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.

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

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