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2012 awardee, Plainwell (Allegan) and Kalamazoo (Kalamazoo County), Tejano music (Michigan style)
Founders of the southwest Michigan band, Los Bandits, René Meave and Guillermo Martinez are honored with a 2012 Michigan Heritage Award. The two musicians, songwriter and singers are known throughout the state for their distinctive blend of Texas-Mexican conjunto and norteño music, laced with influences from blues, zydeco, country rock, gospel, rock and roll and reggae, all set to original bilingual lyrics which reflect both their tejano (Texas-Mexican) roots and their Michigan experience. When the two met in 1987 at a Cesar Chavez rally, they already had a combined 40 years of experience in music, Guillermo with a series of tejano bands playing in the conjunto and orquesta styles, and René with rock and roll bands and his own original material. They formed a band in 1991 that was originally to be a vehicle for Guillermo, with René as accompanist. They soon shared their strengths with one another and became musical partners and close friends.
Guillermo, from Kalamazoo, was born in Texas and raised in Fennville, Michigan. He has worked in a variety of capacities in education, including with migrant communities. The youngest of fourteen children, Guillermo learned to play accordion from his brother Alejo. He began playing drums in the early 1960s in a family band headed by his elder brothers. His mother loved to sing the old songs of the Mexican Revolution and rancheras. He eventually learned to play keyboards, influenced by traditional orquestas. He started Karizma Band and also played with the Lowrider Band in Holland, formed by his cousins, before starting Los Bandits with René.
René also grew up in a musical family in Weslaco, Texas, the youngest of ten children. He first learned to play drums and later the guitar. “My mother, she always wanted us to play music,” René recalled in a 2006 documentary on Los Bandits. His family migrated northward following the jobs with the harvest seasons of crops. He then migrated on his own with a friend to southwestern Michigan. “I’d never seen a place with so many lakes; I love water. I’d been introduced to Motown Music. . . and I didn’t leave. I came to Kalamazoo and never went back.”
Their music pushes at the boundaries of tradition but remains firmly grounded in the performance styles and genres of the Texas-Mexican borderlands. In Michigan René and Guillermo write and perform most of their own music and gear it for audiences here and the Midwest. They have four recordings, Tex-Mex Del Midwest, La Onda Del Midwest, Live En El State Theatre, and Two Fronteras. Having both gained their first musical experiences within their families and communities, René and Guillermo have been actively performing since 1962 and 1970, respectively, and have mentored members of the next generation of musicians. Bilingualism has allowed them to play for a variety of audiences and for family celebrations such as quinceañeras and weddings where they can bridge the divide between families of different cultures. Guillermo and René have been tireless advocates for farmworkers both through music and in their careers.