olivarez said. “(Benavidez) knew who Eztilo was a long time ago, we wanted to try out something new.”
That “something new” involves Olivarez infusing his tejano music with a little bit of rock and roll. He feels that brings a fresh approach to Tejano music.
Former members of Siggno, bassist Joseph Scott and drummer Jacob Castaneda, jumped on board after talking to Olivarez and Benavidez.
“(I told them) I got some original songs, we have enough to make a CD,” Olivarez said. “When I was with Los Garcia Brothers, I had my songs but I wasn’t really thinking of doing anything cause I was with the Garcia Brothers. I was just doing it for fun. One of my friends, he has his own band (called) La Calma, Eduardo Perez, he’s kind of the one that got me going on my own stuff. He said I should I try out (song-writing).”
They are hoping to finally get some work done at the recording studios in March.
Most recently, Eztilo came in second place at the “Texano Wars: Battle of the Bands” contest in Corpus Christi on Saturday, Feb. 15.
“I had a good time, we were just there to do what we do best,” Benavidez said. “I got to meet a lot of musicians there, too. I got to converse with them. New friends, it was really awesome.”
This year, they are trying their best to get as much exposure as possible. Once they are done recording in the studio, they would like to release their single to all the tejano radio stations out there. Olivarez is very optimistic about Eztilo’s future.
“It’s really good, I think we got something going,” Olivarez said. “We just want to get out there, for people to hear us.”