Critic's Choice: Free Radicals

Best Traditional/Ethnic
The Gypsies
It's often just a matter of being in the right place at the right time: Mary Ann Harbar was lucky enough to be in Sharpstown Mall when The Gypsies were playing their patented international mix. It wasn't long before the classically trained violinist from California started playing Hungarian Gypsy music, joined the band and married the group's founder, Greg Harbar. The rest, as they say, is polyethnic.

Greg Harbar grew up in a rural New Jersey town of Eastern European emigres and started his first band, a polka outfit, with his brothers when he was 15. Harbar's multi-culti repertoire came later. As Mary Ann explains: "The Gypsies had a reputation as an ethnic band. Anytime anyone needed an ethnic band, they called us."

That meant Irish music on St. Patrick's Day, German music for Oktoberfest and lots of Christmas music the entire month of December.

They've played for such luminaries as Isabella Rossellini, Buzz Aldrin, President Bush, princesses and kings. And though they specialize in private affairs, every year they host a Julian calendar New Year's party at which they play everything from polkas to Cajun waltzes to blues.

Filling all those niches is Greg's passion; he's become quite the ethnomusicologist. Today his record collection fills an entire room, his tapes a slightly smaller one. On a sturdy shelf reside fat binders of sheet music bearing labels such as "Germanic music," "Latin," "swing," "country," "rock and roll," "movie themes," "Hebraic," "Israeli" and "Hasidic." Klezmer, of course, rates its own binder. (Seth Hurwitz)

Critic's Choice: Clandestine

Best Tejano/Latin
Norma Zenteno
A fourth-generation performing artist, Norma Zenteno has been immersed in the arts as long as she can remember and has been writing and playing music since she got her first guitar. Her father, Roberto, leads a local big band (which she plays with every Tuesday night at the supper club Élysee), and most of her relatives are either actors or musicians. It's not surprising that when she began leading her first band at age 15, she was already blending the many musical influences that surrounded her.

Today Zenteno leads one of the most versatile and tightest bands in Houston. It's not uncommon for her to play Latin jazz, classic rock, salsa and an alternative-sounding song in one night (though she adamantly says she doesn't play Tejano). She'll often blend influences in one song, so a cha-cha might have a rock edge, or a rock song might have a touch of Latin jazz. Anyone who's heard her killer version of "Oye como va?" knows it owes a debt to Tito Puente and Carlos Santana. Oh, did we mention she can belt out a romantic ballad with the best of them?

"I like to mix it up," says Zenteno. "I can't sit and play a whole bunch of heavy Latin chops because I grew up playing the rock stuff. I hear it my way, and then I transpose it into whatever it is, which is why it sounds a little bit different -- so it sounds kind of weird, I guess." She laughs.

Continuing her journey into new musical territories, Zenteno recently completed an album with Calvin Owens, a former compadre of B.B. King. The album combines big-band sound with R&B and features Zenteno singing in Spanish (you didn't think she'd keep it simple). She's already planning to work again with Owens, and is looking to do a new solo album as well.

"It's hard for people to pinpoint us," she says. Perhaps, but such is often the case with uncommon talent. That's why Zenteno is a Houston treasure. (Paul MacArthur)

Critic's Choice: Norma Zenteno

Best Industrial/Noise
Bozo Porno Circus
Given that the band is sponsored by a fetish clothing store, you might expect more style than substance from Bozo Porno Circus, but the sadomasochistic industrial band delivers on the musical end, too. Their forthcoming album, Cybersmut, delves into deeper-than-Darth Vader vocals, heavy keyboards, dark beats and slashing guitars. The emphasis is on gloom-and-doom beats, which come across with sternum-thumping bass, keeping the record firmly danceable.

Of course, their popularity surely has something to do with their over-the-top stage shows: Who could resist eight band members sparsely clad in G-strings, vinyl and leather S&M and bondage gear? Especially when the band proclaims that its mission is to coerce audiences into a "mass sexual frenzy"? Their brand of musicianship is called "shock rock" for a reason, but Bozo Porno Circus does have a sense of humor; witness song titles such as "Biker Sluts from Pluto" and "Texas Chainsaw Masochist."

In its various incarnations, the band has been playing industrial music for seven years -- long before the term "electronica" was ever uttered. But it's only recently that Bozo has become more of a group than a sex joke. The band now rehearses regularly and makes each concert an event. Says drummer Ador Charming, "Especially over the past year, we've really grown up."

A big part of this growth was recording and releasing Cybersmut. Because of the outrageous lyrics and artwork, the Nashville record-pressing plant "flipped out," according to Charming, and refused to produce the record. Luckily, a Houston company was able to take over at the last minute -- but when the computer disc containing the artwork went bad, Charming had to stay up all night redoing it in order to meet the band's July 1 release date. Even with all of the hassles, Charming is upbeat about the future, which he says should include a national tour, videos and possibly remixes from Cybersmut.

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