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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Chapa Ends Fiesta Series on a Spicy Note

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes Orange County gets pretty close to having things the way they should be. Between the decaying neighborhoods and the security-gated condo tracts, signs of life do appear, at an all-ages Cajun dance in an Anaheim rec hall, say, or in a wild jazz combo blowing the chill off the patio of a Costa Mesa coffeehouse.

For the past four weekends, downtown Santa Ana has been a lively place, a fine respite from the shopping frenzy. The Fiesta Marketplace Christmas Celebration--which, of course, also had the goal of bringing some of that frenzy to local businesses--offered seven distracting, free afternoons and evenings of Latino music and culture in the plaza at 4th and Spurgeon streets.

The series closed on a fine note Sunday evening with the Tex-Mex music of Juan Chapa y Su Conjunto. Though working to a crowd thinned by the cold, last-minute shopping and a competing music and food event blaring from a nearby shopping center, the group made an excellent display of its peppery Texas-bred music.

Accordionist/singer Chapa and his bandmates--bassist/singer Albert Ramon, guitarist Daniel Flores and drummer Martin Foronda--also had appeared the previous weekend billed as Albert Ramon y Su Tierra Chicana. Aided by three horns, Ramon’s band plays the somewhat more modern, R&B-inflected;, uptown Tex-Mex music of the type popularized by Texas legend Little Joe Hernandez. The version of the band fronted by Chapa plays the more traditional, accordion-focused border music that predates the electric guitars and basses it now features.

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Chapa is a deceptive-looking player: Though he doesn’t employ the flamboyant showmanship of some other squeeze box kings, he was all over his three-row button accordions, playing some wild, unpredictable stuff--including occasional car-horn dissonances--that always landed on the dinero .

Ramon and Flores’ instruments, meanwhile, meshed in patterns that were full of subtle rhythmic and harmonic accents. Flores never played a guitar solo per se but, rather, continually embellished his solid rhythm chopping with fanciful single-note runs. On bass, Ramon seemed a bit like a conjunto Paul McCartney, playing inventive melodic lines even while singing.

Most of the songs were traditional border tunes; there also were some more recent standards, such as Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Chapa left that and most of the other romantic ballads to Ramon to sing with his suitably passionate voice. Chapa’s own high-spirited tenor was heard to best effect on the salsa-like cumbia “El Barranquillero.”

It’s music best heard while dancing, but the assemblage of picnic tables and planters in front of the stage didn’t encourage that. Ramon’s Tierra Chicana will be playing in a warmer indoor setting New Year’s Eve at the Ice House in Fullerton. Call (714) 525-3094 for information.

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