When Johnny Rodriguez auditioned to be a tenor singer with the Temptations in Chicago in the 1960s, he was told that he was neither tall enough nor dark enough. But that rejection didn't deter him from his dream. In 1973, his love of music led him to join his cousin's New Mexican band, Los Cuatro Diamantes, which was playing "New Mex Tex," as Rodriguez calls it -- a mix of Spanish, New Mexican and Tejano music. The band, he says, was determined to keep the tradition of Spanish music alive. Rodriguez moved to Denver in 1982 and recruited members for a new band. "When we moved to Denver, there was a lot of gang activity, so I tried to keep my sons out of it by getting them involved in the band," he says. "Now they want to play, and I don't have to force them."
After nearly twenty years of making music, Johnny Rodriguez y los Diamantes will get to make people dance at El Centro Su Teatro's Chicano Music Festival, August 11 through 13, along with other local bands.
Established four years ago, the event is a fundraiser for El Centro as well as a showcase for local talent. "We're a cultural arts center, so we're interested in investigating and identifying music that is ingrained in Denver's Chicano culture," says artistic director Tony Garcia. "It's a roots festival to understand where the music developed from." Garcia also wants the bands to come away with something. "It's not a competition between the bands, but a challenge," he says. "It's an opportunity for them to be heard in a different light."
$6 Friday and Sunday, $15 Saturday
The festival offers three days of music, food and dancing, starting with family night on Friday, which includes traditional music by Familia Trujillo and a dance performance. Saturday night's Summer Pachanga is more geared toward adults: Four local bands will take center stage, and an art auction takes place at 6 p.m. At the end of the evening, audience members can vote for the Chicano Music Festival Band of the Year. On Sunday, visitors will be treated to mariachi music.
The four bands -- Johnny y los Diamantes, Lumbre, Next in Line and Pasión -- were signed up, Garcia says, after he and others from El Centro spent many hours scavenging local bars and consuming many cervezas.
Like Johnny y los Diamantes, Next in Line will be playing the festival for the first time. (Four of the band's members are from musical families and consider themselves "next in line" -- hence the name.) The group offers a diverse mix of music, including Tejano, light rock, oldies and country. "Our motto is to play songs throughout the night that'll touch everybody," says lead vocalist Phillip Castillo.
The bandmembers are excited about the opportunity to showcase their talents, a lifelong dream for many of them. Although he was born blind, keyboardist Daniel Solano pursued music as a child and mastered several instruments. "I play using music theory and touch. I have to memorize how many sharps and flats there are in a song," he says, adding that he wants his audience to be moved by the upbeat performance. "We hope through the energy of our group, we give everyone an uplifting experience."
The night will also mark Greg Roybal's debut performance at the festival. The Pasión guitarist is an actor at El Centro and has hosted the show in the past. Roybal hopes to invoke a feeling of togetherness at this year's event. "If we can unite people," he says, "we've achieved something."