King of the Accordion

For forty years Ramòn Ayala's music has captured the experience and the soul of the hard life in the Rio Grande borderlands.

April 2004By Comments

HIS NAME IS RAMÓN, RAMÓN AYALA, el señor Ramón Ayala. They call him the King of the Accordion. If you don’t like the accordion sound or you’re not from South Texas, or from Mexican Texas, you might never have heard his name, even though a radio station in Colombia plays his music for three hours at a time and another in Los Angeles for three days, and in Mexico City he fills street parties and stadiums with fans who clamor for “Un Puno de Tierra” and “La Rama del Mesquite.” His song titles make silly English translations—”A Fistful of Dirt,” “The Mesquite Branch”—but in Spanish his music touches off powerful memories. In fact, if I were to try to describe Ramón Ayala’s essence, I would not list specifics: that he’s won two Grammys, that he’s recorded more than one hundred albums, that he created the basic style for a music genre that reigns in the border region, or that he has performed for more than forty years and four generations of fans. I would not say that he brought recognition and respectability to the music of cantinas and backyard parties. If I were to describe Ramón Ayala’s essence, I’d simply play you a song, a poor man’s song, about a love that made him and killed him.

THE CITY AWAKES. IT IS DARK still in the Rio Grande Valley, but the bus drivers, the construction workers, the college students, the office secretaries switch on their radios, and it’s Ayala who begins their day, with a tragic corrido or a jumpy cumbia that makes the feet dance. In Monterrey, Mexico, the sun pokes its head; the dump-truck operators, taxicab drivers, nannies, and housewives turn on their radios, and there too, it’s Ayala. This stretch running north through Mexico, crossing the border and spilling east, west, and north into Texas, is a land of song, a place where music wakes up before most and goes to sleep after all, providing a constant backdrop for everyday life. Take a drive, listen. It is creeping out of everywhere, seeping through crevices, breathing: alive. And in this region, despite efforts in the music industry to distinguish between tejano and norteño—between Texan and Mexican music—Ayala is universally king.

His career began in a seedy cantina in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, south of McAllen. He was not Ramón the Great then but Ramón the Shoeshine Boy, a fourteen-year-old kid whose parents had followed field jobs from Monterrey to Valle Hermoso and finally to the border, where they barely managed to get food on the table. When Ramón was five, his father, a musician by night, taught him to play the accordion. So there was Ramón at the Cadillac Bar, pretending to shine shoes while eyeing the musicians who went from bar to bar singing melodramatic ballads and polkas about love, absorbing their “fara fara,” as the pueblo then termed accordion music because of its simple but catchy rhythm. The story has it that one day he gathered up the nerve to ask if he could play too, but the musicians rebuffed him. And then, a single dissenting voice came from the group.

“Give him a shot,” said Cornelio Reyna, an eighteen-year-old bajo sexto, or twelve-string bass guitar, player. He was another roaming troubadour, with little to his name but loads of talent. It was 1959. Although accordion music had been made popular by groups such as Los Donneños de Ramiro Cavazos and Los Alegres de Terán, it was still snubbed in northern Mexico; it was not good enough for the music industry, not good enough for FM radio. It was the music of bars and jukeboxes, of working people, worth two or three pesos a song. But it was the music that made sense to Ramón. After that day at the Cadillac, he hit the bar circuit with various bajo sexto players—A song for you, señor?—and in a couple of months, Cornelio called him and they became a duo.

A special alchemy took place when they played together. There was a soulfulness to their sound that rounded out the naturally wheezy, jittery character of norteño music. Soon Ramón and Cornelio were doing not just bars but dances, and then not just dances but monthly employee parties for the local branch of Banco Nacional de México. They added drums and an electric bass, and in 1962 they felt ready for the next step. They approached various record labels in the Rio Grande Valley that were recording conjunto, a style of polka-based accordion music that resembled norteño yet was considered a separate genre because it was Texas-based. But the label executives didn’t like their nasal singing or that they were from Mexico. Socially the border was a dividing line, and in the aftermath of World War II, feelings against immigrants ran strong among Mexican Americans, many of whom had served in the U.S. military.

One afternoon, Ayala recalls, the two men were standing at a street corner in Reynosa’s Zona Rosa, near the international bridge, when a pickup pulled up and a stranger called out to them. The man had seen the duo play, and he dropped a proposition: Would they like to record an album for his label? He was none other than Paulino Bernal, the co-founder of Conjunto Bernal, a legendary conjunto outfit from Kingsville. He handed his new clients a dollar, enough to get them across the border for their trial recording and back home. A year later, Los Relámpagos del Norte—the Lightning Bolts of the North—released their first album, a collection of three covers and one original song that Cornelio wrote, titled “Ya No Llores” (“Don’t Cry Anymore”). For days they walked on air.

The songs flopped in Mexico. But on the American side of the border, things looked considerably better. Conjunto artists from South Texas had established a touring circuit that followed the migrant farmworker trail throughout the country: to California, Oregon and Washington, to Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, even Florida. Bernal helped Cornelio and Ramón obtain working visas and sent them on the road, where they gained popularity with the Mexican American audience. Throughout the sixties, in roughly the same period as the Beatles, they recorded eighteen albums, and almost everything was a hit. Soon the infatuation with Los Relámpagos crept south of the border, and by 1970 they were also traveling to the center of Mexico, taking the stage beside the nation’s most popular regional music acts.

