Coins of the Realm 

New norteños on the block Los Reales del Rancho sing it like it is.

When Los Reales del Rancho hit the stage at Redwood City's Flamingos Night Club--following a blockbuster set by Banda San Miguel, a fifteen-piece brass band from Mexico that includes three trumpet players, three trombonists, and three clarinetists, their cacophony anchored by a Sousaphonist's wildly dancing bass lines--the house emcee mistakenly introduced the five-man Oakland conjunto as "Los Reales del Norte." The group, whose debut CD for Oakland's new HighTone Latino label is due out next week, was also unfamiliar to the crowd of mostly young Chicanos and Chicanas, but couples in cowboy attire nevertheless kicked up their heels to Los Reales' spirited mix of polkas, waltzes, and cumbias. Besides witty Spanish lyrics about a woman who works in a charcoal factory and a man who quits his woman when he discovers she's been chasing after famous musicians, 24-year-old lead vocalist Chay Vazquez delivers corridos about drug smuggling--a favorite topic in contemporary Mexican regional music--in high, nasal tenor tones, answering his vocal lines with percussive guitar fills. Electric bassist Chava Yslas' patterns had a flowery, skipping quality akin to that of a banda tuba blower; they locked nicely into bajo sexto player Ramón Vazquez's steadily strummed chords and Sergio Zepeda's solid, somewhat syncopated drumbeats. Ambrosio Durán, who at 38 is the oldest member of Los Reales, stood holding a button accordion and harmonized with Chay Vazquez, taking the lead vocals himself on the cumbia about the groupie, dropping the names of Los Tigres del Norte, Ramon Ayala, and other stars of musica norteña as he sang. Durán plays the accordion only on occasion, however, because what distinguishes Los Reales from most norteño conjuntos is that guitar, not accordion, is the primary lead instrument. All five members wear matching attire, their black Western suits trimmed in the same mango-colored crocodile leather from which their belts and boots are made. Los Reales del Rancho, which translates roughly to "the Coins of the Ranch," might have been unknown to the emcee and audience at Flamingos that night, but HighTone records executive Larry Sloven hopes the quintet's CD will soon have cash registers ringing at Mexican record stores and flea markets throughout the United States. Since Sloven founded HighTone eighteen years ago with two partners from Southern California as an outlet for the then-little-known Robert Cray Band, HighTone has virtually defined a musical genre now known as Americana through its recordings of such blues, country, and roots-rock artists as Cray, Joe Louis Walker, Joe Ely, Dave Alvin, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, and Hot Club of Cowtown. Sloven, who produced the Los Reales disc with longtime partner Bruce Bromberg and 21-year-old HighTone employee Enrique Alvarez, had been aware of conjunto music since the early '70s, when he began listening to reissues of classic Tejano music compiled by Chris Strachwitz of El Cerrito's Arhoolie Records. Sloven's fondness for the form became a passion only recently, however, and for the past four years, he's been spending weekends driving to dances in Stockton and San Jose to hear touring conjuntos and bandas. He also chases after the music when vacationing in Mexico, much to the displeasure of his wife.

His love affair with musica norteña began one afternoon in Orinda when he was cruising the dial of his car radio while waiting for his son to finish Little League practice. "I hit on KSTN in Stockton and kind of got stuck there," the fifty-year-old producer recalls. "You can get it in Contra Costa County, but not on this side of the hill. That was around the time that Los Tigres came out with one of their breakthrough records, which was Jefe de Jefes. It's an album that has kinda two themes running through it. One's narco-traficante corridos, and the other's a theme of Mexican immigrants who yearn for back home and have a kind of split loyalty between the United States and Mexico. It's better here financially, but they're still longing for the simple things back home."

Although he didn't understand much Spanish at the time, Sloven was blown away by what he heard, particularly by the title song, "Jefe de Jefes." "I was struck when I heard that song on the radio--and then I bought the album--that it was so close to what I had heard earlier, which was compilations of stuff from the '50s and '60s," he explains. "It shocked me that music that was so traditional was on a commercial radio station. And it wasn't just that it was traditional; I liked the sound of it. The other thing that struck me about listening to the Mexican radio stations was that there is this diversity of sounds. It wasn't like most other formats where most everything is the same style. You get banda, norteño, tropical, grupera." Musica norteña es más buena!" Chay Vazquez interjects, having overheard Sloven's comments while walking into HighTone's office near Jack London Square. Having just gotten off his day job as a gardener at Lake Chabot Golf Course, Chay is accompanied by bandmates Ramón Vazquez (his uncle) and Ambrosio Durán. Ramón speaks in broken English, the other two in Spanish only, with Enrique Alvarez providing translation. "My story is like that of any other good artist," Chay says.

"That's a joke," Alvarez explains.

"The way I learned how to play music was through Ramón's father, who was also a musician since childhood," Chay continues. "I always liked music since I was a small boy." Born in the Mexican rural village of Colima, he took up the guitar at age fourteen, having traded a rooster to Ramón's father for an old, beat-up instrument. Because he is self-taught, Chay insists that his guitar style is unique, though he admits to having listened to the dueto Bertín y Lalo. And while Chay's vocal approach is similar to that of the hugely popular Chalino Sanchez, he is quick to point out that "I don't sing bad words."

Los Reales' CD may not require a sticker warning buyers of profanity, but some of the songs' subject matter is not recommended for children. "They call me a crocodile, not because I live in a swamp, but because I inhale three or four grams of cocaine a day," Chay says, explaining the lyrics of one of his original corridos. "People can identify with it without actually taking any drugs," he adds.

Alvarez compares such tunes to gangsta rap. "It plays on the macho part of the culture," he says. "It plays on the feeling of, like, 'I'm a badass.'"

Born in Mexico and raised in part in Calistoga, California, Alvarez is a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in English. He came to work at HighTone three years ago as an intern and is now in charge of promotion and marketing for the company's new HighTone Latino imprint, which is using a Mexican music distribution network as opposed to the distributors that handle HighTone's other releases.

Coproducers Sloven and Bromberg are identified on the CD booklet as "Hector Moreno" and "Beto Moreno," respectively. "We thought it wouldn't look too good to have too many gringos on the credits," Sloven explains. There are precedents for such pseudonyms, however: Los Tigres del Norte's original producer, an Anglo from San Jose named Art Walker, listed himself as "Arturo Caminante" on record labels, and Bromberg once appeared as "D. Amy" on songs he cowrote with Robert Cray.Alvarez discovered Los Reales del Rancho last year in East Oakland, at Fandango Latino on San Leandro Street near 98th Avenue. As he entered the club through a corridor, he couldn't see the group, which was then a trio. "I thought it was the jukebox, 'cause it sounded clean and sharp," he recalls. "It was like pow, full of energy. It sounded down-home without sounding too down-home. It sounded like traditional music, but it sounded like something a young, hip person would listen to. I looked onstage and saw these three guys jamming up there." Sloven later saw Los Reales for the first time at an outdoor event in Antioch. "I was highly impressed that it was a really cool traditional sound and they were doing contemporary material," he says. He suggested, however, that they add drums and a second vocalist to the original lineup of guitar, bajo sexto, and bass. "If they play at a dance, say in Stockton, with a banda or another big norteño group, it's just not gonna hold up," he explains. "For that reason, we convinced them to add a drummer and of the need for harmony vocals to give it more dynamics."

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