Andrés Berlanga Interview
Chris Strachwitz interviews bajo sexto player, Andrés Berlanga. “…I started playing guitar, I didn’t know nothing about guitar, I was hard labor man working on construction and all that then I come to think, this man can do it I guess I can do it too and I tried it and I tried it and I got on it.” – Andrés Berlanga
- Andrés Berlanga Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Andrés Berlanga
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Location: San Antonio, TX
This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about Andrés Berlanga and Trio San Antonio, visit the Fred Zimmerle interview
For more about Andrés Berlanga y Francisco Montalvo, visit Agustín Gurza’s blog “Berlanga y Montoalvo: The Blues and the Borderlands” at the UCLA Strachwitz Frontera website
See below photo gallery for a transcript of the interview
Andrés Berlanga Interview Transcript:
A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to email@example.com
Chris Strachwitz: Mr. Berlanga did you ever go touring around South Texas or did you sing mostly right here in San Antonio?
Andrés Berlanga: I’ve been all over, all everywhere. Down in the valley, Brownsville, Matamoros, Reynosa, McAllen.
Chris Strachwitz: Who did you go with most of the time?
Andrés Berlanga: Montalvo
Chris Strachwitz: Montalvo. And where did you sing mostly there in those small towns?
Andrés Berlanga: Well just on the beer joints or streets. Mostly on the streets.
Chris Strachwitz: Which of your songs did the people like the best?
Andrés Berlanga: All the kind of corridos. Corridos and “El Buque de Mas Patencia” and “Contrabando Del Paso”, “Los Tequileros”. All kinds of songs.
Chris Strachwitz: What sort of other musicians did you run into? Do you remember any of them?
Andrés Berlanga: Well we used to meet Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martinez, but when we wasn’t … when they knew we was in one little town they go to the next, so we won’t have make each other competitions.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh I see. You mean they would also travel all throughout the valley and …
Andrés Berlanga: Once and a while they go out of town, not often though, like we used to go out every week. We had a good ride. We ride on a train. Freight train.
Chris Strachwitz: You used to catch a freight train.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right. It’s the truth. We ain’t got a automobile or Cadillac, we was traveling …
Chris Strachwitz: Those are hard to catch.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right and rides and friends we knew they bring us down San Antonio and sometimes we give them 50 cents or dollar they bring us to San Antonio.
Chris Strachwitz: Would you ever have trouble with the police on the railroads?
Andrés Berlanga: Not a bit. They knew us pretty well. Even immigration they say, “Hello Berlanga, Montalvo” and all that kind. They used to find an empty box car for us so we know which one goes straight to Corpus Cristi, we wouldn’t have to transfer or anything. Oh they was taking care of us pretty good.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s nice. Did you ever sing for them too?
Andrés Berlanga: Oh no. Once a while if we feel good we sing them a song, that’s all right. Many times they used to ride us on the caboose. We had it made over there, you know, sitting down in the good soft seats.
Chris Strachwitz: Were there a lot of other fellows riding the freight train?
Andrés Berlanga: No, not really. In Depression time you know when Depression time a lot of people was traveling on the trains because they had no money to get on a bus or something like that. Using freight trains, yeah it was women, men, everything on Depression days.
Chris Strachwitz: They would be going …. which way would they be going?
Andrés Berlanga: Well they were going down to the valley, some were looking for jobs and some just run around. Mostly they were looking of work you know because you couldn’t get no job no where, was scarce.
Chris Strachwitz: But even at that time you didn’t have any trouble with the people?
Andrés Berlanga: Not a bit. Not a bit.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s really nice okay. Did people sometimes come up to you and give you songs that they thought you ought to sing or …
Andrés Berlanga: Well some guys that they may compose a song and they give to us you know, but we had to recompose a verse, so they come out right. Depends according to the music, to the melody we want to put into it.
