To me, Tejano is a genre in transition, struggling to reconcile its storied past with an uncertain future. And there are two young artists in particular who symbolize the dilemma the music is facing: AJ Castillo and Chente Barrera. I'm not trying to create an artificial rivalry or anything, because I know these guys have recorded together and they probably get along really well, but the difference between the two is rather striking, in my view.
AJ Castillo - We've already covered his interview in the Statesman last week. At almost 25, Castillo is good looking, hip, and has an urban vibe about him. He is a fine accordion player with a unique sound, and cites the late great Esteban Jordan as his idol.
His plan to save Tejano music includes reaching out to a younger audience. And his music reflects that...hot beats, sampling his name and playing it over the music as a sound effect, almost a hip-hop feel to his cumbias, which appear to be his specialty.
His personal qualities reflect this too, as evidenced in his interview. He's confident in his skills, almost to the point of being arrogant. He's flashy, which also borrows from hip-hop and appeals to a young crowd. Hell, look at one of his accordions and that's him in a nutshell.
But...does he appeal to an older audience as well? I'd say no, but more on that in a moment.
Chente Barrera - We haven't discussed Chente yet, but I'm sure we will soon, because he's a busy man. At 33 (or so), Chente's a little older and has learned a thing or two since his first album, but he's still young, especially when you consider everything he's doing and has done. An extraordinarily hard-working man, Chente started out as a drummer but plays a little of everything, owns his own record label (Q-Vo Records) and tours with his own band, Taconazo. He's probably one of the more accessible musicians out there too, constantly communicating with his fans on Facebook and through email as well.
Chente is definitely more traditional-looking than AJ, donning a cowboy hat, untucked western shirt and jeans to shows. Good looking in his own right (I dig him!), he doesn't look like he's trying to impress anyone with his looks or packaging.
But...does he appeal to an older audience? I'd say yes.
According to more than a few Arbitron studies (the company who compiles statistics having to do with radio listenership), the average age for a Tejano listener is somewhere around 45. It makes sense, I suppose, considering the state the music's been in for the last decade or so.
So the crucial question for Tejano is this: how do you get younger people to listen to the music, thus prolonging the life of the genre, but continue to keep your soul and get the older folks excited about new artists too? And make sure that there are new artists to be excited about too...but that's a different article.
I tend to think the answer lies in examining where and when the music is played. It's family music. It's heritage. It's memories. It's the soundtrack of barbecues, parties and good times. Yes, it's played in clubs, but it's played for everyone who can dance. Unlike hip-hop or country, you'll see Tia Chencha (yes, she's back!) dancing and you'll see younger folks too (hopefully, if they can dance, but that's a different article too).
What's needed is a bridge. Make the music your own, as is your right as an artist, but give credit where credit is due. Want to keep the music alive? Respect, don't ridicule.
That's where AJ and Chente differ in a very important way, in my opinion. AJ, if he's not careful, will alienate Tejano's core audience and will end up in a completely different genre. Which may be what he wants, I don't know.
Tejano fans are people who value respect, and he's not showing a whole lot when he gives an interview like the one in the Statesman. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially since he comes from a musical family, but if that's the attitude he projects in an interview with a major newspaper...that's probably what he really thinks.
Chente, on the other hand, has a brand of Tejano that is more traditional, but it's still his, which is tremendously important. He's not a Jimmy Gonzalez or Jay Perez clone. His style appeals to current fans, but has a different flavor that younger listeners will appreciate as well.
What Chente has also done is reach out to veteran artists like Oscar G and Juan P. Moreno, touring with them and producing new albums on Q-Vo. In fact, I had the pleasure of seeing all three of them at the Flamingo earlier this year. Since he's done that, he can turn some older fans on to some new acts on Q-Vo too, who may also appeal to a younger crowd.
So, to me, it's Team Chente.