When It's From Little Joe, Tejano Is the Real Thing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For all the public attention focused on Tejano music by Selena, both before and after her death last year, one of the patriarchs of this rich amalgam of border styles doesn't see the music being embraced by the masses, either in or out of the Latino community.

"Tejano is hardly done anymore," said Little Joe Hernandez, leader of the Grammy-winning Little Joe y la Familia, which plays Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana.

"It's not that the kids can't play it--they're very capable of playing whatever style of music, because that's how we do things in Texas," he said. "But the major labels came in and steered all the artists to a certain kind of music that's not what they are."

"Tejano" is a term for a Texan of Mexican descent. As for Tejano music, Hernandez said that a significant part of the problem is that not everything labeled as such actually is.

"With Selena, it was very tragic," Hernandez said in a recent phone interview from his home in Temple, Texas. "She was just beginning to find her way and her style, but that's not what Tejano music is about, you know?"

Hernandez describes genuine Tejano music, the kind he plays, as a sum of all the myriad influences that Mexican Americans growing up in Texas are exposed to.

"I grew up right here in Temple, right in the center of the state, and I've lived here all my life," he said. "The Spanish songs, the nortenos and rancheros, I learned from my father and from my uncles. And I was listening to country and western, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues. I also like to use big-band jazz riffs, especially in my Tex-Mex stuff, because it has that polka beat. It's easy for me to incorporate those kind of licks into the music that I do."

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Much of what is labeled and promoted as Tejano music by record companies actually is cumbia.

"The Latin divisions of the major labels push for artists to record more of a form of Mexican music which they call cumbia. Cumbia is Colombiano music, and we don't play Colombiano music, you know? I love it, but we don't come from that; we're not that. But Colombiano music filtered through Mexico, and now anything with a Latin rhythm gets called cumbia."

Hernandez himself was signed for a time to Columbia Records, one of the biggest labels. In 1992, he asked for and was granted a release from his contract because he didn't think the company was promoting the music appropriately.

Hernandez then started his own label, Tejanos Discos International, to record and advocate his music the way he wanted it done. Little Joe y la Familia has since released four albums on TDI, the most recent of which is "Reunion '95," recorded with his brothers, Johnny and Rocky.

"[The major labels] aren't sensitive to the Tex-Mex or Mexican American artist here," he said. "All the Spanish music was imported from other places. They just didn't care to look into our market, we couldn't convince them. They had no crossover intentions, they didn't want bilingual music, and that's what we're about."

At 55, Hernandez has been recording for 30 years, during which he has released more than 40 albums. But his extensive philanthropic work is as important to him as his music, if not more.

He's been active in a number of presidential and Texas gubernatorial campaigns and has devoted much of his time and energy to such organizations as the Children's Miracle Network, the National Leukemia Society, the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Health Department of Texas, the AIDS Foundation, MADD, Farm Aid and the Stay in School program. He's been honored by four Texas governors and been named Humanitarian of the Year by the Kiwanis Club.

"Every opportunity I get to help any organizations, especially in the area of education, I do whatever I can," he said. "I grew up trying to help, and through the years, I've been fortunate in that I've been called upon to work for these organizations. I owe that to the community.

"The needs of especially the Hispanic community--there's a lot of need for all kids though--that's a lot more important than Little Joe and my career."

* Who: Little Joe y la Familia and Red Wine.

* When: Friday, Jan. 13, 8 p.m.

* Where: Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana.

* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the Camino Capistrano exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

* Wherewithal: $25.

* Where to call: (714) 957-0600.

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