Vatos and viejos alike gathered together at Burnt Ends BBQ Monday, March 28, for a jam session to celebrate the legacy and academic success of musician, anthropologist, and ethnomusicologist Dr. Jose Cuellar.
Cuellar is here to pay homage to his hometown of San Antonio, and to share his work now on display in the Peabody Museum at Harvard University through a talk “Reviving the Ancient Sounds of the Ocarina” at UTSA Main Campus today at 1 p.m. in the Mesquite Room.
The carefully fixated countenances of puro San Anto rested joyfully at peace like children at storytime, soaking in the sentimental journey of Cuellar, a.k.a. “Dr. Loco” of 1950s and ’60s Westside Sound fame. Cuellar ebulliently embarked upon his journey in downtown San Antonio in 1957, when he first picked up the saxophone.
“I was at Brackenridge High School, a senior and my father wanted me to go to Durham Business College, and I was on my way to pay my tuition,” Cuellar said. “I passed Alamo Music Store and saw a saxophone gleaming in the window – it was the exact amount I had in my pocket. I walked in, put my money down, got the sax, and walked out.”
Hanging out with saxmen George Briscoe and Frank Rodarte (Cuellar’s teacher and mentor for more than 50 years), Cuellar laughed as Briscoe drank from a koozie that read “No Black No Brown No White, Only Blues.”
“I wanted to report to my homeboys, my camaradas, what I’m doing,” Cuellar said. “I’ve recorded on over 200 pre-conquest instruments that were found in archaeological sites.”
The work and the instruments will soon become a permanent exhibit at the Peabody, and include a 3-D sound system.
“Part of this is the spiritual aspect of working with instruments found in burial sites, the sacred in addition to the secular,” Cuellar said. “That’s what I’ve been exploring now, what it meant to the people at that time.”
Donning a fashionably tattered white scarf and psychedelic Jimi Hendrix T-shirt with a black porkpie hat, author John Phillip Santos helped bring Cuellar’s story to SA.
“He has this deep rooting in the old Westside of town,” Santos said. “Tonight is an outpouring of all the folks who have shared that past.”
Santos has been involved with Cuellar through a project on MesoAmerican civilization at Harvard, and jumped at the opportunity to support Cuellar as he revisited old comrades.
“We talked about him coming back to his own hometown, after a rich musical career and mystical explorations,” Santos said as the horns blew their warm-up notes and added to the laughter in the air.
The story of the shared struggle of black and brown, according to Santos, is coming to light again. “It’s not just in the southwest, but all over the U.S.,” he said. “The musical legacy is one of the places where you get the most vivid and alive contact with it.”
The room was packed with the cool auspiciousness that is only possible in San Antonio, as local artists such as David Zamora Casas and Chicana literary legend Sandra Cisneros mixed and mingled with the hoi polloi of their hometown. Marco Cervantes, a.k.a “Mexican Step Grandfather” of local hip-hop fame through Third Root, also represented and helped host the event.
“The history of Chicano soul is just a representation of the history of Chicano studies at large,” Cervantes said. He acts as a Professor of Mexican American Studies at UTSA, and is bringing Cuellar out to campus for the discussion on ocarinas. “With a city as rich in Chicano culture as SA, it’s important to dig into the music, to let it be forgotten.”
The power of music is critical to Cervantes’ belief system, and central to his teaching as well as motivation for change.
“Music has the ability to build bridges, cross boundaries,” Cervantes said. “Events like this, Hip Hop 4 Flint, are reminders that we have these commonalities, it’s an opportunity for connecting the overlapping points of black and Chicano culture.”
We gonna jam or what? “Shuffle in G,” says Rodarte, and the richest sound you heard out of a west side horn, the bawlinest tenor that speaks to the power and strength of the Chicano soul and puro San Antone sound. Everybody gets a turn and then another and the good times roll and everybody starts clappin along and the blues go and go and go and they start trading fours and you can’t stop it the feeling. Rodarte starts singing and grooving and the barbecue is wafting into the tones of the instruments, the pure profundity of character and artistic excellence overflowing … Awww Lord sweet jesus won’t you have mercy on me!
The horns upon the stage seemed to multiply (in richness and pure soul-power) over the course of the evening, sharing graciously in a momentous reunion of several key members of the Del-Kings from the late ’50s and ’60s, as well as other gargantuan figures in San Antonio’s Westside community.
“There was a real sense of competition back then, but everyone was helping one another,” Cuellar said. “Compete then teach, we’re all here to help.”
Cuellar said that until recently he put a lot of limitations upon himself as an instrumentalist, focusing purely on the saxophone.
“I would really encourage musicians to explore every instrument you can,” he added. “Each instrument expands our understanding of music by exploring the limitations and potential of each instrument.”
His face becoming ever the more sagacious, yet relaxed as he felt the words being absorbed, his Willie pony tails and one to match from his chin dangling in the spring sunset. “There is a tendency to limit ourselves, my urging is to open up,” Cuellar said. “You can concentrate on one thing, but to define ourselves as musicians we need to know it all.”
The whole gang came out to honor Dr. Jose Cuellar at his hometown jam at Burnt Ends BBQ. Photo courtesy of Jesse Garcia.