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“Remembering Rubén” by José Flores

June 9, 2010

I rarely read the Bible but today a phrase clings to my 63-year-old mind: “and I alone am left to tell the tale.” This is a line often paraphrased from the Book of Job, and it seems that the death of a friend musician, the most recent is Rubén Vela, leaves many of us in that mood, desperate to tell the tale to anyone who listens. Who else could know that road better, that ritual of sound tests and microphones, of muffled monitors, of tuning bajo sextos and pacing back-stage strapped to an accordion, of blending the overpowering “bateria” with the bass, or feeling that dizzying anxiety in the pit of your stomach even when you’ve done the gig for over 35 years? Musicians. And if you play conjunto, you know ese camino de Rubén Vela.

I have listened and danced to this man’s music since I was a teenager in the barrios of Laredo. In the early 60s we cleaned yards, sold empty bottles, whatever we could do to pay the $1 admission at Las Palmas on the outskirts of town and dance or just listen to Rubén Vela y Su Conjunto. I bought every 45 as soon as they became available, and those red-orange labels with the black falcon center-top were our constant companions when my family migrated pa’l norte. I still have them.

So when we, el Conjunto Aztlan, had the opportunity to open for Rubén in Fresno, California, and stay at the same fancy hotel—this was a gig for Radio Bilingüe—I was floored. We were settled and in the lobby of the hotel chatting with musicologist Manuel Peña when Rubén and his people arrived. Rubén and someone carrying his suit bags entered first. (Not once did I see Rubén Vela play without a well-fitted suit and tie.)  Then came a skinny guy with a cowboy hat pushing a dolly with several CASES of beer; I think it was Bud Light. Although some hotel guests appeared startled, I suspect they thought the guy with the beer was a deliveryman with a poor sense of direction. Along with other eager fans, I managed to get to Rubén and his beer by the elevator doors.

“Como ‘tás Rubén,” I said as he convincingly played the role of knowing who I was.

“Listo y preparado,” he said and smiled at the cases of beer. “Me van a estar tocando la puerta como a las tres de la mañana”—You will all be knocking at my door at about 3 a.m. He knew and I knew what he was saying.

What really grabs me today is what Rubén talked about as we were taxied back and forth to the gig and other events in those white Dodge Caravans. Twice he talked about death; twice he said just about the same thing. He talked about how hot it would be to be buried under the hot sun of Mercedes. I remember clearly his clean and deeply-lined face when he said how “hot” and “mas caliente” to be in that box in a suit and tie. Then he drank from his cold beer.

Now Rubén Vela is gone. I guess that while we are the “tellers of the tale” we will not know where he’s gone, or if it is hot or not. But I do know that the conjunto world is colder without el chaparrito, his suit, and his accordion, telling us through his music, “toma mi corazón, te lo regalo.”

José Flores

Conjunto Aztlan

José Flores is a musician, poet, and award-winning English professor at Austin Community College. Born in Laredo, Texas, he currently lives in the woods near Bastrop, Texas. He writes, teaches, leads traditional Danza Azteka ceremonies, and performs with the Conjunto Aztlan.

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