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Don't Fence Us In

Aztex refuses to be ghettoized in the Tejano market

Picking row after row of asparagus in a sun-drenched field is what some might describe as a character-building experience. For a five-year-old Joel Guzman, one such day in 1964 in Washington's Yakima Valley was an epiphany. No, he didn't find enlightenment in the sea of green stalks. But next to the field, there was a truck, and in that truck an AM radio, and emanating from that radio was a tinny, catchy melody that first caught his ear and then seized his soul.

The Beatles were singing "She Loves You." Guzman was awestruck. Sure, the more coddled baby boomers were enthralled too, but the cultural and artistic impact of this song was even more significant to a Hispanic boy who had hitherto been bombarded with only traditional sounds. Guzman's father, a conjunto/ Tejano musician, had never allowed that kind of music in the home. Besides, there wasn't much rock on the radio in those pre-Invasion days of chart-toppers like Andy Williams, Pat Boone and Connie Francis. As Kurt Cobain swept away hair metal's party-hearty excesses at the end of 1991, so the four lads from Liverpool drained the ocean of schmaltz that passed for pop in 1964.

"The Beatles made it okay to like rock 'n' roll. I'll always remember that day," recalls Guzman. He knew then that going against the grain was the right thing to do. It's the credo that has allowed Guzman to embrace his musical heritage while pushing its boundaries for the past 27 years. As co-founder of Aztex, with soul mate and musical partner Sarah Fox, Guzman set out to create a hybrid of traditional Latin music, Tejano and rock, something he has dubbed Tejas latino americano and describes as "a bilingual fusion of Americana and roots music."

Fox told Guzman he was singing out of tune, and true love blossomed.
Fox told Guzman he was singing out of tune, and true love blossomed.

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The sound had a trial run on Aztex's 1999 debut, the Steve Berlin-produced Short Stories, and it leaves the listener eager for more. Traditional songs like "Pajarrillo Barranqueño" are plunked next to a surprising cha-cha treatment of Joe Ely's "Maybe Maybe," and better still, a pair of Guzman originals, which are emotive masterpieces in their own right. "Padre Prays for Rain," with its walking 3/4 bass line, acoustic guitar leads, B3 organ chords and accordion swashes, packs a quasi-religious vibe worthy of Daniel Lanois. The punchier "It's a Mystery" shifts gears, showcasing Fox's earthier R&B chops and Guzman's rootsy button accordion.

"Hispanic musicians rarely have a chance to exercise their creative license [because they're] typecast as Tejano," says Guzman. "If we were signed by a major label out of Texas now, they'd have us make a Tejano album first, then talk about this other thing. But I have Joe Ely to thank for helping me understand what's important. As he said it to me, 'Popular music is always going to change, so you stick to your own style and eventually they'll come around.' "

Guzman's love-hate relationship with Tejano and conjunto stems from his "borderline abusive" relationship with his bajo sexto-playing father. The elder Guzman, a stage father if ever there was one, pushed Joel to practice day after day once he began playing in his father's group at the age of five. Joel was then known as el pequeño gigante, "the little giant."

"I will say this," Guzman allows, "he made me an exceptional player by being relentless."

But the pressure eventually caused Guzman to put down the accordion and vow never to play again. He switched to the jazz piano for a while, but a 1978 offer to play the accordion for Little Joe y La Familia proved too tempting. He strapped on the squeezebox once again. Five years later Guzman escaped to Austin with his new bride and a dream about creating a new kind of music.

Guzman first met Fox when she came in to sing at a recording session. The classically trained Fox (who once dreamed of playing flute in the symphony) bluntly informed Guzman that he was singing out of tune. "We really didn't become friends until later," she says. "Maybe he thought I was arrogant."

Fox inherited an appreciation for Cuban music from her father; from her mother she learned to love both jazz standards and Tex-Mex and other Latin music. Fox remembers her mom singing away the early mornings as she made tortillas for her nine kids. "That music was embedded in me…but in school [in Temple] I was with either white or black kids, and so I came to love American music: Gladys Knight, Aretha and Chaka Khan," she says. "I'd go see a band, and I [would be asked to] get up and sing 'Masquerade' by George Benson or 'Déjà Vu' by Dionne Warwick." Indeed, Fox has soaked up enough R&B to earn the nickname LaTina Turner.

Oddly, it wasn't until the early 1990s that Fox first sang in Spanish. "Of course, I learned Spanish before English…but I felt, I don't know, embarrassed [to sing in Spanish], or that people were looking at me in a strange way," she says. Of her early desire to try singing Tejano, Guzman told her flatly that she could do more.

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