Conjunto music will be making its first appearance at GALAX Z FAIR VI this weekend, when the band Rio Jordan hits the stage with its repertoire of “polka locas,” psychedelic cumbias, otherworldly sounds, and wild accordion runs. No one in this genre plays this style of music quite like them while still remaining firmly planted within its conjunto roots.
“It’s Tex-Mex roots, it’s music that has been passed down through the families,” Esteban Jordan III told me after a performance earlier this year. “It’s exciting to be out here putting out these positive vibes.”
Rio Jordan’s style and history goes all the way back to one person: Esteban ‘Steve’ Jordan.
(For clarity, Esteban ‘Steve’ Jordan is the father, Esteban Jr. and Esteban III are the sons, and Rio Jordan is the name of the band dubbed by Jordan for his sons to carry his legacy.)
Esteban ‘Steve’ Jordan was born to a family of migrant workers in Elsa, Texas, on February 23, 1939. After Jordan was born, a partera used a contaminated fluid while rinsing his face that blinded his right eye and left his left eye mostly blinded.
The Jordan family would travel outside of the Rio Grande Valley for work on the fields every year. It was while being in the migrant circuit that Jordan first fell in love with the accordion when he heard the sounds coming from a nearby house.
“They used to go out and go work. I would jump [into that house]. There was no windows,” Jordan reminisced about how he first got his hands on an accordion in the radio documentary No Rules: The Life & Music of Esteban ‘Steve’ Jordan. “So I would get in there, and start rehearsing [with the accordion]… One time they caught me. I was crying. I knew my old man was going to whip my ass.”
Jordan would then meet a young accordionist named Valerio Longoria.
“The only one I was influenced by was him,” Jordan admitted in an interview in the book Puro Conjunto.
Many decades later, the two appeared together in a European series called “Rhythms of the World.”
According to Latino USA’s Alex Avila, Jordan made his first recording in 1958. In the 1960s, he performed and recorded with Virginia Martinez, his wife at the time, and with his brothers under the brand Los Hermanos Jordan.
“I feel that their voices are a powerful blending cry in the purest ranchera tradition,” Arhoolie Records founder and roots music historian, Chris Strachwitz, wrote in the booklet that accompanied The Many Sounds of ‘Steve’ Jordan. He was talking about the early duet vocals between Jordan and Martinez. “[I] was overwhelmed by their emotional impact when I first heard these tapes.”
It was in the 1970s when Jordan really started to break out as someone special and when the name Rio Jordan was established. In 1979, Jordan y Rio Jordan appeared on a double bill with Little Joe y La Familia on Austin City Limits on PBS. Only about 26 minutes of Jordan’s performance aired which showcased five different songs. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch the unaired, raw footage of Jordan’s ACL taping that runs for 64 minutes and features twelve songs. One of the highlights during his set includes an otherworldly-sounding mash-up of “La Camelia” (a song about drug-trafficking) and “Squeezebox Man” (a powerful, psychedelic instrumental).
Excerpt of ‘La Camelia’ and ‘Squeezebox Man’ from the unedited footage of Jordan’s performance.
One of the great stories from that lone appearance on that show comes from Michael Corcoran’s book All Over The Map: True Heroes of Texas Music:
“Jordan’s wicked perfectionist streak is such that he once hauled his own PA system to a taping of Austin City Limits. Although he flatly stated that he wouldn’t go on without his own speakers, he finally relented when it was pointed out that the ACL system was set up for television taping and not some Tejano bar. Jordan has also been known to be brutal with club sound engineers. ‘I’m sorry, but white guys just can’t mix Mexican music. They always want to put the emphasis on the beat,’ he says, imitating a bass drum. ‘But we like the upbeat.’”
The 1980s was another major decade for Jordan, as his popularity continued to spread to places far from the Valley and South Texas. He appeared in a pair of films — Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. and David Byrne’s True Stories — and was part of a special all-star Latinx line-up on Cinemax that included heavy hitters like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Carlos Santana and Ruben Blades.
Caliente Y Picante, A Latino Session
“It wasn’t until maybe like the 3rd or 4th grade, that’s when it hit me why everyone was kind of nice to me, or knew who I was,” Jordan III said. “I realized my dad had a lot to do with it. Everybody knew who he was and admired his music.”
In 1988, Hohner Accordions introduced the Steve Jordan Tex-Mex Rockordeon, and later did a reissue of that special squeezebox in 2009. The accordion was modeled and tuned to Jordan’s unique specifications.
The ‘Rockordeon’ was put to great use by Jordan at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in 1989 when he performed “Jambalaya” with zydeco legend Queen Ida, in a rare fusion of conjunto and zydeco music.
As a teenager, Jordan taught his brothers when he was first starting his conjunto. His oldest son, Esteban Jr., was also involved with Rio Jordan in the 1970’s. Now it was time to pass his knowledge down to his youngest sons.
Several gig opportunities lined up for Jordan, but unfortunately he ran into some obstacles. That’s when, in 1999, his sons Esteban III and Ricardo got involved.
“My dad called everybody, all the musicos that he had known and played with over the years, and he couldn’t get a hold of anybody,” Jordan III said. “We were living with our dad at the time. We were there in Edinburg at the ranch with my uncle Boni, and he was just like, ‘Well three weeks to go [until the gigs], who wants to play bass? Who wants to play guitar?’ And he showed me and my brother [Ricardo] in three weeks how to play. We had never picked up the bass or guitar. We just jumped in.”
“He was real determined to teaching us the right way of how to learn music, but he also simplified it,” Jordan III remembers. “To him, it was like going back to his roots, that’s how he saw it… He started showing us real simple. What you’re hearing right there,” he said while acknowledging a polka in the background that was being played by Los Fantasmas del Valle during the interview. “La primera y la segunda. That was it. That’s how we learned. I learned two notes. My brother learned one. That’s how we started.”
Jordan and his sons started to perform all over the Texas circuit, including Valley venues like La Cocina in Alamo, the Mustang Lounge in Weslaco, and La Lomita Park, and Cine El Rey in McAllen.
“He was happy. He was happy to be able to see it,” Jordan III said. “To be able to see that his sons were carrying on his legacy. His onda forward.”
Jordan also took San Antonio accordionist Juanito Castillo under his wing. Castillo, like Jordan, was an accordion prodigy. As a young, visually impaired kid, he had performed at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Conjunto Festival in 1999. He first joined Rio Jordan as a drummer in 2003.
Rio Jordan performing the jazz standard “Clockwise”.
The legendary Jordan, a favorite to many, including myself, passed away on August 13, 2010, from complications of liver cancer.
“He was one of a kind, a master of music,” Jordan III said. “He dedicated his life to what he did, and he loved it. For us, we were enjoying what we were doing with my dad. It was a blessing. It was a huge blessing.”
In Jordan’s place, Castillo has stepped up to take the lead on accordion, although sometimes we also see Roberto Perez and Roberto Salinas on the squeezebox.
Rio Jordan at the 23rd annual Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival in 2014
Jordan III confirmed with me this past week that the one of a kind Castillo will be on the stage at GALAX Z FAIR VI, where the legend and legacy of Esteban Jordan will continue moving forward, as we approach the 7th anniversary of his death.
“It’s tradition, so a lot of this conjunto, Tex-Mex, and Tejano music is really coming from these roots,” Jordan III said. “From what we grew up with and our families coming from the fields working.”