Chris Strachwitz: Where did most of these melodies come from? Did you always have to make those up?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah some of them, was most of them.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah because when people give you a song they would never have a melody.
Andrés Berlanga: No they don’t have the music, you just got the verses. We just got some words or added or take off or added either way.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess you were probably still pretty young but did you ever hear that group Cuarteto Carta Blanca that Lydia Mendoza started with her family. I think they were called Cuarteto Carta Blanca.
Andrés Berlanga: Lydia Mendoza started out at the market over there at the menudo place over there. They used to got them chilli stands and all the stuff there. That’s where she started with her mother playing fiddle and guitar and little brothers were one of the triangles, you know, beating over there. They used to run the place. That’s the truth because all the people knew.
Chris Strachwitz: That was the first time you’d seen them.
Andrés Berlanga: That was the first time yeah. You know, she record on the Bluebird, Oberstein whatever you call his name, and I’ll give him the timing of the songs tell him when to cut off. Montalvo recorded at the same time over there. Then I don’t recall the name of that hotel was on Lexington. Was an old old hotel. Then they move over there to the Gunter Hotel. They was over there once. I guess that was about the last time we record for Tomas Acuña, because he’s the one that’s taken us, listen to songs we have ready practicing and then we went for Decca, to Chicago, me and Montalvo and another two groups more.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh I see, you mean Acuña would make all the arrangements.
Andrés Berlanga: Acuña … yeah that’s right. You know I see a lot of checks coming in to him and (?)
Chris Strachwitz: Oh he was the middle man.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: I see. And he just paid you whatever he thought.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: I see. Was he the only one here in town or was he a Costa music company..?
Andrés Berlanga: Well there was another one as well but he was more strong than the rest of them.
Chris Strachwitz: You mean Acuña did most of the work.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah did most of the work, whatever recording. In those days then later on they start some other guys they put up.
Andrés Berlanga: I just got 30 days coming from the border. Wait a minute. Jesus Christ, man. I cross the river, but I cross it on the telephone post. Yeah, they tell me, “How you got over here?” He say, “How much you pay on the bridge?” “I didn’t pay nothing, I just got on a big telephone post and swam through. Good bye Irene.”
Chris Strachwitz: Oh boy. There weren’t too many singers when you were just growing up were there around? Around …
Andrés Berlanga: In those days it was Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez, and Luis Vera, Bernardo San Román, and Melquiades. Ciego Melquiades. But the only ones that I knew in those days, because the problem was the more you know then they come into a lot of more guys, I don’t really remember the names. Actually from all of us in those days, I guess only about two or three are left: me and Ramirez and Paz Flores, about the only ones.
Chris Strachwitz: Are they still alive?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah. What was Ramirez’s first name?
Chris Strachwitz: I don’t recall his name right now.
Andrés Berlanga: Where does he live?
Chris Strachwitz: I don’t know where he live. He sang with me last night on the serenades..
Andrés Berlanga: Oh, he was out there?
Chris Strachwitz: He was with me. He got a voice like a [makes rumbling sound], man he got a real strong voice.
Andrés Berlanga: Is that right?
Chris Strachwitz: Where did you find him?
Andrés Berlanga: Well, he came over there, we get together. He plays over at the [?] station over there. He plays with a guy that plays the saxophone. And everyday is [(?) they come over there and meet me at (?) where I play and then from there we get together.
Chris Strachwitz: Did he ever make records make back in the old days?
Andrés Berlanga: I think, I don’t know if he made one or I don’t know who with or anything about it.
Chris Strachwitz: Who was the other old timer that you mentioned?
Andrés Berlanga: Paz Flores
Chris Strachwitz: Does he live here in town?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah he lives here in town. I don’t know his address exactly. And me [?]
Chris Strachwitz: And Chavarrias, I guess.
Andrés Berlanga: And Los Chavarrias. Yeah, then the Chavarrias they come in on the… oh about 32 I guess.
