Music of the Borderlands

Norteño Music Festival celebrates 15 years.

Put on your dancing shoes because Pio Decimo is putting on the 15th annual Norteño Music Festival this Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24, featuring music of the borderlands.

The festival, also sponsored by KEVT, will be centered at the corner of South Fourth Street and East 36th Street from 4 to 11 p.m. each day. Admission is free.

On Friday, norteño, Tex-Mex and Waila will be featured as well as dance groups including folklórico dance from Ballet Folklórico San Juan, Ballet La Palma and hip-hop dance from the South Tucson Floor Rockers out of the John Valenzuela Youth Center.

Hugo Guerrero y Su Fandango will play Friday night and later in the evening Los Reyes de Control will take the stage.

Saturday becomes competitive with the Battle of the Bands. Arizonan amateur norteño bands will duke it out for a $1,500 cash prize for first, $1,000 for second and $500 for third. But the value of bragging rights for having been named the best is priceless.

The bands set to compete Saturday "are all good groups. They're all very strong from different parts of Arizona ... any one of them can win," says Jennifer Mills of KEVT.

Judging the event will be five judges, four of which are in the record business producing great norteño sounds, as well as special guest judge, norteño musician Santiago Jimenez. Jimenez will perform at Centennial Hall on Sunday, August 25, for UA Presents, which partnered with the Norteño Music Festival Street Fair to promote the event.

The bands will be "judged on different categories," says Mills, who said criteria include presentation, musical capabilities and how the musicians handle themselves on stage.

What is norteño music, you ask? Well, if there is an accordion in the band, they're singing in Spanish and you can polka to it, that's norteño music. The definitions can be more complex, but this is a good rule of thumb.

Your next question may be why the polka? The answer lies in the German and Polish settlers who brought polka music to South Texas. Their rhythms met up with northern Mexican folk music, thus norteño was born--forever fusing the United States with Mexico.

Historically norteño music has been music of the poorer working class, and because of its cowboy agrarian groove it is sometimes referred to as ranchero, since it depicts and seems part of the life of the rancher.

Norteño originated in the border states and, besides having an accordion, a norteño group typically features a tambora de rancho, which is a type of homemade drum, and a bajo sexto, which is a 12-string guitar, as well as a bass.

Tex-Mex "is a mixture of Texan-American music with Mexican music," says Mills, who sites Los Reyes de Control as a good example of Tex-Mex.

As for Waila, that's a Tohono O'odham interpretation of norteño music, says Angelo Joaquin, Jr., who helps put on the annual Waila Festival each May at the University of Arizona's Bear Down Field. The missionaries that came taught the Tohono O'odham to fiddle for church services and learned to play the music by ear. Thus was born Waila, a word derived from the Spanish word bailar, which means "to dance," says Joaquin.

But history and definitions aside, this music is a visceral experience that can draw huge crowds.

"It's pretty neat. You probably get close to over 40,000 people in two days," says Pima County Supervisor and former mayor of South Tucson Dan Eckstrom. Eckstrom has been one of the chairs of the event since it started 15 years ago.

The nice thing about the Norteño Music Festival Street Fair for Eckstrom is that it is family oriented and a lot of other non-profits get to participate by setting up food booths. The event is also good for the Pio Decimo center, which sells booth space and uses sponsorship from the event to provide day care, educational programs and youth programs in the surrounding South Tucson area.

Besides the additional funds the event provides for local community groups, "it's a way of getting people to come down to our community," says Eckstrom. "A lot of times people like to come and go to our restaurants" in South Tucson. But the Norteño Music Festival gives the public an opportunity to spend time in the community and maybe get over some prejudices about South Tucson.

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