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The warm culture of Los Texmaniacs to fill FitzGerald’s

Max Bac  Los Texmaniacs headline FitzGerald’s American Music Festival Saturday night.

Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs headline FitzGerald’s American Music Festival on Saturday night.

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33rd Annual American
Music Festival

Through July 6

FitzGerald’s Night Club, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn

(708) 788-2118;

Updated: July 5, 2013 11:30AM

Berwyn is a great border town.

Its neighbor to the northeast is the Austin section of Chicago, which produces glorious gospel music from its many churches. The Oak Parkers to the north love their Louisiana-Texas music, especially Marcia Ball. And then there is Cicero to the south.

According to the 2010 census, 86 per cent of the 83,891 people who live in Cicero are Hispanic.

The 33rd Annual FitzGerald’s American Music Festival makes the right call by featuring Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs at 6:30 p.m. July 6 under the tent at the club, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn. (The festival runs through Saturday.)

The acclaimed conjunto band is followed by festival regular Marcia Ball playing boogie woogie in the tent. A Chicago audience is thirsty for Tex-Mex music in a roadhouse setting. I witnessed it when FitzGerald’s drew a predominately Mexican-American crowd to the 1990 Texas Tornados show (Flaco Jimenez, Augie Meyers, the late Doug Sahm and late Freddy Fender, etc.).

Los Texmaniacs are an offshoot of the Tornados. The quartet records for Smithsonian Folkways. Their “Borders y Bailes” won a 2009 Grammy for “Best Tejano Album.”

Los Texmaniacs formed in 1999, when America’s melting pot was simmering as compared to today. Last week the Senate approved the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies in a generation. The bill, now moving on to the House of Representatives, would open the doors to citizenship for 11 million people currently living on the borders of the law, as well as tighten border security.

So, how has Los Texmaniacs audience changed over the past 14 years?

“Very good question,” answered 45-year-old band leader Max Baca, who plays the bajo sexto (12-string guitar which lends rhythm to the button accordion). “It’s a whole different audience. It is more mainstream. Now we have Anglo, Chicano. We’ve done a tour of China. There is not a single Tejano in China. We’ve done three tours of Iraq to play for the troops during the war. We’ve played Argentina, Bosnia and Holland. Last month we did a two week tour of Russia. There’s no Texans in Russia. We’re one of the few bands that have become ambassadors of this music. There’s a lot of conjunto bands but they stay in Texas and constantly play every weekend. Texas is such a cool mix of people.

“You can meet somebody named Billy Bob Jimenez.”

Los Texmaniacs are a four-piece conjunto (or “group”). Conjunto features the diatonic accordion laying out the melody against a polka backbeat. Conjunto is usually divided into two subgenres: Norteno, generally a saxophone-driven sound from Northern Mexico and the faster paced, danceable Tejano.

Baca was a sideman with the Texas Tornados until the sudden 1999 death of Sahm. “I loved playing with the Tornados,” Baca said. “I was playing rock and roll on a traditional instrument. Doug got me out of the box a little bit. He said I needed to ‘rock out’ on this thing.”

Baca added a distortion pedal and took the music to a higher ground. Expect Los Texmaniacs to cover the Tornados hit “Who Were You Thinking Of,” “Adios Mexico” and Fender’s “Volver, Volver” on Saturday night.

Pass me the tequila!

You gotta’ raise a little hell to get to heaven, which is why I wish there was some early-in-the-day gospel at this year’s fest.

“In 1999 I decided to put together a conjunto, but I wanted musicians who could play rock, Cajun or traditional polka,” Baca explained.

“I needed a bass player and a drummer who could play Texas swing, Texas shuffles and rock ‘n’ roll while getting in the pocket with Conjunto. We want to show people about the culture and where our music comes from. In the middle of our set we bring it down and explain how this is Conjunto music and it comes from the Germans who settled in Texas. People love that. They get the picture when we do that.”

You can dance to common understanding.

The group has appeared at the Texas Folklife Festival and the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Today, Los Texmaniacs feature original drummer Lorenzo Martinez, accordionist/bassist Oscar Garcia and Baca’s 21-year-old nephew Josh on accordion. “Flaco is his mentor,” he said. “He has schooled him along.”

Los Texmaniacs has recorded two albums. “Borders Y’ Bailes” features the fun “Lollipop Polka” and the elegant instrumental “El circo (“The Circus”), which Baca promises to play under the big tent. Last year’s “Texas Towns & Tex Mex Sounds” includes the erotic 19th century waltz “Salvador” and a medley of Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose” and Mary Robbins’ “El Paso” (featuring Baca’s haunting bajo sexto). The project features guests like Asleep at the Wheel bandleader Ray Benson and Western Swing fiddler Bobby Flores.

Baca was born in Albuquerque, N.M., and moved to Austin, Texas, in 1997. The band cut its early chops at the Continental Club in Austin. Baca’s father Max Baca, Sr. was a seminal figure in the 1960s Conjunto scene in Phoenix, Ariz. “He helped create ‘Chicken Scratch’ music, because my dad used to play for the Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona. It was mostly instrumental, the same beats, the same instrumentation, the same polkas. Sometimes they would sing in Spanish.”

Also known as Waila music, Chicken Scratch also incorporates cumbia and schottische with a declared Native-American beat. Other rhythms are borrowed from Nordic music. Young Baca could not escape the sound. He picked up an accordion at the age of 5 and learned the polka “Monterrey.” The second song he learned was Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

Baca’s first gig was the Calderon ballroom in Phoenix, the same stage where his father held court. The Calderon was a historic crossover venue where promoter Leonard Calderon booked black acts like Ray Charles and Little Richard within his regular rotation of the valley’s Chicano bands.

“It held maybe 1,000 people,” Baca recalled. “It had the wooden dance floor and a wood stage. The dance floor was always packed. Back in those days the orchestra bands like Little Joe (y La Familia) played there. We wanted to be hip which is why we wanted to play these big ballrooms.”

Few gigs are as hip as the American Music Festival in the muscular border town of Berwyn.

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