Chris Strachwitz: They came in a little later.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah they came in later because they were living in some little town here, towards going out to Loredo.
Chris Strachwitz: They said they used to go with their father cotton picking I think a lot.
Andrés Berlanga: They was cleaning .. what do you call them, grove trees and all that kind of work over there. But (Escobar ?)I guess they went over there or something I don’t know their backgrounds or how they started. He listened to sing both of them and he liked how they sounded, and they had pretty nice voices.
Chris Strachwitz: When the Prohibition was on, do you remember the time when they couldn’t sell no alcohol around these parts? I know you made that corrido about “Los Bootleggers.” Did you make that about anybody special or …
Andrés Berlanga: No, a friend of mine give it me, I don’t remember, I guess he’s dead already.
Chris Strachwitz: If they didn’t have beer joints then I guess …
Andrés Berlanga: There was bootlegging, the whiskey and the beer you know, they just sell undercover, little shacks, little rooms. They go say, “Hey you want a beer? You want a beer? 5 cents, 10 cents a beer. You go out there for a dime, you drink 10 beers you get drunk as I don’t know what.
Chris Strachwitz: A homemade beer.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: When they ended the Prohibition, is that when these beer joints started up? Or do you remember when they started coming into being?
Andrés Berlanga: I don’t remember when they beer joints started in selling beer come out in the cantinas. I don’t remember exactly the year.
Chris Strachwitz: You mean there really wasn’t too much difference between …
Andrés Berlanga: No no no, there was always bootlegging whiskey and everything.
Chris Strachwitz: You always had plenty.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right. Had at all times, plenty to drink.
Chris Strachwitz: When do you think … at that time it seemed like people listened to the songs more, or do you think there was dancing just as much as now?
Andrés Berlanga: No they were listening mostly to the singers that were singing. They had the dances on the barn, like family dance they invited all their friends.
Chris Strachwitz: In the house, there was people having house parties back then?
Andrés Berlanga: Later on they started making saloons, I mean, platforms where they could get some people over there.
Chris Strachwitz: When do you think they started doing that?
Andrés Berlanga: Oh, I’ll say that was ‘30, ‘32 something like that. Maybe before that I don’t know exactly. I was down in the valley, I went from Dallas I moved to Dallas, I mean to Brownsville, and they had a big platform over there and they was hiring an accordion and a drum, that’s all. They didn’t have no guitar. You should see that music they made. Guy with the little sticks just beat it on the side and that accordion just played the hell. And they were so good, and you can (?)… you hear that out in the woods you know [boom boom boom] that dance is going on. I mean they really was…. They were charging 10 cents, just 10 cents for dance.
Chris Strachwitz: You mean to go to the place?
Andrés Berlanga: No no … For each time you dance you know. They had a guy over there that was collecting the money.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s pretty high in those days.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right. Yeah. You know in Brownsville …
Chris Strachwitz: This was about 1930 you said?
Andrés Berlanga: In Brownsville, no, 19…’26, ‘27 something like that.
Chris Strachwitz: You don’t remember who the fellow was playing the accordion do you?
Andrés Berlanga: No no.
Chris Strachwitz: Did they call those drums tamboras?
Andrés Berlanga: Tamboras
Chris Strachwitz: Tamboras. Was that a special kind of drum?
Andrés Berlanga: No they just regular drums. Just pattin on there and sticks, they didn’t have no other drums on the side.
Chris Strachwitz: They just had a bass drum?
Andrés Berlanga: Just a big round drum, that’s all, and two little sticks where they beat them, the sides. Joe Rodriguez he recorded with us too. That was in San Benito. He recorded with me and Mantalvo, we make that “La Resbalosa”.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh he plays accordion on it.
Andrés Berlanga: He’s the second one of Narcisco Martinez. Of course Bruno Villareal, you know Bruno Villareal he started after that I guess. But I guess…I don’t know …
Chris Strachwitz: He started actually before I think Narciso did.
