Pioneering Tejano Band Brings Its 'Happy-Feet' Beat to Ventura Theatre : Little Joe y La Familia will play tunes from their current release, 'Reunion '95,' and other hit albums.

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When the Grammy award nominations were announced last week, chances are that the first question to cross many peoples' lips was not "who's up for best Mexican-American performance, vocal or instrumental?"

Yet the influence of this music is present in Pam Tillis' border-flavored English-language single, "Mi Vida Loca" (My Crazy Life) among the entries for best female country vocal performance. And the award-winning band, The Mavericks, nominated in the best country album category, has a new hit, "All You Do Is Bring Me Down," featuring master Tejano accordionist, Flaco Jimenez.

He also performs with Tex-Mex meister Freddy Fender as half of the Texas Tornados. And as a solo artist, Jimenez snagged one of the Spanish-language nominations for best Mexican-American performance.

Developments during the last five to eight years--including crossover influences in country music and Nashville's acceptance of a new generation of Texas-born artists like Rick Trevino and Emilio-- have helped to bring the distinctive sound of accordion-based Tejano music into the mainstream.

And the death last year of Tejano star Selena on the eve of her English-language record debut served more than anything to increase the general public's awareness of Tejano music.

But long before Nashville saw the potential success of crossover and even before Linda Ronstadt rediscovered her Mexican-German roots and went "mariachi" with "Canciones de Mi Padre" (Songs of My Father), there was Little Joe y La Familia, a group that had been cranking out hits in Spanish (and some English) across Texas since 1960.

The strong regional popularity of this pioneering Tejano band was a persuasive force in convincing major record labels that there is money to be made with the sprightly dance music still sung in Spanish and rooted in the conjunto folk tradition.

Little Joe y La Familia arrives at the Ventura Theatre on Saturday with sure-fire "happy-feet" music from their current release, "Reunion '95," and more than 40 other albums, including several gold records. The album "Diez y Seis de Septiembre" (Sept. 16), won the Grammy for best Mexican-American album in 1991, and the group was also nominated last year and in 1986 and 1988.

The 55-year-old Little Joe Hernandez, known as the "King of Brown Sound," was featured in a documentary, "Songs of the Homeland," that aired on KCET public television last September.

In addition, he played a gang leader in the 1995 Spanish-language video release "Ranger III" (English version called "Deadly Law.") And he plays a priest in another Cesar Alejandro production, "Save the Barrio," a feature film due for release this spring.

Hernandez also wrote the music for the film. In addition to professional accolades, the singer-songwriter continues to receive recognition for his community service work, especially in the area of education and the environment.

An articulate yet modest man, Hernandez spoke by phone last week from the house in Temple, Texas, he shares with his wife of 34 years, Cris. He has remained in the same town where he was born and raised.

Hernandez said "Reunion '95" means a lot to him because it is the first time in over 10 years that he is recording with his brothers, Johnny and Rocky. In addition, the second cut, entitled "Corrido la Cotorra," is dedicated to their late father, Salvador Hernandez, who wrote the song in which he recounts the story of his capture and incarceration for marijuana.

Joe Hernandez said his outreach efforts urging kids to say in school stems from that experience. "I am a seventh-grade dropout. When my father was incarcerated in 1955, I had to keep the family together. I was the 11th of 13, but all my brothers and sisters were scattered. I did what I had to do.

"But even though my dad fathered 13 children, I learned to love music from him and he managed to bond individually with each one of his kids. I learned what to do from him but also what not to do from him."

Hernandez began his career in 1959 in a group formed by his cousin, David Coronado. After his cousin moved away, Hernandez called the trio Little Joe and the Latinaires.

"In those days there was Little Stevie Wonder, Little Anthony, Little Esther, Little Richard--a bunch of littles," he said laughing.

"I was a real skinny little kid who didn't weigh 100 pounds until I was almost 19 years old. And one of my very best friends was named Joe, so it became 'Joe and Little Joe.' The other kids wanted to play music like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. But I loved the Spanish music I had learned from my dad and uncles."

In the late '60s he gave the band its present name to reflect the emerging cultural awareness of the Chicano movement. His innovative arrangement of "Las Nubes" (the Clouds,) a traditional Mexican song, with horns, symphony strings and layered harmony vocals gained him recognition. The song became the anthem of the Texas farm workers.

In 1985, CBS/Columbia offered him a distribution deal on a live album. The record eventually went gold and Hernandez was signed to the label.

"The next album, 'Timeless' also went gold and got a Grammy nomination," he said.

Then in 1992, Hernandez said he asked to be released from his contract.

"The Latin division still didn't understand our product or our market and were not sympathetic to our needs," he said. "They never cared to do crossover or bilingual then."

Hernandez then established his own production company, Tejano Discos, to market his records and to help promote other Tejano talent. "It was difficult to obtain deals and contracts from major labels for Tejanos and they were very discouraging. They just did not want to give us an opportunity," he said.

Hernandez praised the role of Freddy Fender, Johnny Rodriguez and, of course, the late Selena in paving the way for Tejano musicians to be accepted outside of the narrow Tex-Mex confines.

"Selena literally paid with her life to bring the music and the word Tejano to people outside of Texas. Had that not happened, I guess we'd still be even further behind. There are some great, talented singers here in Texas. And la musica Tejana is so diverse that I still have high hopes that Tejano will get discovered," Hernandez said.

"After all, musica ranchera and country-western are so parallel. It's just a matter of language."

DETAILS

* WHO: Little Joe y La Familia with opening act, Karysma.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

* COST: $17.50.

* CALL: 648-1888.

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