American Routes Shortcuts: Belen Escobedo
Belen Escobedo grew up in a family of Spanish and Indigenous descent. She began playing violin in fourth grade. Though Belen was trained classically, she was hired by a mariachi who heard her play at Sunday mass as a teenager. Mariachi music got her through college and graduate school. Belen taught music in San Antonio schools for thirty years and now works to preserve the music of the Texas-Mexican borderlands with her trio: Panfilo's Güera, named for her grandfather's inspiration.
Belen Escobedo: My grandfather would tell me, "You know, when I was a kid, they used to play this song," or "When I was playing at the- and working in the fields, out in Seguin, and we went to the barn dances, they played this song. Do you know this song?" And he would either start singing the lyrics, or if it was an instrumental, he would whistle them to me, and that's how I learned this stuff, however, I was lucky and fortunate enough that if I was out playing with mariachis, the older gentlemen that were there, the violinists, I would ask 'em, "By any chance do you know what this song is?" And I’d start playing a little bit the way I could, and they knew what it was, and they would teach it to me. But my grandfather was the one that inspired me to play more and more and more, and that's how I kept it in my heart to name my ensemble Panfilo's Güera.
BE: And another reason I was hired by mariachis when I was a kid was because, and this is funny, sad, but true. They hired me more for- for recordings, because first of all I wasn't seen.
Nick Spitzer: They wouldn't see a girl.
BE: They wouldn't see a girl, and the second thing was: I knew how to shift and play the high notes in tune.
BE: As opposed to the gentlemen who were taught, you know, a father would train his son the trade of whatever they were, including a musician. So these gentlemen were taught, how do you say, lírico, and not formal, what we define as formal training. I would tell people they have 'heightophobia;' they didn't want to come up here to the high notes.
NS: That's... wow, yeah.
BE: Because they couldn't reach 'em. They wouldn't understand, and so what they would take me for was for the high shifting parts 'cause I could do it.
NS: Ah yeah, very complex.
BE: And I could do it, and I wasn't seen, so there you go.
BE: I play tejano conjunto, and it has a different meaning now. Now tejano conjunto is accordion, electric bass, drums, all these new integrated instruments in what is described and defined as tejano, but conjunto grassroots tejano was strictly strings: violin, fiddle, tololoche, upright double bass, which is different, but it's a tololoche, and bajo sexto, not bajo quinto as groups are using now. And that's how I got started because, you said you went to San Antonio? I started jamming with many of the musicians there, and one of the musicians that played with us, Ramon "Rabbit" Sanchez, who is one of the universe's best, if not the best, bajista, bajo sexto performers ever. And we were out jamming one day, and Rabbit saw me with a violin– Rabbit and Chucho Perales–I was, I would say, in my late thirties, yeah, when I met them. And we jammed, and I remember I didn't understand why they were crying while they were playing, and I go "Why are you crying?" And he goes, "I haven't heard that music since I was a kid because my grandfather played that on a violin." So did Chucho; several people have told me that the conjunto players now, that their father or grandfathers played the conjunto tejano fiddle.
BE: And it's all but gone now.
BE: It's gone.
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