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Think Tex-Mex With Attitude : Just a few years ago hardly anyone knew of Tejano. Now it's the fastest-growing Spanish language music. The songs are border influenced. But you can't miss their Texan roots.

August 21, 1994|Scott Shibuya Brown | Scott Shibuya Brown is a staff writer for The Times Westside section

When Selena Quintanilla was a 14-year-old seasoned performer grinding out one-nighters in the cantinas, nightclubs and back-yard weddings of southern Texas, her ambitions were writ in miniature: a better gig than the current one, a bigger local record company to sign with. Maybe a chance with an even larger company if things really went well. "We just wanted to put food on the table," she recalls.

Selena--as she is known--now contents herself with much more. Her last release, "Amor Prohibido," has sold nearly 400,000 copies in five months. She and her band sometimes play in 60,000-seat stadiums.

She is a Grammy-winning artist (this year, for best Mexican/American album for "Selena Live") with the giant EMI Latin Records, and she owns the standard-issue, amenity-laden tour bus. It's charcoal gray, rides 15 and is outfitted with chrome mag wheels.

Most of all, though, Selena and her band, Los Dinos, have become, over the course of five major releases, the biggest stars of the Spanish-language music known as Tejano.

"I'm freaking out on all the excitement," confesses Selena, 23. (See accompanying story, page 71.)

Virtually unheard of outside Texas until a few years ago, Tejano in a sudden burst has become the country's fastest-growing genre of Spanish-language music, according to Arelis Diaz, editor of Radio & Musica, a Tampa-based magazine for Spanish-language music.

Though it is just now finding nationwide distribution and airplay, Tejano music today is a $35-million annual market that is being played full time on 70 radio stations in the United States and on hundreds more as part of Spanish-language play lists.

Such major record labels as EMI, Sony and Venezuela-based Rodven all have burgeoning rosters of Tejano acts, while Arista has devoted an entire division--Arista Texas--to the music.

Last March's annual Tejano Music Awards show in San Antonio--sponsored in part by Coca-Cola, Ford and General Mills--reportedly cost more than $3 million and was televised in 120 countries. It began 13 years ago as a local show with a $15,000 budget.

"Tejano is growing by the minute," said Manolo Gonzales, an EMI Latin vice president. "A 20,000-seller was considered a big hit five years ago. Now Selena sells 200,000 the first week."

*

The word Tejano is simply "Texan" in Spanish, and refers to a person born in Texas of Mexican ancestry. The music Tejano is a Texas-bred descendant of "Tex-Mex," the stalwart border genre that blends traditional Mexican music with German polka.

Mostly, it has grown up in the last decade and a half around San Antonio and border towns, nurtured by younger Mexican Americans who, born and raised in the United States, extended and transformed that tradition by infusing it with technology, relatively slick production and a natural familiarity with American pop music.

"This used to be the stuff our parents listened to," said Tejano musician Emilio Navaira, who is currently in Nashville recording a country-Tejano album. "(But) the new generation has caught on. This is the new Tex-Mex sound." Says Selena: "It's what Top 40 is to Anglos."

Yet it is also Tex-Mex with a difference. The Tejano genre has grown nearly as roomy as the Lone Star State itself--encompassing influences such as country, rock and urban--to the point where Tejano often is just a signature for musicians linked by Latin heritage and the fact of their making border-influenced music couched in an American sensibility.

Indeed, despite common origins, there is little on the surface to tie the polished radio pop of Selena with the soft-rock and country of Navaira to the international-in fluenced stylings of La Diferenzia. But it all fits comfortably onto a Tejano radio format, which can also include recent releases by Tex-Mex legends such as Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Little Joe, all of whom also now ride under the Tejano banner.

"There's a lot of different styles under the name Tejano," said Jesse Rios, operations and program director at KXTN-FM, which has become the No. 1 radio station in San Antonio.

"A Tejano artist can go up on stage and do a cumbia , a country song, a Top 40 song and a ranchera. " Agrees Navaira: "I can play rock and I can play country and then I can go back to my polkas."

So far, that broad spectrum has worked mostly to Tejano's ad vantage. Not only has the music established beachheads in such least-likely states as Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Michigan, but it has also won fans internationally.

Whereas once the range of clubs for successful Tejano artists was circumscribed in the Texas triangle of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, now artists are scheduling tours in the Caribbean and Central and South America, where an increasing number of stations are playing Tejano hits.

Selena y Los Dinos will debut this year in New York and Los Angeles (where they play the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday) as well as Argentina and Puerto Rico. La Mafia, another popular group, likewise has toured the Caribbean.

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