A Tex-Mex Master Brings Traditional Fiddling To Campus And To Nashville

Oct 16, 2019

Belen Escobedo grew up on the mostly Tejano South Side of San Antonio, TX, hearing norteño and mariachi music on the radio and the accordion-based conjunto music of local dance halls. But earlier Tejano music had featured the violin as its central instrument, and even today the older generation of accordionists can recall tunes they learned from fiddle players many decades ago. That's what drew Belen into a life in music, and next week, Escobedo, named a Master Texas Fiddler in 2017, will make her first visit to Tennessee in a series of events presented by MTSU's Center for Popular Music.

Trained on the violin from a young age, Belen studied classical music in college and spent many years as a string orchestra teacher in the San Antonio public schools. She mastered the mariachi style and repertoire, and she worked in a wide variety of settings with some of the best musicians the city of San Antonio has ever produced. But through it all, her first love remained the old tunes and songs, the music she heard on the radio as a young girl, the pieces her grandfather taught her (by whistling!) so that he and Belen’s grandmother could dance the way their forebears did generations ago.

The Texas border region, stretching roughly from San Antonio to the international boundary some four hours south (what locals refer to simply as “the valley), and into the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas, is an area of extraordinary cultural richness. The region has experienced centuries of free economic exchange and human migration, complicated by Spanish colonial rule and shifting national boundaries, and augmented by the arrival of Anglo-Americans moving westward and East European immigration. The music of Tejano communities in the region offers a multifaceted and vibrant picture of this complex history, a unique and distinctively American musical culture.

The button accordion had come to the area with German and Czech immigrants in the late 19th century; Tejano musicians adopted it (along with many East European songs) for its volume, its ability to fill a cantina with danceable sound all by itself. That displaced the fiddle in the region's music scene, but Belen took to it, hearing old timers like the San Antonio blind fiddler El Ciego Melquíades, who even in the 1960s was considered a throwback.

In 2018, Spring Fed Records (the Center's in-house label) released an album of Belen’s music entitled Panfilo’s Güera, named for Belen’s grandfather, Panfilo Padilla, and his nickname for her. Accompanied only by tololoche bass (played by Belen’s husband, Ramon Gutiérrez) and the twelve-string Tex-Mex guitar called the bajo sexto, Belen plays old borderlands fiddle tunes in a variety of styles that reflect the multiculturalism of the region: from East European polkas, waltzes, and schottisches, to Mexican huapangos and romantic boleros. She and Ramon sing, as well, in powerful duets that hearken back to Los Alegres de Téran, Carmen y Laura, and other great duos of classic norteño music.

Belen Escobedo's performance schedule follows:

Sunday, October 27, 1:00 pm

Musicians Spotlight at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

(Free with museum admission)

Sunday, October 27, 7:00 pm

The Music Makers Stage at Delgado Guitars, 919 Gallatin Avenue

($10 suggested donation)

Monday, October 28, 7:00 pm

MTSU’s Chris Young Café (formerly the Cyber Café)

(Free)

For more information, call the Center for Popular Music at (615)898–2449

Greg Reish is the Director of the Center for Popular Music at MTSU.