Brown-Eyed Soul, from Deep in the Heart of Texas
On Saturday, July 27, San Antonio comes to Lincoln Center Out of Doors for Look at My Soul, an evening of vintage and contemporary Texas soul music brought to life by composer-producer-musician Adrian Quesada. Catalina Maria Johnson spoke to Quesada about the roots of the project, and why it gives him hope for the future.
Laredo-born Adrian Quesada has been at the forefront of many of the most innovative and influential musical projects ever to emerge out of Texas—whether it's the powerful salsa-infused tunes of Grupo Fantasma, a norteño-rock-opera called Pancho Villa at a Safe Distance, the contemporary Latinx covers of Black Sabbath tunes by Brownout, or the cinematic and soulful border psych-rock of The Echocentrics.
What ties all of these projects together is Quesada himself, and the rich sonic landscape of the world in which he grew up. The shuttling and mixing of two cultures just this side of the Rio Grande naturally spills over into music—the bouncing accordion of norteño and tejano, the shimmering horns of mariachi, the unbridled guitars of rock-n-roll, the soul of rhythm and blues, and the grooves of funk and jazz and hip-hop have all come together to create an American sound that could only be born in Texas. As Quesada explains: "A lot of it really was based in San Antonio, in particular. You had the proximity of the Mexican border, so you had the Mexican influence of mariachi music, which you can hear in the way that the horns sounded. And then, because of the army bases, you had white troops and black troops and all kinds of people converging in Texas. The troops brought their music, whether they were listening to Motown or whatever, and that made it that melting pot, which made that unique sound."
The result of Quesada's deep dive into that unique sound is Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul, a tribute to his home state's lesser known musical history, which is documented in a new full-length album released by Nacional Records and will be brought to life in a world premiere live performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Saturday, July 27.
"Just when you think you're the first Mexican kids in Texas to have been influenced by hip-hop and Black music—of course, these guys had already opened doors for us."
It all began about 15 years ago, Quesada explains, when he heard an interview with the tejano music legend Ruben Ramos, an artist he describes as "the most gracious—and coolest—gentleman on Earth." The younger musician states how amazed he was to hear how Ramos had actually grown up on rock-n-roll and Little Richard, which resonated with his own experience decades later: "Even though cumbia and our music was all around us, we didn't really grow up playing it. As teenagers, we were used to hip-hop and rock-n-roll. It wasn't until we were a bit older that we embraced our own culture. And I heard Ruben say something similar, about how he didn't really start singing in Spanish until a little bit later. I remember making that connection and thinking, that's incredible! Because just when you think you're the first Mexican kids in Texas to have been influenced by hip-hop and Black music—of course, these guys had already opened doors for us."
That discovery prompted Quesada to start collecting vinyl from Ramos's heyday. He became well versed in bands such as San Antonio's Sunny and the Sun Liners and Little Joe y La Familia, "digging their musical evolution." He also explored the Numero Group releases that focused on grooves born in San Antonio's Mexican-American barrios, where young musicians brought together doo-wop harmonies with the brass sounds of conjunto, banda, and mariachi.
Inspired by his predecessors, Quesada started to compose new songs with a vintage, brown-eyed soul twist, some of which evolved organically into a new project, the Austin-based psychedelic soul band the Black Pumas. (Led by singer-songwriter Eric Burton, the Black Pumas will open the show at Lincoln Center.) Both the recording and the live performance that Quesada has put together celebrate the rich history of interplay between genres and styles, featuring a multi-generational cast of Texan soul singers, with legends like Ruben Ramos alongside younger artists such as Alex Marrero from Brownout and Amalia Mondragon from The Chamanas. He notes that at first it took some time to generate interest in the vintage sounds: "People would say, why would anybody really care about this regional music? And that just gave me more drive to do it!"
In addition to musical roots, the classic and brand-new tunes also share a social and spiritual common ground that inspires Quesada: "That music is so heavy on vocal harmonies, and it spans generations and colors—when you have a bunch of people singing in harmony, it represents people coming together. Right now, it's more important than ever to give examples of that, because as much as people are trying to divide our country nowadays, I just love when anything like that brings people together."
Catalina Maria Johnson is an international radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, and music curator. She hosts and produces the radio show and podcast Beat Latino, and is a frequent contributor to NPR Music, Bandcamp Daily, and Billboard.