Exploring the Rio Grande Valley through music: Playlist #3

In this third playlist for Neta, I wanted to share some holiday treats that showcase the different sounds of the Rio Grande Valley. I love that in this area of South Texas we can find so many Tejano and conjunto interpretations of classic Christmas songs. Some of these are pretty funny, some are incredible accordion showcases, while others are quite sad. Hope you enjoy.

(You can also listen to the full playlist on YouTube.)

1. Los Hermanos Ayala (Donna), “Jingle Bells” and “Navidad” polkas

Los Hermanos Ayala were the sons of “El Monarca del Acordeón” Pedro Ayala, and an incredible conjunto from Donna. Pedro Ayala Jr. was the accordionist and Ramon Ayala (not to be confused with the Ramon Ayala currently residing in Hidalgo) was the bajo-sexto player. They were a high-quality conjunto, who weren’t afraid to be experimental, and in these two tracks, they deliver two rapid-fire instrumentals of popular Christmas standards. They are just so sharp and on point, so technically impressive.  

2. Esteban ‘Steve’ Jordan (Elsa) y Jessy Serrata, “Esta Navidad”

Jessy Serrata is best known in my area for being the vocalist in the 1980s Pharr band Oscar Hernandez and the Tuff Band. He was a great singer for many decades, earning the nickname “Mr. Iron Throat” from a local DJ named Mike Cantu, of KIWW radio. Esteban Jordan, sometimes affectionately called “El Parche”, is of course originally from Elsa and is one of the greatest accordionists of all time. To my knowledge, and also to the knowledge of the late Serrata who I talked to right before he passed away, this is the only Christmas song Jordan ever recorded. This song was composed by Beto Ayala, a Florida promoter, during a time when Serrata was a part of Jordan’s band in the early 1970s. I love how sad and jazz-infused Jordan’s accordion sounds in this song.

3. Lydia Mendoza (San Antonio), “Amarga Navidad” and “Llorando En Navidad”

Lydia Mendoza is one of the pioneers of Tejano music, going so far back that it wasn’t known as Tejano music when she started, and she spent decades recording songs for labels here in the Valley, like Falcon Records out of the Mission and McAllen area. This footage comes from the deleted scenes of the Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz documentary film “Chulas Fronteras”. While celebrating Christmas with her family in Houston, she sings “Amarga Navidad” and Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s “Llorando En Navidad.” She has such a beautiful and powerful voice that lends itself perfectly to these sad and somber Christmas songs.

4. Los Layton (Edcouch-Elsa), “Feliz Navidad”

This is from an album titled “Christmas With Hacienda”, Hacienda referring to the popular Tejano and conjunto record label. Los Layton (also sometimes referred to as Los Laytons) were a legendary conjunto from Edcouch-Elsa, led by Benny Layton on the accordion and his sister Norfy Layton Gonzalez on the vocals. Benny was a major musical force in that area, teaching so many people how to play music through the school’s estudiantina and conjunto programs. After Benny passed away in 2011, the school district there named the football stadium the Benny Layton Memorial Stadium. This is a sweet, solid conjunto interpretation of “Feliz Navidad”, that includes a cute “Feliz Navidad, para toda la gente del Valle” lyric.

5. Los Dos Gilbertos (Edinburg), “Noche de Paz”

Los Dos Gilbertos were one of the great conjuntos in our area for many years. Created by Gilberto Garcia and Gilberto Lopez, two Edinburg accordionists, it would continue moving forward even after Lopez stepped out and gave his blessing to Garcia to keep using the band’s name. Los Dos Gilbertos took this classic Christmas song and performed it in their conjunto-style, complete with their specific 2G accordion tuning. It’s really quite a treat to hear this.  

6. Roberto Pulido (Edinburg), “En La Navidad” and “Bienvenida Navidad”

Roberto Pulido is a legend in Edinburg, even has his own statue there, and is a champion of a hybrid-style of music that incorporates Tejano, country and conjunto music. These are a pair of Christmas songs that have the novelty enjoyment of, “Hey it’s Roberto Pulido singing them in his distinct Edinburg-rancho voice!”

7. Freddy Fender (San Benito) y Flaco Jiménez (San Antonio), “Frosty The Snowman” 

Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez, who worked together for many years with the Texas Tornados band, teamed up here for a Tex-Mex rendition of this popular Christmas standard. Fender is remembered as one of the best singers the Valley ever produced, literally the face of the San Benito water tower, and Jiménez is an iconic figure who has represented conjunto music the world over. They both seem to be having a fun time singing this silly song, and it’s pretty neat hearing Jiménez mix in his adornos (grace notes) to this simple melody.

8. Wally Gonzalez (McAllen), “Santa Claus y Sus Venaditos”

This song is a part of Wally Gonzalez’s silly Christmas album “The Christmas Bandito”. The McAllen native has been playing conjunto music here since the 1960s, and is best known for his comedic stylings within the conjunto form. Of all the songs in this album, this one is my favorite. It’s an amusing and simple tune about Santa Claus being scared of coming to the Valley, worried that we will eat his reindeers.

9. Christmas Accordion Jam (Variety) 

Joe Mora, Herbie Lopez, Oscar Solis, Jason Villarreal (the grandson of Paulino Bernal of the Conjunto Bernal) collaborated for this incredible arrangement of Christmas standards. In this popurri, we hear so many popular Christmas songs, all interpreted and performed as conjunto-style accordion instrumentals. At over 9 minutes, this is a great accomplishment of accordion and holiday music.

Check out our previous playlists:

Playlist #1

Playlist #2