And then Cornelio broke the news: At their very peak, just like the bitter romantic betrayals they sang of, he told Ramón that he was leaving. Already a legendary songwriter and the band’s lead singer, he wanted to become a soloist and sing with mariachis. Ramón was devastated. Cornelio left anyway. Soon he was a star. He released one of his most lasting songs, “Me Caí de la Nube.” It is a romantic ballad about a man who falls off a cloud into the arms of a “lovely, beautiful creature.” The song begins, “I fell from the cloud I was on, about twenty-thousand meters high.”

It was perhaps what Ramón felt had just happened to him, but it was an omen too—for his estranged partner. As with every good love story, Cornelio eventually came back, after his career as a soloist took a serious dive. Ramón, ever the compassionate one, invited him on a series of reunion tours, and the two even recorded an album, Juntos Para Siempre (Together Forever), in 1995, almost a quarter century after their breakup. Two years later, Cornelio died of liver damage, from drinking too much.

BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW HOW to get to Ramón Ayala’s home, in Hidalgo, his new publicist, Román Pedraza, a Mexican journalist who publishes a monthly music magazine called Expresión, tells me over his cell phone, “I’ll meet you right at the entrance to the city, under the big Ramón Ayala billboard.” And there is Ayala: a plump, smiling Mexican cowboy with a red-brown mustache and sideburns. He is surrounded by five similarly stout men wearing the same fringed norteño jackets, pointy-toed cowboy boots, and hats: “Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte.” After Cornelio left, in 1970, the group remained together but ceased being the Lightning Bolts and became the Braves. The band is the pride of this town of 7,300 residents, which squats on the city limits and in the shadows of McAllen, its more urban, cosmopolitan sibling. In fact, without Ayala, Hidalgo would be just a stopover on the way to the international bridge, the place where McAllenites pause to fill up on gas and exchange dollars for pesos on their way to party in Reynosa. The town’s main strip is a string of services for the migrant and the border crosser: casas de cambio, shipping centers, import-export businesses, wholesale warehouses, notaries public, car insurance providers, offices where Central American transmigrantes stop to legalize the beat-up American pickups they drive home for resale. It is deeply symbolic that Ayala lives at this midway point, in this in-between land. In more ways than one, he is the true border artist.

Given Ayala’s popularity, I had imagined that he lived in a secluded, unmarked palace somewhere outside town. Instead, I come across an empty lot where a black semi stretches out like a lazy panther. “Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte,” it declares boldly, and there too, the six brave mustached cowboys stand in a semicircle, beaming. Next door, just across the street from city hall and the public library, I find his house. It is a two-story, peach-colored stucco home with an orange Spanish-tile roof. The driveway resembles a luxury-car dealership: On display are a purple BMW, a white Jaguar, a maroon extended-cab Ford F250 (King Ranch edition), and a sleek, undoubtedly expensive sports car hiding under a white plastic cover, its shiny rims peeking out.

With or without Cornelio, Ayala didn’t do too badly for himself. I find him standing outside, fitted into black polyester pants and a plaid shirt, sucking on a red lollipop, his curly rattail snaking down between his shoulder blades. He watches as two of his workers dismantle a large nativity scene that appears in front of his home every holiday season. Each year, Ayala throws a huge Christmas bash and hands out five thousand bicycles and thousands of other toys to needy kids. There is a day-long concert outside his house with a lineup of tejano and norteño stars. For the occasion, his home is draped decadently in Christmas lights and features a life-size waving snowman and Santa Claus in the front yard.

For a man of such fame who sings about the complicated tribulations of love and betrayal, he is exceedingly plainspoken and simple. He has four children and has been happily married for 35 years. When I walk up to him, he stares at me with a faint look of acknowledgment, as if I were just another neighbor stopping by.

What I am most puzzled by is this: Even without Cornelio Reyna’s masterful songwriting and reputed charm, why was Ramón Ayala—why does he continue to be, at age 58, when most artists would be sitting quietly in retirement, reminiscing about their glory years—such a wild success? As far as technical merit goes, he’s hardly the best accordion player Texas has known. “There are a lot of people who argue that there are better accordionists than Ramón Ayala,” says Pedraza, a walking norteño music encyclopedia. “Musically speaking, it could be that there are. The problem is that they haven’t created their own style. That’s the key.” One example is Rio Grande Valley native Esteban “Steve” Jordan, who is often called the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. Jordan is a virtuoso who adapted difficult jazz and blues piano scales for the accordion, making the clunky German instrument sound stunningly complex and sophisticated. Yet what Jordan provides as an artist is arguably more of a musical showcase than a brand that people can hear and recognize instantly—something that holds over time.

