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Expressive Idaho features master folk artists and apprentices who make their art right here in the Gem State. This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey, Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connections from Texas to Idaho through Tejano music: Damian Rodriguez

A man sits in a small office holding a red and orange electric guitar. There is also an acoustic guitar sittin gon the ground beside him, and a stack of CDs.
Arlie Sommer
/
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Damian Rodriguez noodles Tejano style on his electric guitar in his home office.

Tejanos have been around Paul, Idaho for as long as Damian Rodriguez can remember. The agricultural community saw an influx of the population each summer as migrant workers arrived to tend the fields.

“My parents would say that ‘the Tejanos are here, the Tejanos got here …’ because they would all live in the labor camp,” recalled Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s parents were seasonal farmworkers who moved to Paul from Texas.

“Many years ago, word got out that there's a lot of work over here, so a lot of people, instead of going back and forth, decided to stay.”

A Tejano community grew in Idaho and Rodriguez remembers the cultural phenomenon that grew with it.

“It was Rudy Trevino from San Antonio, Texas, back in the late 70s who coined the phrase Tejano music,” Rodriguez said. “From that time on: Tejano Music Awards, Tejano festivals, Tejano bands, Tejano everything, anything out of Texas.”

His family played music and danced together at all of their gatherings. Immersed in the music and the culture, Rodriguez learned many of the tunes through osmosis. In high school he began looking for more.

A close-up shot of a acoustic guitar, which has an ornate design behind the fret board.
Arlie Sommer
/
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Rodriguez also practices and performs on an acoustic guitar.

Rodriguez worked in the fields every summer alongside his uncles, saving money for school supplies and clothes. One year, he managed to save $100, a large amount for him at the time. On a trip to downtown Paul, he walked into Garth’s Music where he noticed an employee playing a guitar.

“He started playing it and I thought, ‘Man alive, that's so awesome!’ because he was playing Light My Fire by José Feliciano,” Rodriguez remembers. “And I thought, 'Wow!' I walked out with that guitar. My $100 was gone.”

Back at home, his parents were upset to learn he had spent his savings.

“Dad looked at me and says, ‘You better learn that thing.’”

Rodriguez said he “locked himself in his bedroom” and spent hours learning the guitar. Music was a mainstay of high school and he kept a guitar close at hand, even after he graduated and joined the military. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.

When he returned home to go to college using the GI Bill, he started a band with four Latino friends. They played Tejano covers of top 40s music. He wasn’t interested in the “Mexican side of Tejano” until later, after he attended the performance of a Mariachi band in Idaho Falls.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, what beautiful music’,” recalled Rodriguez.

His Jalisco-born wife encouraged him to learn more Mexican songs.

“She kind of steered me towards ‘Why, you should learn this song,’ so I learned that song. ‘Oh, you should learn this other song,’ so I learned that song. And pretty soon I was hooked.”

The combination of American and Mexican music made sense to Rodriguez, who has straddled the two cultures his entire life.

“We as Tejanos, we live in two worlds. We live in an English culture. We live in a Mexican culture, but yet we're our own separate culture. We're Mexican because of our heritage, and we're Americans because we were born here.

And combining those, we have to like John Wayne and Vicente Fernandez, you know. We like hamburgers, but we also like tacos. It's one of those things where we speak Spanish, but we also speak Spanglish. And only we can understand each other when we say that.”
Damian Rodriguez

In his music, these two worlds are seamlessly intertwined, woven together into a whole new Tejano tapestry.

“Tejanos take Mexican songs and they turn them into Tejano with with keyboards, accordion, drums, and they make it fuller and make it a different type of dance style.”

Rodriguez builds songs in the Tejano style using four types of guitar strumming. He draws on the “basic ranchera,” a steady, 2/4 meter, rhythmic strum. The ranchera can also be slowed down. He also applies a traditional waltz, ¾ meter. The 2/4 cumbia, with African and American indigenous influences, also peppers much of Tejano music.

A close-up shot of a man playing a red electric guitar.
Arlie Sommer
/
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Damian Rodriquez plays guitar in his home office.

To demonstrate, Rodriguez shared a traditional Mexican song by José Alfredo Jimenez, Cuatro Caminos. Then he showed how Laura Canales, who was known as the queen of the Tejano music, changed the song, speeding up the rhythm, stretching the end of each phrase and adding jazz chord flourishes. Rodriguez imitated her Tejano version, just as beautiful but very different from the Jimenez original.

“See you just fix it up just a little bit. It's just a B minor chord. But if you dress it up, doesn't it sound more romantic?”

Es imposible que yo te olvide

Es imposible que yo me vaya

Por donde quiera que voy, te miro

Y ando con otra, y por ti suspiro

“And then when you finish the song and you want to hit it with a high note,” he explained as he played the last extended chord.

Rodriguez articulates the contrasting styles of music with ease and a contagious passion. He spent many hours not only performing the music he loves, but also advocating for his community and speaking publicly about his culture in classrooms and in the media. This year, he was awarded a Folk and Traditional Arts Fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts for his contributions to Idaho.

In 2012, Rodriguez began hosting a radio show, Tejano Magic, on the local community radio station, 91.9 FM Voz Latina in Burley after the station manager asked him to DJ Tejano music, which was not yet represented on the station.

“And the old Tejanos, the young Tejano, they call us up and say, thank you for bringing that genre to us because we listen to you every day.”

His volunteerism with the radio station has connected him to his local Tejano community in Paul, and also to a larger national movement as he stays on top of the latest releases and attends Tejano music festivals around the country.

