Hector Saldaña, Staff Writer
Updated 8:56 am, Sunday, April 28, 2013
He'd just been fired from Little Joe & the Latinaires (an inventive and pioneering Tex-Mex band led by brothers Joe and Johnny Hernandez) and relocated to Oakland, Calif., where he absorbed the sounds of Malo, Santana, War and more.
Tortilla Factory returned to Texas and achieved fame with a Grammy-nominated, sometimes radical mix of Latin rock, funk, jazz, salsa, rancheras and Tejano. The band faded away in the '80s then roared back in 2000.
But even the open-minded Guerrero, who died at age 66 in January 2010, might not recognize the direction his son, singer Alfredo Guerrero, plans to take the legendary Tejano group as it celebrates its 40th anniversary — into hip-hop, rap and dance club music.
It's an exciting, if admittedly muddled, transition.
For example, an upcoming Tortilla Factory album marks the milestone with nostalgia and features singer Bobby “El Charro Negro” Butler, who fronted the band in its early days.
“Tejano is our bread and butter. It's our roots,” Alfredo Guerrero said.
But his heart is really somewhere else.
It sounds nothing like Tejano.
“They thought I was bringing these gangsta rappers to the (Tejano Fan Fair),” Guerrero said. “It's a freakin' pop song, man. There's no cursing. It's a dance tune. This is a Pit Bull joint. It's freakin' bananas.”
A new groove
Alfredo Guerrero, 41, is not the only Tejano musician hungering for change.
Up-and-coming artists Ricky Valenz, A.J. Castillo, Savannah Votion and Cacy Savala are offering up new sounds and lots of attitude, too. Established artists such as Stefani Montiel and producers Gabriel Zavala and Mario Ortiz have been testing musical boundaries.
More than a decade ago, Selena's brother A.B. Quintanilla formed the in-your-face Kumbia Kings.
Guerrero's father likewise shocked sensibilities by playing Coltrane or wildly re-arranging mariachi songs such as “La Malagueña.”
Though they were successful, they remained outside the mainstream of a conservative genre.
KXTN morning personality Jonny Ramirez says Tejano is changing but still builds on the basics.
“A lot of these guys want to call it 'dance,'” Ramirez said. “They can call it whatever they want to call it. To me, it's just cumbias. A good song is a good song.”
But Ramirez agrees the term 'Tejano' is too limiting for some artists and that young listeners aren't tuning in in big numbers.
“I heard a term thrown around the other day, 'Latin groove.' OK. But why not just call it a groove?” he asked. “The older crowd is going to say that's not Tejano. But the A.J.'s of the world, the Ricky Valenz, Stefani, they're trying to push the envelope, and I think that's good. They're all trying to be like the Kumbia Kings 10 years later.”
Grammy-nominated Tejano singer Montiel's new party cumbia song “Ponle Mas” is getting played on KXTN.
“I've always leaned toward R&B, club and tribal. I think everyone's more open to it now,” said Montiel, adding she's “trying to push that envelope and reach out to younger audience.”
“That time is now,” she said. “We've lost the younger generation to R&B and country and other forms of Latin music. And we need a different image. That's key as well. A lot of these kids don't relate to the cowboy image anymore. They want that funkiness. They want that swag.”
“You have the old going out, and the new coming in,” said Ruben Cubillos, a Latin music promoter and advertising expert. “There's a major gap in the middle.”
Alfredo Guerrero's Tortilla Factory falls in that middle area, with one foot planted in tradition and the other in the dance clubs.
Cubillos said many Tejano musicians have been slow to reach out beyond the genre, and the time for Tejano musicians “to be purists” is over.
“As soon as Alfredo developed a relationship with Paul Wall, just going through that door has opened other doors,” Cubillos said. “It's like, 'Why not?' It takes a lot of balls.”
Culture clashes can be ugly, but Cubillos said “Tejano has to change.”
“You don't know how many times I've defended Paul Wall in our own community because the first thing that comes out of their mouths is that it's gangster rap,” he said.
“I would have loved to be the fly on the wall the day that Beto Villa or Isidro Lopez listened to the Latin Breed or Little Joe or Tortilla Factory and they say, 'Who are these kids? They're screwing up our music.' It's the same thing right now. There's a resistance. But we have to open it up.”
The buzz for Valenz, a Michigan-born hip-hop and R&B artist-turned-Tejano, indicates a light bulb has tuned on.
“They're starting to understand getting the youth back involved,” Valenz said. “It's going to take the newer mainstream look, sound, an image that kids can relate to.”
Tejano goes rap
Though “Come On Baby” is Houston-born rapper Paul Wall's first venture into Tejano, he's not as strange a bedfellow for Tortilla Factory as one might think. For one, he loved Selena.
“It was a huge honor for me to jump on the track,” Wall said.
He met Tony and Alfredo Guerrero at a Grammy-sponsored Christmas party in Austin in 2010.
“It's something that I always wanted to do, especially being a fan of Selena for so long growing up in Texas,” he said. “Tejano has been missing a tremendous superstar like that. Maybe a song like 'Come On Baby' can inspire the next generation.”
Tejano is slow in coming to the genre-bending collaborations that are second nature to rappers and hip-hop artists like Wall.
“I love the cross-genres, when artists and musicians from different genres collaborate. It's something that you don't expect a lot of times,” Wall said. “Sometimes it doesn't work. But I like the trying of it. It's a notch in my belt. 'Man, I did a Tejano song.'”
Wall said he's a fan, not an expert, and really doesn't know where Tejano is headed. But, he added, growing pains aren't exclusive to Tejano.
“It seems that it's the same in every genre of music where there's the old guard and the new guard, and the old guard wants to stay the same and the new people want to go into something different,” he said. “Let's see where it goes.”