Fans of Tex-Mex conjunto legend Max Baca might be disappointed to learn that he will not be joined by Los Texmaniacs, his Grammy-winning band, for his Monday, July 22, appearance at the Santa Fe Bandstand. But the show promises to be special nonetheless because it marks the first time in more than two decades that Baca plays with his brother, Jimmy Baca.
“It’s going to be a very emotional moment for me,” he told Pasatiempo from his home in San Antonio. Baca’s voice was hoarse from a series of weekend shows in Illinois and Kansas, preceded by a two-week tour of Russia, but he was nevertheless eager to discuss his history, musical and otherwise.
The Baca brothers grew up in Albuquerque during the 1970s. Their father, Max Baca Sr., shared his love of music with both sons. “My dad was an accordion player with a lot of history, but he never got recognized for it. He helped create a style called chicken scratch music. He was one of the pioneers.” Native American musicians in New Mexico and Arizona adopted chicken scratch after hearing performances by Baca Sr. and others. Chicken scratch has the same instrumentation and song formats as Tex-Mex conjunto, but without the lyrics.
What exactly is Tex-Mex conjunto? It’s a fusion of Mexican American and German musical traditions that dates to the turn of the 19th century, Baca explained. German settlers brought accordions and musical forms such as polkas and waltzes with them to Texas. These were then combined with existing regional instruments such as the 12-string bajo sexto; song forms such as corridos, rancheras, and boleros; and Spanish lyrics.
Over the decades, the Tex-Mex sound has continued to evolve. Some bands incorporate brass instruments and saxophones, reflecting the Mexican influences of banda and norteño traditions. Others reference elements of American blues, rock, and country music.
The Texas Tornados, formed in the 1980s, became famous for modernizing the music while maintaining many of its traditions. During its height of popularity, the band filled stadiums across the country. This period is when Baca got his big break. In 1990 the Tornados arrived in Albuquerque to play a sold-out show at Tingley Coliseum, but without a bajo sexto player. Flaco Jiménez, the band’s well-known accordion player, was a close friend of the Baca family, and he knew that Max Baca Jr. was a promising young bajo player.
Jiménez called Baca to see if he wanted to jam with the band, and within a matter of hours, Baca found himself not just jamming but performing onstage in front of thousands of people. The next day he joined the tour. “It was history after that. I went from playing at different VFWs and church venues and little cantinas locally ... to playing in front of 40,000 people with the Tornados.”
His tenure with the band lasted through most of the decade and included many memorable adventures. The high point came in 1994: “Me and Flaco were asked to record with the Rolling Stones on their Voodoo Lounge CD. It was awesome. I never thought in my wildest dreams that being a New Mexican, I would one day record with the Rolling Stones.”
Baca fielded the call from the Stones’ manager. He thought it was a prank until a demo tape arrived at his hotel. He and Jiménez were in the studio the next day. After meeting the rock legends, Baca took out his bajo sexto, which immediately attracted the attention of guitarist Keith Richards. Within moments, Richards, whose collection of guitars is estimated to exceed 3,000, asked to buy it. Baca didn’t know what to do. “This was the bajo that my father gave me when I was 8 years old. And Keith’s going, ‘I want this. Name your price.’ ”
For Richards, it was destined to become the bajo sexto that got away; Baca couldn’t bring himself to part with the sentimental instrument. He and Jiménez wrapped up their guest appearance in one take and were soon out of the studio. “When I got home, I told my dad what had happened, and he said, ‘Pendejo! You should’ve sold it. You could’ve bought the whole factory.’ ”
After a few more years with the Tornados, Baca decided to branch out. He formed his own group, Los Texmaniacs, in 1997. The group found early success with its first album, Tex-Mex Groove. “After the second album, the Smithsonian called me to say they were interested in my band and liked what we were doing. They invited us to play at their festival, and then they invited us to record on their label, Smithsonian Folkways. We recorded Borders y Bailes, and that’s what we won our Grammy for.”
Baca says that over the course of his career, recordings he has participated in have won a combined total of 11 Grammys. Because Borders y Bailes was his own project, he received that award personally. “What a feeling — when they call your name. I was sitting right next to Lady Gaga and behind Beyoncé. I’m surrounded by all these superstars. To be included was pretty cool.”
Los Texmaniacs have continued touring the world since winning the 2009 Grammy. They’ve appeared in China, the Middle East, South America, and all over Europe. They have also performed for U.S. troops in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan during peak moments of conflict. “We had to hit the bunkers at least two times a day due to mortar bombs.”
But despite having played in so many different places, Baca makes no effort to contain his excitement at the upcoming show in Santa Fe. On top of performing a reunion show with his brother and other special guests, he gets to visit his beloved home state. “I miss the Sandia Mountains and my green chile. Only in New Mexico! Believe me, I know. I’ve toured the world.” ◀
Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs plays at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, July 22, on the Santa Fe Bandstand on the Plaza. There is no charge for the concert; see www.santafebandstand.org.