The Apprentice

When conjunto king Esteban “Steve” Jordan died last summer of cancer, his young protégé Juanito Castillo swore he’d carry on his legacy. But to keep his promise he must be his own man.
The Apprentice
JUANITO’S IN THE HOUSE: Castillo playing at Saluté International Bar on April 22, 2011.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

On a balmy Friday night in mid-March, in a little conjunto club in San Antonio called Saluté International Bar, Juanito Castillo was attempting a reintroduction of sorts. Most of the audience was familiar with the 22-year-old performer, blind since birth. He’d been playing around town on multiple instruments since the age of 5, and the middle-aged couples in the audience had seen him perform many times right there, on the tiny corner stage bathed in pink neon light.

But Castillo’s latest band, Inovación, was new to his listeners: As their reverent whispers made clear, they knew him primarily as the anointed protégé of conjunto master Esteban “Steve” Jordan, a wild man of the accordion who died of liver cancer last August. A long-haired pachuco hipster who wore a snakeskin eye patch and puffy pirate sleeves, Jordan began making a name for himself in the sixties, when he pushed the limits of his instrument by using phase shifters, fuzzboxes, and Echoplex effects. Known for juxtaposing blues, jazz, Latin rhythms, zydeco, country, rock, and pop with traditional polkas, cumbias, and waltzes, Jordan earned a Grammy nomination in 1987 and was widely hailed as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. “I play the jazz accordion,” he once said. “Anytime the young players want to play modern, they come my way.”

This is exactly what Castillo did. Starting at age fifteen, he played drums in Jordan’s backup band, El Rio Jordan, and five years ago, when Jordan got sick, he started filling in as the front man. Though Jordan had told local music writer Hector Saldaña, “ No hay nadie que me puede copiar ” (“There’s no one who can copy me”), he happily extolled Castillo’s talent, a habit that must have stunned those familiar with Jordan’s typical appraisals. This, after all, was the man who once told Carlos Santana his guitar playing was substandard and scolded Linda Ronstadt for singing off-key; giving and receiving praise was not his forte. “I’m working for me,” he told the San Antonio Express-News in February 2010. “If they don’t like it, ‘[Expletive] you, brother.’ I don’t give a [expletive].” He told people that he knew only two geniuses. One, of course, was himself. The other was Juanito Castillo.

For more than twenty years, Jordan had played at Saluté almost every Friday. Now Chicano filmmaker Efrain Gutierrez stood up before the crowd and spoke loudly. “Juanito Castillo has been asked to play Conjunto Fest, which is a great honor,” he said, referring to the annual weekend of music concerts held every May, which attracts around 10,000 people. “We thought we’d sell some tickets and buy him a Steve Jordan accordion.” The audience nodded earnestly. “Originally, I thought this would be easy. ‘What would it cost,’ I thought, ‘a few hundred dollars?’” He stopped and rolled his eyes. The custom-made Steve Jordan Rockordeon—a modified squeeze box with fast-action buttons, first designed by German manufacturer Hohner for Jordan himself—cost $2,400, a number that translated, at $5 a head, into 480 tickets. The tiny venue, which appeared to be half full, was about 440 tickets short.

Still, if the club’s twelve-foot-tall shrine to Jordan was any indication, the attendees were determined to keep the master’s legacy alive by promoting his pupil, now stepping out from behind his predecessor’s large shadow. The moment Gutierrez spotted Castillo entering the bar, he stopped short and announced, “Juanito’s in the house!” As Castillo waved his lanky arm and walked onto the stage, club owner Azeneth Dominguez, who was Jordan’s companion for his last eight years, watched with a smile from behind the bar. “I’ll tell you,” she confided, “I’m being selfish. I have high hopes. I want him to fill the void for Esteban. I want to hear that sound again.”

Any musician hoping to find a home in a genre must strike a balance between tradition and innovation. So it has been with conjunto. It began in the 1800’s as creative tinkering: German settlers introduced the accordion to South Texas Latinos, who combined it with traditional instruments of northern Mexico. But by the mid- to late forties, the classic conjunto configuration was established—accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and drums—and the tempo was expected to be slow and danceable. Adhering to these standards helped a conjunto player court a following, but it also presented an artistic conundrum: Notable musicians don’t just master a tradition, they anticipate an audience’s unarticulated cravings and add twists. Legendary front man Valerio Longoria, for example, introduced vocalists in the fifties, and Jordan introduced his sound effects a decade later. Though these changes were eventually embraced, they did not come without risk.

For Castillo, who is so well versed in Jordan’s songs that he could earn a living performing only covers, the master’s passing puts him at a crossroads. Breaking with a legendary predecessor is nothing new (Ray Charles mimicked Nat King Cole until he cooled to the comparison; Ernest Tubb aped Jimmie Rodgers until a tonsillectomy changed his voice), but making original music hardly guarantees applause or paychecks. In his first months apart from Jordan, it became clear that Castillo had inherited more than a legacy. He had also inherited the possibility that his own name might be eclipsed.

One late afternoon, I went to San Antonio to meet Castillo in the spare, makeshift studio behind the house he lives in with his parents. He spoke of his career’s unusual beginnings and his present trajectory in a low, raspy voice while smoking his first of several joints for the evening. Castillo is pale, keeps his eyes closed at all times, and opens his mouth wide when he laughs, which is often. Given that he had just woken up around four o’clock and was hungover from a Spurs game after-party, he was remarkably amiable, charitably tolerating questions about his childhood—how he’d learned guitar from his father at age three, then took to drumming on kitchen pans and tinkering with a toy accordion, working his way up to fourteen instruments. These were stories

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