Think Tex-Mex With Attitude : Just a few years ago hardly anyone knew of Tejano. Now it’s the fastest-growing Spanish language music. The songs are border influenced. But you can’t miss their Texan roots.
When Selena Quintanilla was a 14-year-old seasoned performer grinding out one-nighters in the cantinas, nightclubs and back-yard weddings of southern Texas, her ambitions were writ in miniature: a better gig than the current one, a bigger local record company to sign with. Maybe a chance with an even larger company if things really went well. “We just wanted to put food on the table,” she recalls.
Selena--as she is known--now contents herself with much more. Her last release, “Amor Prohibido,” has sold nearly 400,000 copies in five months. She and her band sometimes play in 60,000-seat stadiums.
She is a Grammy-winning artist (this year, for best Mexican/American album for “Selena Live”) with the giant EMI Latin Records, and she owns the standard-issue, amenity-laden tour bus. It’s charcoal gray, rides 15 and is outfitted with chrome mag wheels.
Most of all, though, Selena and her band, Los Dinos, have become, over the course of five major releases, the biggest stars of the Spanish-language music known as Tejano.
“I’m freaking out on all the excitement,” confesses Selena, 23. (See accompanying story, page 71.)
Virtually unheard of outside Texas until a few years ago, Tejano in a sudden burst has become the country’s fastest-growing genre of Spanish-language music, according to Arelis Diaz, editor of Radio & Musica, a Tampa-based magazine for Spanish-language music.
Though it is just now finding nationwide distribution and airplay, Tejano music today is a $35-million annual market that is being played full time on 70 radio stations in the United States and on hundreds more as part of Spanish-language play lists.
Such major record labels as EMI, Sony and Venezuela-based Rodven all have burgeoning rosters of Tejano acts, while Arista has devoted an entire division--Arista Texas--to the music.
Last March’s annual Tejano Music Awards show in San Antonio--sponsored in part by Coca-Cola, Ford and General Mills--reportedly cost more than $3 million and was televised in 120 countries. It began 13 years ago as a local show with a $15,000 budget.
“Tejano is growing by the minute,” said Manolo Gonzales, an EMI Latin vice president. “A 20,000-seller was considered a big hit five years ago. Now Selena sells 200,000 the first week.”
The word Tejano is simply “Texan” in Spanish, and refers to a person born in Texas of Mexican ancestry. The music Tejano is a Texas-bred descendant of “Tex-Mex,” the stalwart border genre that blends traditional Mexican music with German polka.
Mostly, it has grown up in the last decade and a half around San Antonio and border towns, nurtured by younger Mexican Americans who, born and raised in the United States, extended and transformed that tradition by infusing it with technology, relatively slick production and a natural familiarity with American pop music.
“This used to be the stuff our parents listened to,” said Tejano musician Emilio Navaira, who is currently in Nashville recording a country-Tejano album. "(But) the new generation has caught on. This is the new Tex-Mex sound.” Says Selena: “It’s what Top 40 is to Anglos.”
Yet it is also Tex-Mex with a difference. The Tejano genre has grown nearly as roomy as the Lone Star State itself--encompassing influences such as country, rock and urban--to the point where Tejano often is just a signature for musicians linked by Latin heritage and the fact of their making border-influenced music couched in an American sensibility.
Indeed, despite common origins, there is little on the surface to tie the polished radio pop of Selena with the soft-rock and country of Navaira to the international-in fluenced stylings of La Diferenzia. But it all fits comfortably onto a Tejano radio format, which can also include recent releases by Tex-Mex legends such as Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Little Joe, all of whom also now ride under the Tejano banner.
“There’s a lot of different styles under the name Tejano,” said Jesse Rios, operations and program director at KXTN-FM, which has become the No. 1 radio station in San Antonio.
“A Tejano artist can go up on stage and do a cumbia , a country song, a Top 40 song and a ranchera. " Agrees Navaira: “I can play rock and I can play country and then I can go back to my polkas.”
So far, that broad spectrum has worked mostly to Tejano’s ad vantage. Not only has the music established beachheads in such least-likely states as Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Michigan, but it has also won fans internationally.
Whereas once the range of clubs for successful Tejano artists was circumscribed in the Texas triangle of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, now artists are scheduling tours in the Caribbean and Central and South America, where an increasing number of stations are playing Tejano hits.
Selena y Los Dinos will debut this year in New York and Los Angeles (where they play the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday) as well as Argentina and Puerto Rico. La Mafia, another popular group, likewise has toured the Caribbean.
In the United Sates, Tejano already has begun to edge out other Spanish-language radio formats in terms of popularity. Radio & Musica editor Diaz says that Tejano is now the second-most played format on Spanish-language radio, behind “regional Mexican,” some of which incorporates Tejano music anyway.
Moreover, Diaz says Radio & Musica doesn’t track all the radio stations nationwide that play Tejano. “There are more that want to report (to us), but we don’t have room,” she said. “I compare this to the country music boom.”
