Interview by: Victor Rendón, and Yasuyo Kimura
Interviewed while sitting at Rita's Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.
Date: Tuesday, April 14th, 2009.
Tex-mex drummer, band leader, Arturo Yglesias may not be a household name. However, if you have ever listened to the conjunto music of the 1950's – 70's, chances are Arturo has entered your living room or car stereo through the recordings of Isidro "El Indio" Lopez, Lorenzo Caballero, Valerio Longoria, among others. He was there before this music was of any interest outside of the Mexican American community.
He was one of the first drummers to play the drumset in a conjunto having played with Valerio Longoria who is credited as the first to use a drumset in this type of musical style. He also saw the rise of what became known as the Orquesta Tejano sound of the late 1960's and into the 1970's with likes of groups such as Little Joe y La Familia, the Latin Breed, Tortilla Factory, and many others.
Eventually forming his own orquesta in the Dallas area in the 70's Arturo Yglesias has continued to perform his craft and is truly a part of the Mexican American musical experience.
VR: Let's start with your full name and date of birth. (Waitress brings a plate of large tacos).
AY: "Primeramente, me voy a comer un tacote que no veas" (laughs). "Mi nombre es Arturo Yglesias nacido en Taft, Texas, not far from Robstown brother."
Translation: First I am going to eat a big taco, don't look (laughs). My name is Arturo Yglesias, born in Taft, Texas, not far from Robstown brother.
AY: I was born on November 24th, 1938 on a Thanksgiving Day; That's when I was born; at 7 o'clock in the morning (laughs).
VR: With or without clothes?
AY: Without clothes. They thought I was going to die man because it was so cold that day.
VR: Did you go to school there? You know, elementary school...
AY: Middle school...I only went up to the eighth grade.
VR: In those days, most Mexicanos did not have the opportunity to stay in school much less get higher formal education.
AY: As a matter of fact, graduation classes were not very big back then. It wasn't like it is today. Like here in San Antonio, a thousand kids graduate every year from High School. Back in my days, only 40 to 60 kids graduated.
VR: So, how did you get into drums?
AY: Ever since I can remember, I used to bang on my moms pots and pans. My mom did not appreciate that very much. I also had family in Corpus Christi that were musicians. Are you hip to Emilio Caceres?
VR: Yes, the Caceres brothers but I never met them.
AY: Emilio Caceres was a violinist and Ernie Caceres played tenor.
VR: Were they from Corpus (Christi)?
VR: The ones that I knew were Eddie Galvan and Bobby Galvan.
AY: OK, that's another generation. Those are my parent's generation. These other people I'm talking about are one generation before that. Ernie Caceres played alto, tenor, or bari with Glenn Miller. This is before Glenn Miller went into the military.
VR: Apparently there was a lot of jazz in Corpus Christi back in the 30's and 40's.
AY: Yeah, well do you know Ralph Duran?
VR: I know of him.
AY: Ralph Duran, his mother is Ernie Caceres' sister. I remember when I was about 12 years old, I would go to jam sessions and Ralph was playing piano. And the horn players were Bobby and Eddie (Galvan brothers). Sal Pedraza was on bass. Sal Pedraza is my mom's brother (uncle). My grandparents had just two kids, my mom and Sal. That's where I come from.
VR: What type of music did you guys play? Was it big band jazz or just Mexican music?
AY: No, no, no, I myself..... My grandfather in Taft had a dance hall. In most of the bands that came to play, there was almost always someone related to me such as an uncle or cousin. I would go there to sit and listen, mainly to the drummer. I always liked the drums. At one time I almost started playing bass with the school band. I thought I wanted to play bass. The director said I could play the bass in concerts but then I had to play the tuba in the marching band. That did not appeal to me (laughs). No, I don't think so. So, I'm in the band hall with Mr. Busby, the band director. The phone rings in the office and while he goes to the office to answer, I see all the drums in the band hall. While he is on the phone, I go back there and start messing around with the snares. And, he is listening. He says, "You know what, you are not playing bass, you're not playing tuba, you are playing drums". Unfortunately, I didn't get to do that much. Are you hip to Lorenzo Caballero?
