LOS FRESNOS — For about a year, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the part of Ruben Garza’s soul he’s shared with his fans for more than 50 years.
While state and local safety restrictions closed off concert stages to curb the spread of COVID-19, he returned to the studio to record with his band Los 2 G’s.
“It was like I went into a private zone,” Garza, 73, said Friday. “It was a feeling like there’s no water. Conjunto music’s the love of my life. It’s something I did every day, every week for more than 55 years. I wanted to play.”
For 20 years, Garza played bajo sexto for the legendary Ruben Vela before launching a 30-year career with Los Dos Gilbertos.
Next weekend, Garza and his band Los 2 G’s return to the stage to headline the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center’s 28th Annual Conjunto Festival, a two-day show featuring 13 bands at Los Fresnos Memorial Park, Oct. 15 and 16.
“The people who love conjunto music expect you to keep going,” he said. “It’s our culture.”
Still, COVID-19 threatens the future of his band.
For two months, acclaimed accordionist Hector Gonzalez, 38, the other half of Los 2 G’s, has fought for his life in a hospital intensive care unit after contracting the coronavirus.
“I told him, ‘You’re the one who’s going to teach all these people the music and keep the tradition alive,’” Garza said.
Now, accordionist David Martinez is filling in for Gonzalez.
“Maybe little David will continue,” Garza said. “They’re going to be playing the music and continuing the tradition. They’ve just got to follow the lead.”
Keeping tradition alive
After the pandemic led him to cancel the festival last year, organizer Rogelio Nuñez’s counting on drawing as many as 2,000 fans back to the show.
“It promotes this kind of music that maintains a tradition started 100 years ago with Narciso Martinez,” he said, referring to the master accordionist credited with pioneering the genre in San Benito’s Ideal recording studio more than 85 years ago.
Today, the arts center stages one of the country’s two conjunto festivals.
“This particular music is not played on the radio every day. The opportunity to play in venues — there’s not that many,” Nuñez said. “So exposure is very important. The youngsters are key. Even though it’s an older tradition, there are a lot of younger people who want to dance and have a good time.”
In 1991, Nuñez co-founded the arts center dedicated during the celebration of Martinez’s 80th birthday — shortly before his death.
From San Benito to Los Fresnos, the center’s become a showcase of Mexican-American arts.
“The Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center preserves, promotes and develops the rich cultural heritage of the Mexicano community through programs in the visual arts, music, theater, dance and literature,” the center stated in a press release.
In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution lauded the center’s Conjunto Festival with a CD titled “Taquachito Nights,” featuring recordings of several conjunto pioneers who played the previous year’s shows.
That’s when Pauline Baldenegro heard the CD playing on her radio in California.
“I heard this tremendous conjunto music — I heard it was from San Benito,” said Baldenegro, 74, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent who represents taxpayers in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Ever since, she and her husband Manuel have turned into big festival fans.
“We go every other year,” Baldenegro, who was born in Florence, said. “We grew up with the music. We go and support it just to keep up the tradition. You just have that love for it. You just listen to it and it moves you. Your body just moves to the joy — the groove. It’s the beat, the smoothness. It’s as smooth as a good aged bottle of wine.”
The festival opening Friday runs through Saturday, featuring 13 bands.
“The conjunto tradition rests on these conjuntos,” the center stated in its press release. “The 13-band line-up is filled with the most highly skilled musicians who continue to maintain the conjunto music tradition.”
On Friday, the show running from 5:30 to 10 p.m. features:
>> Juan Lugo y Su Conjunto;
>> Eddie “Lalo” Torres y Su Conjunto;
>> La Clica;
>> David Martinez Y Su Conjunto;
>> Los Fantasmas Del Valle;
>> Ruben De La Cruz y Su Conjunto.
On Saturday, the show running from 4:30 to 11:30 p.m. features:
>> Conjunto Halcón, from Los Fresnos High School;
>> Frutty Villarreal y Los Mavericks;
>> David Flores y Los Tremendo Alacranes;
>> Bernardo y Sus Compadres;
>> Los Cucuys de Rodney Rodriguez;
>> Boni Mauricio y Los Maximos;
>> Los 2 G’s.