At KXTN-FM, it was the switch over to Tejano in March, 1990, that powered the 100,000-watt station to the top of the heap among San Antonio radio stations after just nine months. “This was a sleeping giant,” said Rios. “San Antonio was a major, major Tejano town ready to boom.”
Rios, however, says that KXTN’s sudden leap to prominence was not due solely to the music. In fact, at the time the station switched formats, another station had already been playing Tex-Mex and Tejano for years with little success.
But Rios said that before switching to Tejano, KXTN management made a decision to market it to a younger audience, people who might normally be discomfited to listen to what they considered to be “their parents’ music,” and who would otherwise be listening to English-language radio.
“We wanted it to be a hip, cool station,” said Rios, who characterized traditional Spanish-language radio as “embarrassing” for younger Latinos to listen to. “I want a guy to drive up to a red light and see a cute girl and be jamming to Mazz and La Mafia and not to turn it down. It’s proud, loud.”
Surprisingly, in Los Angeles, where the No. 1 rated station for the last 18 months has also been Spanish-language, executives at KLAX-FM say they have no plan to deviate from their hugely popular regional format of banda , nortena and ranchera music to include Tejano.
“Nothing against Tex-Mex,” said program director Juan Carlos Hidalgo, “but it’s not part of our format. We don’t think there’s a market (for it).”
Tejano music executives acknowledge that the West Coast, especially the Los Angeles market, has been tough to crack because of listener loyalty to regional music. As a result, they have taken two tacks: either trying to promote artists on an individual basis and playing down their Tejano affiliation, or trying to find success first for them on Mexican radio, which often dictates taste for local stations.
Some artists recognize the quandary of being hemmed in by their success under the label of Tejano when it comes to certain markets.
La Mafia began more than a decade ago as a straight-ahead Tejano band that found itself eventually selling upward of 70,000 units per release. But band members were dissatisfied. “It was hard to expand,” said Mando Lichtenberger, the group’s accordionist and keyboardist. “When you reach the top of the Tejano market, there’s really nowhere to go.”
After signing with Sony three years ago, however, La Mafia began writing a different story. Changing its style to feature more soft pop and ballads, La Mafia released two records that sold nearly 1 million copies worldwide apiece, and a single, “Me Estoy Enamorando,” that topped the charts in Puerto Rico. Already, the group’s latest release for Sony, “Vida,” has sold 500,000 copies in four months.
‘We had to find a style of music that was popular in Texas as well as the West Coast,” said Lichtenberger, who fairly bristles both at the idea of La Mafia being known solely as a Tejano band and at much of the music now being marketed as Tejano. “They say you’re Tejano even though your music isn’t. People just have to accept that it’s not Tejano.”
Acknowledges Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin: “Once it leaves Texas, it isn’t pure Tejano. For some of these artists, to be identified as Tejano would be a misnomer.”
Conversely, for some, the tables of identity get turned when they reach a critical mass of popularity.
Selena, who readily identifies herself as a Tejano artist, says that many radio programmers and executives don’t perceive her as such. She takes it in stride and as an endorsement of her musical diversity. “It’s a compliment when people just don’t define me a pure Tejano, even though I am,” she said.
Perhaps, then, the most unifying element among Tejano groups and musicians is the fact of their culture: dually American and Latin, unlike musicians of other Spanish-language genres, most of whom were raised outside the United States and whose first language usually was not English. Even some of Tejano’s Tex-Mex predecessors were born in Mexico and grew up first speaking Spanish in exclusively Latino cultures.
“Tejano artists feel more comfortable in English--it’s their language,” said EMI Latin’s Gonzales. “When I go with Selena to Mexico, it’s a problem because she doesn’t understand half of what’s being said.”
Agrees George Reynoso, owner of All That Music, an El Paso music store that sells Tejano music: “When you grow up on the border, you have your own identity. You realize you’re not completely Mexican, but you’re not completely American either.”
It’s this ability to navigate both cultures, in addition to the steadily growing Latino presence in the U.S. population, say boosters, that makes the prospect of finding a crossover Tejano artist both a lucrative and distinct possibility.
Label president Behar recalls that soon after he came to EMI, the company’s then-head Joe Smith told him to “go out and find the next Gloria Estefan.”
Shortly afterward, Behar saw Selena perform at the Tejano Music Awards and signed her to EMI Latin--ironically, at first for the English-language market. Selena’s next album, scheduled for release in early 1995, will be her first in English and will be released on EMI’s U.S. mainstream SBK label. She is the company’s first female Latin crossover artist.
“This music is a breeding ground for that,” said Behar, who got hooked on Tejano a decade ago following a midnight concert attended by 8,000 fans in a muddy field in a small Texas town.
“I don’t believe crossover artists are going to come from salsa or from the Latin pop market. These artists are going to come from Tejano, where they grew up speaking the language.”