A large red, white, and green neon sign with the legend "El Rancho" and the image of a caballero with a lasso glows brightly in the night along Concord's Four Corners corridor on Monument Boulevard. It's a little past eight o'clock on a Friday night at El Rancho de Concord, and owner Manuel Lopez is locking the doors -- but only for an hour, to give him time to transform the large twenty-table eatery into a down-home dancehall for Mexican regional music.
"From the beginning when my three brothers, my nephews, and myself opened the restaurant, eleven years ago, we've had live music," Lopez says from a booth in a lounge area of the restaurant he's in the middle of remodeling. "At first we did it just to accommodate special family events like quinceañeras, weddings, and anniversaries -- and then the banda boom hit!"
In the early '90s, banda brass band music skyrocketed to unprecedented popularity when Banda R15 cut the dance hit "La Quebradita." Local groups such as Banda los Caporales and Banda la Tunera sprang up, and Oakland was the Bay Area banda hotbed. From there, that particular Mexican regional pop music from the Pacific coast of Sinaloa spread out to the suburbs. El Rancho (the Ranch) was one of the first to bring headline bandas to Central Contra Costa County.
"The banda movement attacked us," Lopez remembers. "When groups like Banda Machos, Banda Maguey, Banda Z, and others started revolutionizing this music, we jumped in the current and here we are. We've had some great artists here, like Pancho Barraza, El Coyote y su Banda Tamaria, Julio Preciado, Banda El Limón de Rene Camacho, Rogelio Martinez, Los Mismos ... oooh, es un sin fin [it's without end]."
Lopez and his family have worked hard to establish the place and provide a safe environment for people to enjoy themselves. He admits that only about 20 percent of his clientele is non-Latino, but he's getting the word out with steady commercial time on KSOL radio and TV Azteca. His guarantee: By 10 p.m. the place will be packed to its four-hundred-person capacity. El Rancho is spotlessly clean, with a partitioned bar, spacious dance floor, and an ample stage with lighting and a decent sound system. Tonight happens to be cumbia night, featuring Sonora Azácar.
As the eight-piece group hits the bandstand, the dance floor spills over with young immigrant twentysomethings pairing up to dance. Playing authentic Colombian cumbia, Sonora Azácar nails the crowd with its potent musical groove. The vibe gets livelier with gleeful laughter as the band plays on. This is not the usual cowboy-hat-and-Tony-Lama-boots crowd, but it's definitely a cool group of young adults socializing and dancing to tropical beats. Lopez reserves the banda and accordion conjuntos (groups) for Saturday and Sunday nights, with mariachis on Sunday afternoons.
"Since we opened, the Hispanic population has grown by 85 percent here along Monument Boulevard," Lopez says. "When we opened the restaurant, if you wanted to dance Mexican music you had to go to Oakland or San Jose. That's why we started El Rancho, to offer a slice of our Mexican culinary heritage and music to people here in Concord."
El Rancho de Concord is at 1450-A Monument Blvd., Concord. 925-685-5582.
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