VR: No, I'm afraid not.
AY: It was a conjunto, this is back in the early 50's like 1952 or so.
VR: What did Lorenzo Caballero play?
AY: He played guitar. "Le decian el mago de la guitarra" (They called him the magician of the guitar). He played the guitar upside down, put lighter fluid on the guitar and would light up.
Note: This group became known as Lorenzo Caballero y Su Grupo de Estrellas. Lorenzo was inducted into the Tejano Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1990.
VR: And, this is before Jimi Hendrix.
AY: Oh yeah. One of the bands that my grandfather had came one day with no drummer. He said, "It's OK, that kid there will play drums", the kid meaning, me. But, the kid did not have drums. So, he said, ""Arturito, you want to play drums tonight?" I said, "yeah". He said, "OK, you've got the gig". I said, "But, I don't have drums". He says, "What do you mean you don't have drums". I said, "I know where I can get some".
There was an old gentleman who had a band. His band consisted of his own children. It was a band sort of like in the style of Beto Villa's polka band, a nice band. So I go to Mr. Garcia and I say, "Mr. Garcia, I need to borrow your drums". He said, "OK, I will let you borrow my drums if you give me half of what you make tonight". I said, "Yeah man". I didn't know and I didn't care. I just wanted to play. I brought the drums and set them up. My grandfather saw me and asked me where I got the drums. I told him that I got them from Mr. Garcia. He asked me if I had to pay him something. I told him that I had to give him half of what I made. My grandfather said, "No you're not, just give him five dollars".
VR: That was a good amount back in those days.
AY: Little did I know that I was to make fifty seven dollars that night. So I gave Mr. Garcia five dollars and it was fine with him. He never found out (laughs). My grandfather, said, "Give him five dollars and Monday we'll go to Corpus (Christi) to buy you a set of drums". That was Saturday, so Sunday was one of the longest days in my life (laughs) waiting for Monday to come around.
VR: How old were you?
AY: I was 11 years old making fifty seven bucks. That was a lot of money in those days (circa 1949). My grandfather saw that I could get behind the drums and play so he just decided to get me a set of drums.
VR: What other drummers did you see at the time? Mexicanos in particular.
AY: Jr. Alvarez was one of them. I used to go and sit right next to him at the Galvan Ballroom (in Corpus Christi). He's still alive.
Note: Jr. Alvarez from Kingsville, Texas recently passed away. He performed with the Galvan brothers in Corpus Christi for many years.
VR: Yes, I saw and interviewed him last summer.
AY: The guy who is not alive is Sal Pedraza. They were buddies.
VR: Did you go to see Beto García, another jazz drummer in Corpus Christi?
AY: Beto García, I knew his brother, Rudy. Now Rudy is not my age. I used to see Rudy play with Orquesta Falcon. You remember them?
VR: That was before my time. I became aware and interested in Tex-mex music in the 70's with the likes of Little Joe y la Familia, Tortilla Factory, Latin Breed, Steve Jordon, and others.
AY: That was Tejano. That was a great era. You became hip to the Tejano sound. That was the "orquesta" sound. I played with a lot of conjuntos.
VR: Tell me about Isidro Lopez from Bishop, Texas. I know you played and recorded with him.
AY: Isidro Lopez was not a conjunto. I was a member of "El Conjunto Ideal de Amadeo Flores". We were recording for the Ideal label in Alice, Texas with Armando Marroquin (owner of Ideal records). .
Note: Isidro Lopez "El Indio" is considered the father of the style of music known as Orquesta Tejana, predecessor to what we know today as Tejano music.
VR: Some of those recording have been reissued under the Arhoolie label. I remember talking to you on the phone and you told me about a particular tune with Isidro on which you played bongos. After we spoke I looked for it in my collection and there it was.
AY: Yeah, I was just messing around with the bongos and the guys turned on the recorder. That band was very popular.
VR: Well apparently, the music touched the common people.