Andrés Berlanga: But Narciso and Joe Rodriguez……. accordion player. I don’t know if he is still alive because I see on the book you give me that he lives around close to San Benito.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, Narciso is still alive.
Andrés Berlanga: No no I mean Rodriguez.
Chris Strachwitz: I think Narciso told me that he died.
Andrés Berlanga: He just happened… was here and Tomas Acuña he says, “You guys want to go record? I said, “don’t make any difference to me.” I said, “Let’s get it.”
Chris Strachwitz: That was for Bluebird?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: But that was the only session that you had an accordion on.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s all.
Chris Strachwitz: You don’t remember who the fellow is that played the accordion, there was a record about that time made of “La Cucaracha” by two fellows, I can’t recall their name, I don’t have my book with me and they had an accordion Tamez …?
Andrés Berlanga: Oh Felix Tamez. Felix Tamez and Benjamin Martinez.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s right.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Who was the accordion player? Do you know?
Andrés Berlanga: I guess Rodriguez.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh that was Rodriguez playing the accordion.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah it was Rodriquez because in those days he was the one recording those things.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you think that’s the same Rodriguez that way back in the later days in the 50’s, there was one Jose Rodriguez recording for Imperial, but to me it sounded like he was playing a piano accordion.
Andrés Berlanga: No.
Chris Strachwitz: You don’t think that’s the same man?
Andrés Berlanga: No he plays the button accordion.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah.
Andrés Berlanga: I don’t know later on ……Because Narciso Martinez he start with buttons you know, two rows and then three rows and now I know that he plays a piano accordion.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah but he says the people don’t like it.
Andrés Berlanga: Don’t like it, they never did like it. That’s why those guys who plays music on the orquestras, the saxophones the clarinets and those, they made as accordion players, you know? They just can’t get along with it. Oh that accordion no good, people go for the accordion. And they getting stronger and stronger I don’t know.
Chris Strachwitz: When you were a child do you remember any groups before they had accordions, like any clarinets and things like that?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah I remember a guy his name he died already, Andres Sandoval and what was the other guy that plays “Entrale En Ayunas” He record that with a clarinet, and I don’t remember his name.
Chris Strachwitz: Were there any other little groups running around the streets that didn’t have accordions?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah there was quite a few groups that was serenading too.
Chris Strachwitz: What sort of instruments would they have?
Andrés Berlanga: They had a fiddle, a trumpet, and bass, and guitar.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that what they had, trumpets way back in the 20’s?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah they had some trumpets. And they used to hang around over at the Ayala Drugstore was over on Loredo Street. Loredo and Nueva. That’s where they used to hang out all the musicians.
Chris Strachwitz: Which town is that in?
Andrés Berlanga: Right here in San Antonio. Those days they didn’t have much of an accordion, they had the fiddle, two fiddles, a trumpet, guitar, and bass, and we used to walk from one place to another. We had a whole list of names of whose birthday it was and just got there and sang and played and they come out and give you a quarter or some 50 cents, some a dollar, it depend. You measured how long you had to sing or … we used to charge 25 cents an hour.
Chris Strachwitz: An hour?
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right in the Depression time.
Chris Strachwitz: In the Depression.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right. We play four hours that’s a dollar. And we had fiddle and guitars, most guitars they didn’t have much bass guitars in those days, later on they started.
Chris Strachwitz: When did the string bass come in, do you know?
Andrés Berlanga: You mean the big one?
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah.
Andrés Berlanga: Oh that was the first one, that was the original.
Chris Strachwitz: [inaudible 00:18:35]
Andrés Berlanga: Played one that was original. These new ones are electrical. They come late.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah but even that string bass, did they have that back in the 20’s?
Andrés Berlanga: Like mine?
Chris Strachwitz: No like a big stand up bass.
Andrés Berlanga: Oh yeah, they had it from years back. Way years back.