“For me, it's a sense of identity. It's who we are. We're Tejanos, and we need some kind of connection from Idaho to Texas. And that connection is the music.”
Damian Rodriguez


This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Below is the full transcript of the audio story:

Tejano. It's always been around forever. The Texans, the Tejanos, every summer used to come work in the fields. My parents will say that the Tejanos are here, that the Tejanos got here, and the Tejano... Because they would all live in the labor camp. But it was Rudy Trevino from San Antonio, Texas, back in the late 70s who coined the phrase Tejano music. From that time on Tejano Music Awards, Tejano festivals, Tejano bands, Tejano everything, anything out of Texas. If you were born in Texas, you're a Tejano. If you like the music, you like Tejano music, I'm Tejano too. You know, if your parents come from Texas and you were born here, you're still a Tejano. Simple as that. Instead of saying ‘Texican’, ‘Texan’, we say ‘Tejano’.

My name is Damien D Rodriguez and I live in Paul, Idaho. Tejano, here in Paul, we're so few anymore. Many years ago, word got out that there's a lot of work over here, so a lot of people, instead of going back and forth, decided to stay. Those like me were probably the last of the Tejanos.

We as Tejanos, we live in two worlds. We live in an English culture. We live in a Mexican culture, but yet we're our own separate culture. We're Mexican because of our heritage, and we're Americans because we were born here. And combining those, we have to like John Wayne and Vicente Fernandez. You know, we have to we like hamburgers, but we also like tacos. It's one of those things where we speak Spanish, but we also speak Spanglish. And only we can understand each other when we say that.

My uncles played guitar, so every time we had a party or a birthday party or even just a family get together, the guitars would come out and everybody would start singing. And in the background you really don't pay attention. But somehow they sang them so much that you learned the songs.

When the uncles put the guitars down. Yeah, I got it, fiddle around with it, learn a couple of toot chords, but that's as far as I would go with it. I would work in the fields, go whole beats, pick potatoes, pick onions. I would every summer my mom would send me off with my uncle to go work in with the seasons picking whatever fruit vegetable it was. And one summer I managed to save $100 that was for school on the way to town, we called it Uptown Kings was there by the Anglos, was there, Ropers was there, Rexall, Western Auto was there, and so was Garth's Music. I walked in just to look around, just killing time and there was a guy there, "How can I help you?" And I said, "Oh, I'm just looking." "Oh, okay, good." So he got a guitar down and he started playing it and I thought, "Man alive, that's so awesome!" because he was playing Light My Fire by Jose Feliciano. And I thought, 'Wow.' I walked out with that guitar, My $100 was gone and went home. Mom was pretty upset. Dad looked at me and says, You better learn that thing. From that day on, I kind of locked myself in the room and took up the guitar, learned how to play songs.

Mexican music and Tejano music are not the same. Mexican music is Mexican regional. It's born there and a lot of times Tejanos will take the song they've written and just, you know, jazz it up a little bit. But all Tejanos are American born, all Tejanos speak English and Spanish. All Tejanos are tied to the Mexican culture.

Tejanos take Mexican songs and they turn them into Tejano with with keyboards, accordion, drums, and they make it fuller and make it a different type of dance style. A lot of guys would just be like. With these three chords. You know, But me when I grab it, I. Cuéntame de tu vida. See that on this chord right here is a B minor. But if you change it a bit, you get that T Guinta me same chord, you just fix it up. That may be the. See you just fix it up just a little bit. It's just a B minor chord. But if you dress it up, doesn't it sound more romantic? And then when you and then when you finish the song and you want to hit with the high note.

There's three styles or four styles of strumming. This is your basic ranchera. Okay, that's your basic ranchera. And then you have your waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three. Okay. And then you have your slow ranchera. And then you have your your cumbia beat. You have that. So those are the the different styles. Like there's one song called Cuatro Caminos. It goes like this. The original it was done by Jose Alfredo Jimenez. And he started he wrote this style.

Es imposible que yo te olvide

Es imposible que yo me vaya

Por donde quiera que voy, te miro

Y ando con otra, y por ti suspiro

Then Laura Canales, who's also known as the queen of the Tejano music, changed it.

Es imposible que yo te olvide

Es imposible que yo me vaya

Por donde quiera que voy, te miro

Y ando con otra, y por ti suspiro

And that's where the Tejano comes in. The Tejano comes in with the chords, the jazz chords. And that's the only difference right there between the the regular Mexican songs and the Tejano is the jazz chords.

I went to have coffee with a friend down in the restaurant, downtown cafe downtown. And I'm sitting there and the guy taps me on the shoulder and he goes, Are you Damian Rodriguez? I go, Yeah. And he goes, I'm Ruben Bautista. And I says, 'Nice to meet you. What can I do for you?' And he says, 'I run the the radio station over here.' And I go, 'Oh, okay. And that's good.' He goes, 'I hear that you have experience in radio and and TV and all that.' I go, 'Yes, I do.' And he says, 'We could use your help. There's no pay, no money. We just work for the community.' And I says,'okay.' He says, 'You know what? We got banda. We got mariachi. The only thing we don't have is Tejano music. How would you like to be a deejay for the Tejano?' I said, 'okay, I want 10 to 12 Monday through Friday weekends off.' He goes, 'you got it.' And so that was ten years ago. We're still going strong. And we're called Tejano magic. 91.9 FM En Voz Latina. And the old Tejanos, the young Tejano, they call us up and say, thank you for bringing that genre to us because we listen to you every day.

And as long as music keeps playing, we're going to get more Tejanos converters. I do, because there's people that I didn't even know, like Tejano that I see at the dances or at the, you know, at quinceaneras and stuff. And it it's amazing. You know, for the longest time, they were everybody was saying, Tejanos die'n and Tejanos die'n, and it's going out. No, it's really not.

For me, it's a sense of identity. It's who we are. We're Tejanos, and we need some kind of connection from Idaho to Texas. And that connection is the music.

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