Chicano soul sounds
Texas Chicano soul music gets spotlight in new Adrian Quesada album
The moment the band kicked it off in the studio, singer Johnny Hernandez felt as if time stood still. Back in the early 1960s, he recorded a cover of the Radiants' soulful classic “Ain’t No Big Thing” as part of his brother’s now iconic Tejano band Little Joe and the Latinaires.
But after more than 50 years, he never imagined he’d find himself back in a studio re-recording the song for a new generation of listeners.
“Chicanos of Texas have always complemented the soul music genre,” Hernandez says. “Now we get to shine a spotlight on it.”
A reimagined version of “Ain’t No Big Thing” kicks off the recently released Amazon Original album “Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul,” produced by Grammy-winning artist Adrian Quesada, who teamed up with Nacional Records. An album release party is in the works for early 2019.
“The Latin Shade of Texas Soul,” a collection of vintage-inspired original songs along with curated classics, embraces a Texas Chicano soul sound that’s often overlooked in music history.
“It’s unique because it’s a little more raw and in your face, not as polished as Motown,” Quesada says.
Decades ago, smaller Texas studios recorded Chicano soul songs, which draw influences from blues, Latin jazz and rock ‘n’ roll as well as traditional Mexican music like norteño and mariachi. But with limited studio resources, many of these songs, also called brown-eyed soul, never reached listeners outside of the region.
The cross-cultural musical blend, though, proved popular among various pockets of Texans including the lowrider community, Quesada says. Occasionally Tejano artists also would feature Chicano soul or funk songs on their albums, helping to keep the music visible.
Quesada realized that R&B and soul music formed an integral part of the upbringing of numerous Tejano artists after a conversation with Tejano music giant Ruben Ramos (“El Gato Negro”) about 15 years ago. Quesada now credits that conversation with sparking the initial inspiration for the album.
Ramos says he began listening to everything from rock ‘n’ roll to soul music after Texas schools began integrating and he gained friends of all cultural backgrounds.
“Chicano, to me, meant you could play music with an accordion like polkas and cumbias but also incorporate jazz, soul and all kinds of music,” Ramos says.
For Quesada, hip-hop had been king. That’s what he grew up with in Laredo. But he saw the parallels between his cross-cultural musical upbringing and Ramos’ experience.
Exploring those musical intersections drove Quesada to pursue the project, which brought together a multicultural and multigenerational roster of vocalists and musicians including legends such as Ramos, Hernandez, Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin along with members of Brownout, Black Pumas and Grupo Fantasma and rising artists including doo-wop vocalist Jonny Benavidez and Kam Franklin of the Suffers.
Although the album helps breathe new life into Texas Chicano soul, its true power, Quesada says, lies in the way that music collaborators of all ages and colors united to honor the uniquely Texan sound.
“We need more stories of unity,” Quesada says. “To me it felt like an important thing that was happening.”
To showcase the music, Quesada dove into the music’s history and turned to books such as “Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture” by Ruben Molina as well as Texas experts in the genre who turned him onto more musicians and hidden musical gems of yesteryear and today.
“One door kept opening up another,” he says.
Along with the album, a four-part video series complements the project. Each piece gives behind-the-scenes insight into the making of the project, from what it was like recording “Boogaloo en Monterrey” featuring Ramos to the way “Ain’t No Big Thing” came together in the studio with Hernandez.
“Singing in English was always as natural to me as singing a ranchera,” Hernandez says. Growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Temple, he says his love of R&B and soul came at an early age.
“I’m not sure what I heard first — Mexican music or the blues,” he says.
Collaborating on the album, Ramos says, felt particularly gratifying since he interpreted one of the songs by the late Freddy Fender, whom he befriended when they formed part of the supergroup Los Super Seven, which performed at South by Southwest’s Dream Out Loud concert this spring.
Quesada hopes the album opens doors for listeners the way diving into Texas Chicano soul history did for him.
Texas isn’t always portrayed in the best light, Quesada says, but “a lot of what Texas is about is amazing,” including the diversity of artists keeping local Chicano soul alive. “There’s a sense of Texas pride,” he says. “It feels like a love letter to Texas.”