AY: Yes, people liked it and it sold. The band was very popular and went on tours. This was after I went with Lorenzo Caballero in 1952. Lorenzo played with legends and eventually formed his own group. The beauty of Lorenzos' band was that it was like a caravana (caravan) with different groups. Some of these people are legends such as Pedro Ayala and Lydia Mendoza.
VR: Accordion player. (referring to Pedro Ayala)
AI: Yes, accordion player from the valley. Pedro Ayala, Lorenzo Caballero, and Arturo Yglesias (myself) was the conjunto trio.
VR: What did Lorenzo play?
AY: He played guitar. Pedro was on accordion and I was the drummer.
VR: The drumset was also a new innovation in Tex-mex music in the early 1950's.
AY: Valerio Longoria
VR: Yes, he is credited with the first to incorporate the drumset in conjunto music in the early 50's.
AY: There you go, you got it. I was one of those drummers.
VR: Was the drumset rejected by people in the beginning?
AY: I don't think so. I played with him and had a ball (laughs). I played with a lot of conjuntos. I sometimes reminisce on what I did. I mean those were good conjuntos. Of course, I never played with Paulino Bernal. I played with Oscar (Hernandez) when I was in Dallas. Oscar was a lot of fun to work with.
Note: Oscar Hernandez is also a pioneer by being the first to play a button, five row accordion, better known as a chromatic accordion. Typical accordions have three rows. Hernandez, who worked with El Conjunto Bernal (lead by Paulino Bernal) was influential in getting Paulino to add a second accordion (Oscar) to the group and switching to the five row accordion.
In 1962 Pedro Ayala, Lorenzo Caballero, and myself joined Lydia Mendoza and her two sisters, Juanita and Maria Mendoza. They were in the caravan that I mentioned. And, here is the biggie: El Trio Los Panchos. El Trio Los Panchos loco. I knew who they were, but I was...... today, it's like, yeah, they were big. So, here I am with these big timers. That was an experience.
From there, I went with Valerio Longoria and later, Agapito Zuniga. I also played with Isaac Figueroa. At one time he was owner of a club called Mocambo in Corpus Christi on Morgan street. It was a salsa club. In between I played with others. This was before Isidro Lopez. All these other bands were working bands. Isidro Lopez was my big time era. This was around 1955 or 56.
VR: So you were still very young, about 17 or so.
AY: Yeah, I wasn't even twenty yet. When I was with Amadeo, that's when Isidro Lopez came in. He joined the conjunto. We did a recording with Conjunto Ideal which is still around. This was like an accident. Isidro was supposed to do the recording with "la orquesta de Juan Colorado". Juan was from San Diego, Texas. He had a small polka band, two saxophones, one trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. It was a good band. Isidro Lopez was the vocalist with that band. But then, something happened at the recording session that the band did not show up or something. So, Armando Marroquin says, "You know what, do this song with Conjunto Ideal y Amadeo Flores".
That was the beginning of Isidro Lopez. We would travel all over Texas, "El Valle" (the valley), San Benito, Harlingen, and all those little towns. We even went to Dallas and Houston as a conjunto. I forget how Isidro got the idea of putting a band together. He left the conjunto and organized his band. He called me to join the band. At that time, the band consisted of three saxophones, one or two trumpets, guitar, bass, and drums. I am the original drummer of Isidro Lopez. I quit once and then I went back. Actually, I think I quit twice.
BTW: I remember you asking me how I play a huapango. You remember that?
VR: Yes, of course, about thirty years ago.
AY: It was in Dallas when you were working for the club owner, Ramon Medrano.
VR: Oh yeah, that was at La Roca with Alfonso Samano (laughs).
AY: La Roca, yeah.
VR: Show me again exactly how you do it. (Arturo plays it on the table).
AY: What you do on your recording (referring to the Havana Blues CD) is a little different. (Arturo plays on the table again while singing a typical huapango melody).
Note: Some of the accent notes went with the melody. Arturo gives a little demonstration of how to stress certain notes on the tune Guadalajara.
AY: What you do on your recording is a little different but when I heard that, I said, wow! check this out man, I taught that dude how to do that (laughs). And look at him now in New York. I taught him how to do that! (laughs).