Ayala offers just that. The musical tweaks he and Reyna made to norteño in the sixties were small but revolutionary. They added introductions on the accordion and the bajo sexto, making each song distinctive. Instead of having the accordion repeat the same scales and rhythms throughout a tune, as was the norm with norteño music, they varied the scales and used the bajo sexto to provide decorative runs. They also sang more-elaborate and precise harmonies. The vast majority of typical norteño groups today use Ayala and Reyna’s style as their musical base and sing at least a few of their songs. And when tejano, a highly modernized and synthesized offshoot of conjunto, took a turn in the mid-nineties and revisited its accordion “roots,” it was Ayala’s sound that many of its artists emulated.

He also was unique in keeping his house in order. This is virtually unheard of in the unsophisticated tejano and norteño music industries, where artists get cheated by poor contracts, managers specialize in mismanaging, and there’s rarely enough money to buy a tour bus. While he does not invest in flashy marketing campaigns or sexy music videos like Los Tigres del Norte, the norteño kingpins of northwestern Mexico and California, Ayala has a full team of professionals who work for him. Servando Cano, the former bank cashier who once helped him and Reyna land the employee-party gigs in the sixties, has built a powerful artist management business that is headquartered in Monterrey and has offices in McAllen, Houston, and in the Mexican cities of Aguascalientes, Hermosillo, and Mexico City. Ayala’s 32-member crew includes his own mechanic, photographer, and publicist. He puts on a minimum of three shows a week year-round.

But style and strategy alone do not explain the longevity of Ayala’s career or the spirit with which his admirers receive his music. What the King seems to have communicated through lyrics and his singular way of pulsing the accordion is an overpowering sense of emotion and experience. Although his songs are about love, tacitly they speak more broadly about the hard life, about a quieter form of social suffering. It is the little guy’s love song; his losses are thicker, more acutely painful. And yet he persists. He grins in poverty’s face. Ayala’s decades-long presence, the vibrancy of his accordion, the company of other fans who sing along with equal intensity—all of this is reason for the listener to remain proud, to be hopeful. In a culture that doesn’t encourage males to express their emotions, Ramón Ayala is one big coping mechanism.

IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT, Ramón AYALA NIGHT, at the OK Corral South, a supermarket-size norteño club located behind a shopping mall in the southeast part of Houston. norteño reigns in this area where Latinos dominate. The OK Corral has three busy locations with live acts each weekend. Ayala gets nabbed only two or three times a year, and he packs the house like no other band.

OK Corral South attracts both norteño fans, made up predominantly of Mexican immigrants, and tejano followers, who tend to be Mexican American. Ayala is the perfect magnet for this mix. General wisdom among club managers is that tejano fans refuse to pay high cover charges but will splurge on booze, while norteños will pay whatever it takes to hear a band from back home but drink and act more conservatively. Tonight the cover is a hefty $25, the beer a whopping $5. But the cowboys are all lined up. This is the payoff for sixty-hour workweeks, a chance to dance with callused hands. A skinny young kid stands big-eyed before the mean-looking bouncer, wearing dark jeans and a perfectly pressed shirt, swimming in his cowboy hat. He doesn’t have his ID, he says. The bouncer eyes him suspiciously.

I suppose I could have gotten a backstage pass if I’d tried, checked out what the accordion king does before he goes onstage. But tonight I wanted to understand his audience more than I wanted to understand him. Which is to say that I wanted to understand myself: It was Ramón Ayala’s music that lit up family weddings I attended as a child when we crossed the border into northern Mexico—and twenty years and several lifestyles later, it is still Ayala, and it still feels good.

The wind blows, and nothing consoles me; without you my life ends, and you’re not even aware. I’ve been feeling heartbroken the past few weeks, so Ayala fits my mood as I wait for his appearance. The club is dark inside and teeming with life, the ratio of men to women at least two to one. I don’t care what people tell me, since I love you, I adore you. A mystery voice rumbles Ayala’s appellations: “!El rey del acordeón! !El más grande de la música norteña! !El triunfador de siempre!” And then, with a flash of light, there he is, Ramón Ayala himself, the King of the Accordion, the Biggest Thing in norteño Music, Always the Champion, with his fringed jacket and his signature rhinestone-studded Gabbanelli accordion in red, white, and—green. We may be in Houston, we may speak English, but the imagery is all Mexico. Yank out my heart if it’s a sin to adore you. The band’s announcer greets the people from Monterrey, Reynosa, Matamoros. Following his cue, they shout back. Ayala launches into his most requested song, “Tragos de Amargo Licor,” a depressing ballad about a lovesick man who drowns himself in liquor as he waits hopelessly for his departed lover to return. On the dance floor, the women hang from the men’s necks and begin to sway left, right; left, right.

If I became a millionaire, I’d buy up all the poverty. If I became a millionaire, I’d order all the sadness to be locked up. In trunks of gold and silver, I’d bury all of the jealousy and resentments, so that I could cure myself of all my pains. I take in everything around me: the colored lights, the shiny instruments, the Wranglers, the shy glances from would-be dancers, the waitresses in miniskirts, the busy bartenders, the Ramón Ayala key chains, the Ramón Ayala license plates, the cowboy hats, the skinny kid who got in after all, the laughter, the singing, the music—always the music. Forty years later, it’s still Ayala. He hears us. He understands. And this night, anyway, we know we’ll be okay.

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