Latin, not Tejano... Blame it on Must-See TV, or maybe the winter blahs, but whatever the reason, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge was taking it on the chin when I arrived on an especially dead Thursday in February. By the time the opening act took the stage, a mere 25, maybe 30 people had trickled into the place. Still, given the small number of customers, the action at the bar was surprisingly furious, as impeccably dressed barrio cowboys yelled drink orders at bartenders as if they were struggling to be heard over the din of a noisy Tejano club in southeast Houston.
But the Satellite is no Tejano club, nor is the Norma Zenteno Band -- the group that was getting ready to jolt the Satellite's measly audience -- a Tejano act. And though the ostensible headliners that night were local Latino roots-rockers the Basics, Zenteno, a fixture in Houston for more than 15 years, was the real attraction. Slinking up to the mike in light-brown stretch pants and an oversize blouse that hung loose just below her slim hips, thick brown hair flowing in an unruly cascade down to her shoulders, the singer looked surprisingly young for her 44 years.
Zenteno's ever-present smile widened as she nodded to guitarist Artie Villasenor and the group launched into its first number, a true-to-the-original version of Santana's "Oye Como Va." As the song proceeded, Zenteno and her six-piece group settled into a bewitching, give-and-take groove that only the best salsa outfits are able to dish out. Musically, so much was going on -- various percussion, electric and acoustic guitar, horns, keyboards, bass -- that it was hard to imagine it could all be headed in the same direction. But it was -- straight to the groin. The band's movements seemed as natural as fornication, the playing relaxed but technically exacting.
Dancing began near the stage, but it was a weird scene, with couples unsure of whether to do the bump-and-grind or two-step hand-in-hand. After a little while, the band moved on to a few Zenteno originals -- the heavy salsa of "Baila Latino," the Latinized rocker "Ama Me," the weepy power ballad "First Time I Saw Your Face" and "Amor Is Love," the title track from a locally popular 1990 release that, sadly, is no longer available. Zenteno, whose deep vocals are the sultry cement that holds the music together, was surrounded by men. There was Villasenor, who's also the guitarist for the Basics; flute and sax handyman Lindy Pollard; Zenteno's brothers, Javier, a drummer who's played with Joe "King" Carrasco, Little Joe y La Familia and others, and Roberto, an ace on timbales and harmonica. Then there were Anibal Ambert on bass, Gilbert Sedeno on keyboards and Javier Pagan on drums. Depending on the night, trumpet duty tends to be divided between Randy Holland and Zenteno's father, Roberto, a journeyman horn player and onetime Houston club owner who has been her inspiration since childhood.
"Our house was always filled with music," recalls Zenteno, of her upbringing in Houston's south end. "The kids always wanted to come over to our house to hang out."
Nope, the Norma Zenteno Band is definitely not Tejano -- and that fact couldn't be any more apparent live. (The version of the band on display at the Satellite was the rock version. If you want the jazzier version, check out one of the group's regular weekend gigs at Cody's. Or, if it's a more alternative thing you're after, sample yet another incarnation of the group, Raised by Wolves, Tuesdays at Metroplex.) The earthy image Zenteno projects from the stage is closer in spirit to Grace Slick, or perhaps Sheryl Crow, than to Selena. Ship her off to Miami, and Zenteno might give Gloria Estefan a run for her money -- if, that is, it wasn't for that booming, somewhat raspy rock-star's voice of hers.
She also might play in front of larger crowds than the few dozens who were listening at the Satellite. But the low turnout hardly seemed to faze Zenteno and her band. They've been in this spot before -- too many times to count, actually. "Everyone I've ever talked to can't believe that we're surviving in Texas," says Zenteno, who's been told repeatedly that she needs to move to Florida or California to make it big. "I would love to get out of Dodge, but I just don't want to move out of Dodge."
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Zenteno has shared a bill with her share of superstar Latin acts, including Selena and La Mafia. And she enjoys rubbing elbows with Tejano royalty. Maybe, Zenteno hopes, some of that phenomenal success will eventually rub off on her band -- though she's not holding her breath.
"For some reason they put us in [the Tejano category]," Zenteno says. "It's weird because there's usually this huge crowd of people that are there to hear Tejano music, and then they hear us. They like it, but they don't get wound up about it."
Etc.... The guys in La Mafia apparently had to pay their own way to the Grammy Awards this year, but it was worth the expense: The group added another gold gramophone to its trophy case at the February 26 ceremony, this time for Best Mexican American/Tejano Music Performance. Another '97 nominee with Houston ties, blues beacon Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, may have failed to pull down the Grammy in his category of Best Contemporary Blues Album, but a few days later he gained a Pioneer Award from the national Rhythm and Blues Foundation. On a more close-to-home note, Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys will ring in the release of their new CD, Bursting with Flavor, with an in-store performance at Cactus Music Friday evening, and with shows later that night, Saturday and Sunday at Dan Electro's. You might want to brave the Friday-night kiddie swarm at Fitzgerald's to get a taste of Speed McQueen, a bracing young power-pop trio out of New York City. The group flaunts some of the most lusciously derivative moves since Jellyfish called it a career.
-- Hobart Rowland