VR: I would ask you a lot of questions and you were always very gracious. I remember you used to do something with the hi-hat on the cumbia and cha chas. It sounded like a güiro. I used that pattern for a long time in New York when I played in the Colombian cabarets of Queens, NY and even on straight ahead salsa. Presently, I am playing more timbales but I used to do that on drumset all the time.
AY: The same type of thing can be done on the cumbia where the downbeat is closed and the upbeat is open. (Demonstrates while singing a cumbia melody). This is something I learned from listening to Perez Prado. I used to listen to his records.
Did you ever go to B&S Percussion in Dallas,
VR: Yes, I used to buy my equipment there.
AI: I bought my Slingerland drumset with an 18" bass drum there.
VR: I remember that set. I have a photo of you playing it.
AY: Eventually, somebody stole it from me here in San Antonio.
VR: I have a photo of you playing that drumset with a piccolo snare drum. I'm playing congas.
AI: I can deal without the drums but I have never been able to replace the cymbals.
VR: OK, enough reminiscing. Let's go back to your story before we lose it (laughs).
AY: Ah, OK (laughs). I didn't have to join Isidro Lopez. I was doing OK with Amadeo (Flores) but I needed a change. With Isidro Lopez we even played danzones. I love danzones, boleros, and cha chas.
After I left Isidro, I joined a band in Houston that was more of an orchestra than a polka band. Isidro was a polka band even though they played different rhythms. The band in Houston was led by Pepe Hernandez. It was more of a dance band orchestra. It was similar to what I eventually had; alto, tenor, baritone sax. But he had two trumpets and one trombone. I had alto, tenor, bari, three trumpets, and two trombones. That combination made it sound like a big band. He played a lot of danzones. That's where I learned "Nereidas", "Almendra", and of course I knew "Juarez". Everybody knew "Juarez". I have arrangements of those tunes in my book. Do you remember Pablo Beltran Ruiz from Mexico City?
VR: El Millionario
AY: El Millionario Pablo Beltran Ruiz. He put out an LP of "puros" danzones. It's titled: "Danzones Classicos". Xavier Chavez, a piano player, pulled that out for me. It's not around anymore. That's the kind of music I played with the Houston band. We played tunes like "Que Lindo Mi Tierra" (starts singing the melody), paso dobles, etc.
VR: There was a lot of variety in the music.
AY: Later, I went to Dallas. Little Joe (Little Joe y la Familia) was happening. Litte Joe and I became very good friends. Not with Little Joe at first but with his brother Jesse who died. He was the bass player in the band. He died in a car accident. I almost joined Little Joe because of Johnny Gonzalez from the Zarape label, who was recording with Joe. He knew that Joe was looking for a drummer. He told me, "Join the band, they need a drummer". I didn't join because at the time, I wanted to settle in Dallas.
VR: What year was this?
AY: This was like the early 60's.
AY: The bands were very commercial. Sometimes they had a copy band, sometimes they had a twelve piece band, sometimes they had an eighteen piece band. There was a guy named Tommy who was a good salesman. He worked for the police department in Dallas and he was also a good trumpet player. He put bands together for barmitzahs, weddings, and all that stuff. One day, Xavier Chavez says, "Why don't you put your own band together?" He even offered to help. I had the "Danzones Classicos" LP and there was another band from Mexico under Claudio Rosas from which I took ideas for my own band.
VR: I remember the Claudio Rosas band. I saw them at the Corpus Christi Jazz Festival around 1967 or 68.
AY: Yes, I had a couple of those LP's.
VR: What year did you put your band together?
AY: 1970, 71, 72.
VR: I met you in 1978 or 79 at a party where you were playing with Alfonso Samano. Javier Pagan from NY was also playing with you guys. Javier asked you if I could sit which I did and we've been friends ever since. After that, you started calling me to play congas in your band.
AY: Conga players in my band were you, Pat Razleten, Javier Pagan, Lyann Harris. My arrangers were Xavier Chavez and Mike Loveless. The Colombian, Jose Madrid, did "Contigo Aprendi" and "La Bamba". He later went to New York City and played with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and many others There was also a guy from Monterrey named Juan who wrote about six charts for the band.