Chris Strachwitz: When did the bajo sexto come in you know?
Andrés Berlanga: In Mexico they usually play bajo sexto with them but orquestras that they use the guitar more. And then here they get from the bajo sexto for the accordion because the more strong melody and the guitar is kind of week. Louder …
Chris Strachwitz: Didn’t have much bass either.
Andrés Berlanga: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Do you think that accordion music came from Mexico or do you think it’s …
Andrés Berlanga: I don’t know where it come from. I guess they did because Chicanos always think something.
Chris Strachwitz: You first heard it down in Brownsville didn’t you?
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah. The drums over there, oh man. I had a gig those guys [pow pow pow] those things to the side, they had it wonderful. People were just starting out dancing.
Chris Strachwitz: Did they have any singers at all or just play music?
Andrés Berlanga: Well some of them sing, some of them don’t, but those days it’s different from 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock till in the morning. They liked it, they didn’t give a damn about how long. They just keep playing and the people just keep drinking and dancing. That was wonderful days.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess people had a lot of fun back then.
Andrés Berlanga: Yes sir you better believe it.
Chris Strachwitz: When you made that record with the Trio San Antonio that was about the last time you recorded wasn’t it? “Que Me Gano Con Llorar” Were you working regularly with them or …
Andrés Berlanga: I was working cab stand and he was working … I guess he was working at Kelly. We always get together once in a while and then we record with Rangél, Corona.
Chris Strachwitz: You were with the group then.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah me and Fred and then with Wolf, Rio.
Chris Strachwitz: You see on the record I never know who’s the second voice because it just says Trio San Antonio.
Andrés Berlanga: Well Fred, Fred is a lower voice and I was the lead voice. I like him to get the… Well, we make one “Las Tres Viudas” because Rangél he said my voice was too strong I couldn’t, I was covering him up, so he make me sing low and he sang high. He took the whole oh since from 8 until about 12 o’clock to make one record. I was so made that I didn’t know what to do.
Chris Strachwitz: You were just worn out.
Andrés Berlanga: Jesus Christ. And over and over and over and over until finally we got it.
Chris Strachwitz: Back in those days for Bluebird you said you didn’t do it once.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah but we had a guitar. I was given the melody [makes sound] like a mandolin. I was the good one on that stuff.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh you were the fancy guitarist.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah and 12 string guitar. And I left it and I went on this one and I try to get the guitar, I know the chords but I’m not practicing much anymore.
Chris Strachwitz: Your hands …
Andrés Berlanga: So my hands get stiff.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, I think that fancy guitar playing come into … did that come in when Los Madrugadores started selling records here from Los Angeles or were there other people that used some real fancy guitar picking in their tunes?
Andrés Berlanga: You know like gives the melodies and … Oh they come from El Paso. Los Sifuentes. Hermanos Sifuentes. Those guys are from El Paso. From El Paso I guess or either the other side.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh those guys … do you think they really started that fancy …
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah those are the ones who started all that fancy stuff, that de-de-de and all that kinds of stuff. Then everybody would pick it up here in San Antonio when they got them two guys come what’s their name was one of them Regino Delgado and the other one was Carrasco, but I don’t remember his name. I think it was Carlos. The two of them duet come from there and those the ones that they had a twelve string guitar, you know, they come in showing off. They didn’t take a week before all of us got that same idea.
Chris Strachwitz: I’m always interested in how things like that get started.
Andrés Berlanga: Yeah that’s right. Somebody gets something new and we don’t know it and you like it. Just like I started playing guitar, I didn’t know nothing about guitar, I was hard labor man working on construction and all that then I come to think, this man can do it I guess I can do it too and I tried it and I tried it and I got on it. Then when I was on with the WPA music project then I went (?) told me to get on the bass so I got with him, so I hired some guys to cords and teach me how and then show me how and then from now on I just keep on my own…..(tape ends)