Obituary: Ruben Naranjo

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The Independent Culture
RUBEN NARANJO was one of the last of the classic dance combo leaders of Texan conjunto music, a style which is played by groups called conjuntos, on button accordion, guitar, the big 12-string bass guitar known as a bajo sexto and drums, and which is similar to the nortena music played across the border in Mexico.

Apart from Mexican influence, conjunto music owed much to Texas's German and Czech immigrant communities and the repertoire features many waltzes and polkas as well as the rollicking border ballads known as corridos.

Ruben Naranjo was born in 1945 in Alice, southern Texas, to a truck driver father. Like his eight brothers, Ruben earned a youthful living picking cotton, and some of the earliest songs he learned were corridos sung in the fields to pass the time while working. At home, his mother played harmonica, and his father, though he couldn't play an instrument, bought old guitars to do up and resell. All of the brothers taught themselves to play guitar on the instruments lying around the house. Ruben was the most zealous, and also learnt bajo sexto and, when his father unusually came home with an accordion, that too.

In 1960, aged 15, Naranjo began to work as a part-time bajo sexto player with the Conjunto Latino at dances around southern Texas and four years later joined the well-known group Chano Cadena full-time. By now he had mastered all the instruments of a conjunto and was a highly competent lead or backing vocalist. In the early 1960s a vogue for dual accordions swept the Texas music scene, and Cadena promoted Naranjo to second lead accordionist.

In 1972, Naranjo borrowed money from his mother for a car, built a set of loud speakers and recruited the four other members for his own conjunto, christened Ruben Naranjo y Los Gamblers. The group was immediately successful in the dance halls and soon began to make records and appear on the radio. Naranjo's playing was simple and slow, in the Alice style pioneered by Cadena, but irresistibly danceable. Naranjo was not noted as a songwriter, but chose well from the conjunto repertoire. "I wondered why those songs would be hits for him and not for me," remarked later his one-time patron Chano Cadena.

In 1974 the DJ Johnny Canales (who later became a television presenter) gave Naranjo's record "La Estrella" ("The Star") the intensive air play necessary to make it his first hit. Canales also gave the dapper, pencil- moustached Naranjo his first showbiz nickname "El Clark Gable de la Onda Chicana" (the "Onda Chicana", the "Chicana Wave", referring to the surge of popularity the music of Mexican-Americans - Chicanos - was experiencing at that time). By the end of a decade of hard touring and prolific recording, Naranjo had acquired two more sobriquets: "El Mero" ("The Boss") and "El Si Senor", after the shout of "Si Senor!" he used to punctuate his accordion breaks on stage.

During the 1980s the Chicana Wave rolled on, with the major record labels getting into the market for what became known as Tejano music and certain new artists achieving national and even international success. The most notable of these was Selena, the glamorous young singer from Corpus Christi whose rapid rise to stardom was cut short with her murder in 1995; since this time conjunto music's popularity has receded.

Naranjo worked steadily and constantly through the changing scene, touring the big indoor dance halls of Texas in his old grey van and trailer - he never acquired the flashily customised coach which became de rigueur among top Mexican conjuntos, although he commanded top fees. Always in a smart suit and standing straight, immobile but for a tapping foot in front of the microphone, he squeezed out his polkas to crowds of up to 2,000 people. Young and old all came to dance, never stand and watch, because his danceability was what made him El Mero.

Ruben Naranjo, singer and accordionist: born Alice, Texas 22 February 1945; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Alice, Texas 12 October 1998.