I always got good players from North Texas State University in Denton to play with my band. Dave Keller, a baritone sax player, would put the band together for me. Sometimes it was scary because there were times when I didn't know anybody in the band. They were sight reading with no rehearsal. They were great musicians. So, because of that, I didn't mind paying the band well. Even then, sometimes I thought I underpaid the band. Nobody every complained. They were kids straight out of college. It got to my ears, that other band leaders were saying that I had them spoiled by paying them too much. It also got to the point that I mostly had "gringos" in the band. I had to give numbers to the titles because if I called out "Contigo Aprendi", for example, they wouldn't know what I was talking about (laughs).
One time, I came down to San Antonio with the DJO (Dallas Jazz Orchestra) for some convention. Somehow, we ended up having to back up Doc Severinson. So, he wants a rehearsal. Of course, nobody wanted to rehearse. The DJO had a high level of musicians. At rehearsal time, the whole band is there and Doc comes in with his horn and music. He kicks off the band and half way through the number he stops the band and says, "We don't need to rehearse". You couldn't blame him for wanting a rehearsal. He was not going to take a chance with a group that he had never worked with. In 1985 I also went to Europe to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival with the Dallas Jazz Orchestra.
Some of the bands I used to listen to were Carlos Campos, Mariano Merceron, Pablo Beltran Ruiz, and Acerina. I also used to listen to the records of Perez Prado. The rhythm section was happening. I used to wonder how the drummer did all the sounds. I would try and figure how he did the cowbell, conga, and güiro sounds. I somehow put all these sounds together. The first time in my life that I saw Perez Prado perform, he had a drummer, timbale player, and conga player. I thought all the sounds that I heard on the recordings were being played by one drummer. When I saw Perez Prado live, the drumset player was just playing hi-hat (laughs). But it was good because I learned to assimilate those sounds on the drumset.
Many years later I was hired by Joe Wrightman in Dallas to coach Ed Soph (famous big band drummer) on Latin rhythms for the drumset. I also got to work with Joe Wrightman. He had a "Mickey Mouse" society band but it was very good. Ed Soph was and is a great drummet who has played with many greats such as Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. But, he didn't know how to play Latin rhythms in a society band. So, Joe hired me to teach him some simple rhythms.
Note: Ed Soph now teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.
I used to go check out "la Orquesta Falcon". I loved that band. Beto Villa was alright but that was more of a polka band. There was another band by Eugenio Guttierez. Rene Sandoval (saxophone player) played with Eugenio. That's where he met his wife. She played piano in the band.
VR: I remember the name Raul Cuesta from Houston.
AY: He passed away. His brother, Henry Cuesta, played with Lawrence Welk. When I joined the Pepe Hernandez orchestra, I was really looking forward because Rene Sandoval was in that band. But, a week before I joined the band, Rene quit. So, I didn't get to work with Rene. He lives in the valley and over the years, he's called me to do some private things.
VR: Did anybody else in your family play drums?
AY: My grandfather, my mom's dad, he was a drummer. I never heard him play. He died when I was about 15 or 16 years old. By that time he wasn't playing anymore. He used to come and see me play. He would sit on a table, drink a beer, and just look at me. I can just see him right now. Sal Pedraza, the bass player who passed away, his dad is my grandfather.
VR: I remember Sal Pedraza playing with the Corpus Christi Symphony. Also, Eddie and Bobby Galvan. I used to go Bobby's gigs with my teacher, Jimmy Ramirez (from San Antonio). I would play maracas and claves with Bobby's band all night. Occasionally, we would do a job with Eddie. He had a larger band.
AY: There was also the other brother, Ralph Galvan. There was Ralph, Eddie, Bobby, and Sammy. Sammy played bass and Ralph was a trumpet player.
Presently, Arturo Yglesias is living in San Antonio. In addition to playing drums, he worked as hair stylist for many years. He still works as a hair stylist once or twice a week in addition to playing with his band whenever the opportunity rises.