Last May, the Austin Music Map’s very first story focused on the Moose Lodge—a bright red, steel-sided building on the city’s east side, and home of a small but lively conjunto revival. With its low ceilings, wood panelling, and taxidermied moose heads, the lodge evokes the spirit of the old dance halls where the music used to thrive.[audio:https://kutx.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Moose-Version-3.mp3]
Rancho Alegre Radio is one of the main forces behind the city’s conjunto scene. Run by Frank Cuellar and Piper LeMoine, the organization collects and archives hard-to-find recordings, gathers oral histories with aging conjunto musicians, and organizes a yearly festival that takes place at The Moose.
The second annual festival goes down this weekend, running from February 1-3, and bringing in close to two dozen bands from across the state. We checked in with Piper LeMoine to talk a little more about Rancho Alegre’s beginnings and what they’ve got planned for this weekend.
How did the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival get started?
It got started when we went on our first tour of Texas, interviewing legends like Chano Cadena and Rene Joslin. We asked them when they last played in Austin, and they said it had been decades. Some of them even said that they had never played here.
The main reason was that [Rancho Alegre co-founder] Frank Cuellar had asked Rene Joslin if he would do one more show, since he was retired. He hesitated, if the show were to be just him. He thought people had forgotten about him. But then, Frank offered to build a show around him, so he wouldn’t be the headliner, but would be part of the lineup. He agreed.
In Frank’s personal quest to see Rene one last time, he started making phone calls and getting confirmations from other legends and up-and-coming groups willing to come just for the honor of playing on the same bill as Rene. Then we got contacted by other veterans of the industry, just to get a chance to get the genre started in Austin again. One day turned into two, and two days turned into three, with a packed house each day.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the Festival?
We’re hoping to open up the industry in Austin, once again, as it was in the 70s and 80s. We’re hoping to get the attention of a radio station to play this music on FM radio again. We’re looking to develop new talent and give Austin back the old “dancehall” feeling, even if it’s just once a year. We’re hoping to give conjunto its rightful place alongside all the Texas music that is celebrated every day here in the Live Music Capital of the World.
What does the Festival bring to the Austin music scene that wasn’t here before?
What it brings is the celebration and pride of being a Hispanic Texan back, as our music been lost in the shuffle, being mixed in with the Mexican music scene, as well as the Salsa music scene and other Latin genres. If you ask someone who is uninformed, they’ll say we’re all the same, but our music is more inspired by the European styles and it’s pure Texas music. Played right next to each other, anyone, from any other culture, would hear the difference. Our job is to try to show people, once again, the difference. The genre is in danger of disappearing, and we’re not going to let that happen.
How has this Festival—your second—grown and changed since the first one?
Last year, we had to explain to each and every person, bands and fans alike, what we were about because no one knew who we were. People didn’t trust us, so we had to prove ourselves. We got the feeling that people showed up to our event to see a good show, but to also see if we could deliver on our promises on who we were bringing. This year, they know we are for real. As we felt at last year’s event, some people initially had their guard up, which came down after they saw the kind of festival we organized. All apprehension melted away and it turned into an old-time, friendly dancehall vibe. The fans felt it. The bands felt it. And from what we hear, they’ve been waiting all year for this next event. They’re ready to have a good time, and we’re ready to deliver again…this time with twice as many bands filling the lineup with minimal repeats.
Can you tell us a little about the range of bands you’re bringing in?
Our performers this year are coming from all over the state: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Victoria, Refugio, Corpus Christi, Kingsville, Alice, Laredo, San Antonio, and of course, we have our Austin favorites as well. We have legends and veterans, but we also have kids. The focus this year is on the brand new acts who have never been to Austin. We need to focus on the young guns of this industry, as we lose legends left and right. Another exciting difference is that we have a special appearance by a Tejano legend, Roberto Pulido, who is a huge fan of conjunto and will be playing with Austin’s own Los Texas Wranglers.
What are your hopes for Rancho Alegre going forward? What are your plans for the next year?
Plans for the next year is that we are going to focus more on the Tejano side of the music. People have shown concern that we only support Conjunto, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We are going to continue to find a radio station to play our music, Tejano and Conjunto alike, and we are going to continue our interviews with legends as well as up-and-coming acts. We will continue to do this until the public says, “enough!” Even then, we will probably continue just as a hobby, because it is a labor of love for us.
Everyone asks themselves what they will leave behind for future generations, and what their legacy will be. We think we have found ours.