Max Baca and Los TexManiacs find the middle ground between conjunto and rock
In 1994, Max Baca was welcomed into the inner sanctum of a Rolling Stones recording session. Baca, leader of the conjunto-rock trio Los TexManiacs, and his friend/mentor Flaco Jimenez, had been hired to bring some Latino flavor to the breezy love song “Sweethearts Together.”
Baca recalls that Mick Jagger was planted at the mixing board, while Keith Richards sat in the corner puffing on a cigarette. But when Baca pulled his 12-string bajo sexto out of it case, Richards instantly snapped to attention. He asked Baca if he could check out the exotic axe. Running his fingers across the strings as cigarette-ash dropped on the instrument Baca’s accordionist father had bestowed upon his son, Richards was immediately smitten. He blurted out: “I want this. I don’t care what it costs. You just name your price.” Baca looked to Jimenez for guidance in the delicate art of price-haggling with a member of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
|In recent months, Max Baca (center) and Los TexManiacs have performed for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.|
“If I’d said a million dollars, it would have happened,” Baca recalls. “But I was so overwhelmed that Keith Richards wanted my bajo sexto. I told him, ‘I can’t sell this. It was given to me by my father.’ Keith said, ‘Okay, I understand,’ but then he asked one more time, ‘Are you sure?’ When I got home, my dad said, ‘Pendejo, you should have sold it! I’ve got 20 more.”
It wasn’t the first time Baca was caught between loyalty to his father and an infatuation with rock ’n’ roll. As a child growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baca learned to play conjunto music the way other kids learn to ride bicycles or climb trees. After mastering the basics of button-accordion at the age of five, he began touring as a member of his father’s conjunto when he was only nine years old.
“As a kid, I was just attracted to the accordion and the bajo,” Baca says. “My dad would be playing or practicing at home, and I’d get out of bed. I’d get in trouble, because I was supposed to be in bed, but I’d want to hang out and listen to the music.
“Touring was a way of life. We’d play and I’d get paid, like $25 a night, and my mom would give me $5 for the whole week, and the other $20 would be to buy groceries or to pay the bills. We did it to survive, to bring food to the table.”
Baca remembers feeling exhausted after long weekends of traveling from one New Mexico town to another, and fighting his mother’s insistence that he attend school on Monday mornings. He fell so far behind in school, he eventually dropped out, and did not obtain his GED until several years later.
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For all of Baca’s dedication to the conjunto tradition, he also found himself drawn to the rock records he heard on the radio as a child. “I grew up with a conjunto background, but in school I never spoke Spanish. I was always talking in English, and listening to rock ’n’ roll.”
With his own band, Los TexManiacs, Baca has combined his two great musical passions for a sound that brings rock energy to the conjunto tradition. Baca’s spirited, acccordion-driven romp through a cover of Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” is only one example of this strategy. Baca credits his stint as a touring member of the Texas Tornados with helping him to develop his synthesis, citing the late Doug Sahm as a great teacher.
“Doug really took a liking to me when I first joined the Tornados,” Baca says. Freddy `Fender` was the one that was really hard. He was like, ‘If you don’t play the way we’re used to, we’re just going to send you back home.’ That was his kind of thing. But Doug was great, and I have to give all the credit to Flaco for bringing me into the band.”
Los TexManiacs return to San Antonio from a recent road swing for a headlining May 13 performance at the 25th-annual Tejano Conjunto Festival. But Baca is quick to distance himself from Tejano music, perceiving its relationship to conjunto as equivalent to the relationship between glossy, contemporary country and the raw, vintage country of Hank Williams.
Baca maintains the work ethic he picked up from his father, consistently performing three or four nights a week. In recent months, he’s performed for American troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, even ushering in 2006 in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
“It was an adventure,” Baca says. “It was like if you were in the Army yourself. We had to wear the bullet-proof vests and helmets. And there were times when we actually got mortar bombed.
“The first night we were in Iraq, we were right in the middle of our third song and then ‘Boom!’ A rocket hit on the outside, and nobody got hurt but they took us offstage, put our gear on, and got us to the bunkers right away. We experienced that several times in Afghanistan.”
Baca says during one stop in Afghanistan, he and Los TexManiacs connected with a group of soldiers from South Texas. “We got stranded there for three or four days and we had to wait until there was another helicopter available,” he says. “They barbecued for us, had a cookout, and presented us with a Texas flag that all the troops signed. It was so humbling to have someone come up to you and say, ‘I’m from San Antonio, thanks for being here.’”