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Tejano Idol competition aims to attract new fans

Nancy Flores
nflores@statesman.com
Tejano singer Johnny Limon listens to Rebekah Gallardo sing at tryouts Sept. 4.

When "American Idol" auditions arrived in Austin last year, members of the Austin Tejano Music Coalition joked about how they would love to see a Tejano music version of the popular singing competition. The laughter wore off, but the idea stuck with coalition member Aggie Sánchez.

"Why not organize a ‘Tejano Idol'?" Sánchez said. "I couldn't let the idea go."

Sánchez pleaded with coalition members, bringing it up every time she got the chance until the group decided this just might be the boost Austin's Tejano music scene needs.

The Canta Tejano Idol contest, modeled loosely after "American Idol" (minus the cameras but with celebrity judges including two-time Grammy nominee Shelly Lares), launched this spring with several audition sites from Round Rock to far South Austin.

With contestants ranging in ages from 18 to their early 30s, organizers hope the competition helps grab the attention of some new Tejano music listeners — the next generation of fans that the genre has struggled to reach in recent years. Organizers hope spotlighting young new artists could infuse the Tejano music scene with fresh ideas and talent.

"Who knows," said Sánchez, the contest coordinator. "Maybe we'll find the next Selena."

Some Tejano music fans say the music has lost popularity since the 1995 death of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, who rose to stardom and captured attention on both sides of the border. Tejano music faced a number of challenges after the superstar's death: the lack of new artists with crossover star power, a ratings decline and hard times for Tejano music radio stations, and the rise of norteño music, among others.

In late 2005, Austin lost the last of its Tejano music radio stations. But the fight to get back on the airwaves later launched the Austin Tejano Music Coalition. Tejano music returned to the air in 2008, and soon the Tejano station was simulcast in both FM and AM, a big victory for Tejano music in Central Texas. However, today Austin is down to only the AM station — 1560 AM — after the 95.1 FM Tejano music station switched formats earlier this year to Spanish-language talk radio.

The decline of Tejano radio stations in Austin has been upsetting for longtime fans.

"Think of it this way," said Rosendo Gómez, the coalition's president. "If radio stations were to suddenly drop country western music, people would be up in arms."

Sánchez agreed. "Now imagine if someone told those country western music fans, ‘Don't worry, rap is still playing on the radio. And since rap music is also in English you shouldn't complain because it's the same thing.' "

Gómez, 62, lives near William Cannon Drive and sometimes can't pick up the 1560 AM signal. Even though Tejano music has largely disappeared from Austin airwaves, the music still blares through Gómez's memories of growing up in East Austin when he caught movies at the once-popular Fiesta Drive-In Theater.

"Back then I could go to a Tejano dance every day from Wednesday through Sunday," Gómez said. "Now, if you really look for it, you may find it."

Gómez says he sees Austin's Tejano music scene slowly picking up steam as local musicians make their mark on the sound.

Rising star AJ Castillo, 26, has energized the Tejano scene by adding a zydeco twist to his music, as well as incorporating contemporary R&B sounds to Tejano tunes. Castillo received Tejano Music Awards Best New Artist recognition in 2010.

And Austin band Cinco Doce, a 10-piece band that describes their music as "the new era of cumbia," draws inspiration from hip-hop and even rock en español.

But Tejano music still faces challenges, especially as some new listeners confuse Tejano with the norteño music that's heard on many Austin Spanish-language radio stations.

Norteño music, which originates from northern Mexico, has similar roots to Tejano. But Tejano's Texas-born sound incorporates more influences, from American rock to country to hip-hop.

Sánchez faced this problem as she found herself having to explain Tejano music to venues she approached about hosting the Canta Tejano Idol auditions.

Attracting a new generation of Tejano music listeners hasn't been easy, especially as the genre competes for ears with hip-hop and pop.

Coalition members see the irony. Many of them didn't identify with the conjunto music of their parents and gravitated toward Tejano music, then new and cutting-edge.

Marc Sustaita, Canta Tejano Idol celebrity judge and trumpet player for the Braulio y Fuzzion band, said the survival and evolution of Tejano music begins with embracing new ways of playing Tejano and accepting new interpretations of the music.

"If you're going to shut out (a musician) just because what they are playing is not what you think Tejano is, then Tejano is going to die," Sustaita said.

For Canta Tejano Idol contestants, the competition is a chance to honor a sound they heard growing up and make it their own.

Angel González, a 31-year-old Austin resident, took the stage during a recent Canta Tejano Idol audition at a South Austin Applebee's. González — who writes his own music and performs at local clubs and events — did something different that day. He sang in Spanish for the first time.

González hopes his flexibility with languages and genres will help him succeed in the music industry.

"Personally, I feel that the legends of Tejano should have more collaborations with new artists and take a chance on us," said González, who has advanced to the Canta Tejano Idol finals, where he'll compete against 11 other finalists on Sunday. Winners will get cash prizes: $500 for first, $250 for second and $100 for third.

After his audition, González learned that sitting in that Applebee's dining room listening to him was Tejano music legend Ruben Ramos, who gave him some encouragement after his performance.

"That meant so much to me," González said. "As new artists trying to make it, we have our own way of doing things. It may not be how Ruben Ramos would have done it or how (veteran musician) Jimmy Gonzalez would have done it. We're all bringing something different to the table."

Another finalist, Ashley Borrero, 23, grew up with the sound of Tejano in her home. Her parents are die-hard fans, and her father even runs an online Tejano radio station, puretejano radio.com.

Although she does not speak Spanish fluently, like Selena, Borrero does sing in Spanish. She credits her good memory for helping her visualize the lyrics while she's on stage.

"I'm hoping to not only get some exposure to help kick-start my career, but also give Tejano music exposure," Borrero said. "Even though I don't speak the language, Tejano music speaks to me."

As Tejano music finds its new rhythm and voice, it's difficult to attach a label to the sound its supporters hope it will soon bring.

"Tejano music is at that place where I don't think it'll ever be what it was because we're broadening our horizons," Sustaita said. "(The music) may not ever be the same, but it'll have influences of Tejano and that Tejano flavor that'll help the music evolve and get to the next level."

Canta Tejano Idol finale

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: H&H Ballroom, 4404 Brandt Road

Cost: $5. Free for children 12 and younger

Information: www.austintejanomusic.org