Growing Up “Tejano” A Tale of Tejano Music Influence
Let’s talk about Hispanic music and culture to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. This is the true story of Yvette Riojas the daughter of Marcus Riojas Jr. better known as “Marky Lee”, a Tejano music hall of fame inductee who shares this honor with entertainers like Richie Valens.
Marky Lee is a popular “conjunto” band singer. He has become more popular lately with a band he put together called Marky Lee y Hache Tres. He is currently working on a cd that will incorporate his traditional Tejano sound with his more rhythm and blues or oldies type of American music. Here is her Latina story!
Like many Hispanics I was born into a very big family. Mom and dad were very different and grew up with different lifestyles but both came from very Hispanic families. My mother’s family was a more conservative well educated family and Dad’s well a bit on the more “party” side!
My father was the only born son in a large all female household. My father had seven sisters and was treated of course like a prince. My grandmother, a traditional Hispanic stay home mom and my grandfather, worked the fields with all of his children at one point in their young lives.
I remember my father telling stories about picking cotton with his dad and how he and his sister used to sing together sometimes when they got bored. My mom tells similar stories about how the major highways in the city where I live were once playgrounds to her and her siblings.
Originally from the small town of Edna Texas, my paternal grandparents decided to take their very large family to the big city where they would make a new beginning. They experienced modern music and met many different people; they had more opportunities to expand on their dreams.
My grandfather chose Houston as his settling grounds. My father and his seven sisters settled into their new school on Houston’s north side and began “the city life”. My father loved to sing as a boy and followed his father into the local bars to sing.
My grandfather played Tejano music and his instrument of choice was the tololoche, a traditional instrument from northern Mexico that resembles the European Bass. His style of tejano music was very traditional to Texas, where musicians had a kind of German tone that came from the influence of foreign settlers upon Texas, except they sang the lyrics of old Mexican songs with a guitar, bass, and accordion.
In the 40’s and 50’s my grandfather says musicians played “conjunto” style music. Little would my grandfather know that a change to “conjunto” music was coming, and his son would have an impact on how it changed.
In high school my father and his friends devoted their time to music and started a small band where my father played the trumpet. His passion for la musica de nuestra herencia came from musicians such as Vicente Fernandez.
My dad was very young when he started playing in clubs, and one in particular called “The Pan American Ballroom” on Houston north side. This was a very popular teen hangout and the birthplace of some of Tejano’s greatest acts.
When my dad turned seventeen, he was asked to sing with one of the greatest artist of musica Tejana, Mr. Augustine Ramirez. In the late sixties Augustine and his band along with acts such as “Little Joe and the Latineers,” “The Saints and Sinners” were acts touring the nation singing the “Chicano” style music. With a big band sound they sang songs de nuersta cultura.
Old songs passed down from generation to generation were transformed into what was more hip and fun to the younger tejanos, and probably not so popular with the traditions of the Hispanic tejano culture older crowd.
My father joined Mr Augustine for the tour of a life time at such a young age. He was given the stage name “Marky Lee”. My father traveled from the east coast to the west coast with this new style in Tejano music. It was mostly known back then as “Chicano” music.
Where Does Tejano Music Come From?
La musica Tejano was born in Texas when the Germans and tejanos intertwined and made sounds with accordions and guitars or “bajo sexton.”
The music is made up of traditional Mexican lyrics however my father and musicians like him spiced it up with the influences of “rock and roll” from other genres of music. Just like Americans going crazy over the Beatles and Rolling Stones or Elvis, it was the same for Tejano music of this era.
The Memories – Latin Traditions
As far as I can remember my father would pack his bags on Thursday or Friday to get ready to hit the road. I have memories of my dad playing music during the week and hearing him sing from afar.
On Sundays after Catholic Church, we would meet la familia at grandma and grandpa’s house. It was barbacoa, frijoles, and tripas for everyone. I could smell homeade tortillas when we pulled up at the house, and I could see and hear all my cousins running and playing.
The best thing I heard, and I did not realize it then but it has become to be the fondest memory of my childhood (and my earliest remembrance of nuestra musica,) was my grandfather’s music! Grandpa had a bar in his house that had a stereo and it would play “conjunto” type music. At that time I hated that music, all I wanted to do is run outside and get dirty!
My mother was a more refined woman who loved music, singing and dancing but she was the one who worked a normal job and had normal dreams. My father was the one who always said “follow your dreams and work hard if you want them”.
We did not speak much Spanish in our house. Hearing my grandparents speak Spanish was just like I was hearing old people talk. I thought all old people talked that way! Little did I know it was my culture, a part of me that means so much to me now.
I remember my father buying a new van for the sole purpose of taking us on long road trips to his Tejano music gigs around Texas. He used to pack up all the equipment and make a space for me and my sister to lay or sit during the trip.
There are times that I remember sitting near the back stage with my mom eating popcorn and drinking a coke. My mother dressed us in nice dresses with pretty shoes and fixed our hair. She always said being around my father would make us who we are today. She told us “pay attention to your dad and watch him” I guess she knew that one day dad would have an impact on Tejano music.
We were a pretty normal middle class family except for one thing the weekends. I specifically remember asking my mom, “why can’t we stay out and play with the rest of the kids”? Her answer to me was, “Vette, you can’t because we have to go out of town, and how many kids can say that they are going to Little Joe’s recording studio”! At that time it did not mean anything to me.
That weekend I wanted to play with my friends and that weekend I heard the most beautiful duet of flutes! I remember sitting on the floor of a recording studio hearing two musicians play the flute to a traditional Mexican song so beautiful that it inspired me to do the same. I told my father when we got home that I wanted to join the band in middle school and play the flute!
All through the years my father played this music and I did not know what significance it would have for the world around me. My father sat night after night and practiced with musicians. Dad would tell us many stories and made us laugh. I am now forty one years old and I finally realize what and who he is.
I have come to realize that all those years of watching and listening to my father’s music has made me the person I am today. All of my values and moral come from grandparents and parents who took the time to sit with me and tell me those stories.
My father has been inducted into “Texas Tejano Music Hall of Fame” and I am proud of that. I feel blessed to have been able to experience this alongside my father. We are still very close and still carry on that tradition my thirteen year old son will hopefully follow his grandfather’s footsteps.
My son has been sitting next to the stage like I was at his age. He has even performed some alongside my father and learned some small sound advice from a Tejano hall of famer! He may not know it now but it is a part of his culture and it will be for years to come.
My father is still performing and still recording music de nuestra cultura. I am still learning and finding out more about our family and heritage. I am proud and honored to have spent time with some of Tejano’s best artists and of course to have the very talented father that I have.
Tejanos share many things in common with other Hispanic cultures, such as our sopas, arroz, frijoles, menudo, pozole, y carne asada. We are mostly Catholics. We believe in family and respect our parents but most importantly.. we all love nuestra musica. Tejano Music!
Pictures and article by Yvette JA Riojas