By Monique Quintero
On a Saturday evening in Pico Rivera, California, Antonio Alcalá sits at his kitchen table with the youngest of his 11 grandchildren, 8-year-old Alison and 6-year-old Grant Tercero. Retired since Alison was born, he and his wife Leonor (“Grumpy” and “Nana”) have helped raise the kids who live right next door.
The aroma of the dinner that Leonor is cooking fills the room. As the kids watch an episode of Sesame Street, a man appears onscreen and begins to play the clarinet. Their aunt Laura notices that they are enthralled by the music.
“You know, your Grumpy knows how to play that instrument, the clarinet,” she tells them.
Alison and Grant have never seen their grandfather in possession of – much less play – any musical instrument.
Laura uses a stepstool to retrieve a clarinet case from the top shelf of the hall closet. She places it in front of her father. Antonio pauses; it has been a long time since he held that clarinet; it is the one that he always played with his brothers in their tamborazo band.
Antonio carefully assembles his clarinet. Without any explanation, Antonio places the instrument to his lips and plays the notes of a nursery rhyme – something to which the kids can easily relate. He then plays some Mexican music.
“Why were you keeping this a secret from us?” Alison demands.
Leonor laughs and begins to serve the food. She insists the kids eat their dinner, even while their grandfather continues to play.
After everyone finishes eating, Antonio shows the kids all the parts of the clarinet (including the reed), how to put it together, where to place their fingers, and how to blow on it.
The kids continue with their questions. They want to know why they didn’t know their Grumpy could play musical instruments and why he doesn’t play anymore.
* * *
Antonio Alcalá was born on September 2, 1922 in Morley, Colorado, the fourth of 10 children who survived past toddler age (there were 18 altogether). His father, Guadalupe, had been working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Always called “Antolino,” he grew up surrounded by his father’s musical endeavors.
Guadalupe Alcalá had mastered the bamboo flute and then the clarinet in his hometown of Cueva Grande, Zacatecas (located in north central Mexico). In 1916, he formed a tamborazo band in the middle of the Mexican Revolution. They were in great demand, but often the band had to travel at night and hide during the day. When rebels hired them to play, they were paid with Villista money – which they later discovered had no value in Zacatecas.
Tamborazo Zacatecano (drumbeat from Zacatecas), is a style of Mexican music originally performed with a continuous, heavy percussion line consisting of the tambora (bass drum) and varied redoblante/tarola (snare drum) rolls – along with the clarinet. Other musical instruments – the saxophone, trumpet, valve trombone, saxor (alto horn) and tuba – were added over time.
When Antolino was 9 years old, his father’s band played 1920s and 1930s dance music and included Antolino’s older brothers – Lupe (Guadalupe Jr.) on drums and Robert on trumpet. Once at a gig in Trinidad County, Colorado, Lupe was delayed at his job and couldn’t make it. Their father called Antolino over to the drum kit and demonstrated how to play a couple of songs. When the drumsticks were placed in his hands, Antolino played back the exact drumbeat sequence that he had just heard.
His father then went out and bought Antolino a new suit for the gig that made him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Antolino quickly became a skilled drummer; he played until age 19 when he then took up the clarinet. Later, in his 50s, he would master the saxophone after he bought a used one for $25 at a swap meet.
Like many others during the Great Depression, Antolino’s family followed the available work; from mining in Colorado to the sugar beet fields in Rapid City, South Dakota, back to Colorado. He, his father, and brothers continued to perform big band dance music. Then in 1932, Guadalupe moved the family to Cueva Grande, Zacatecas – where none of his children except his oldest son had ever visited.
There Guadalupe formed a band with his sons – Manuel, Robert, Lupe, Antolino, and Feliciano (Chano) – but instead of American dance music, he told them they would now play tamborazo. Eventually Manuel left; he enrolled in school to become a teacher. In 1943, Robert and Lupe went to join the United States Navy and fight in World War II. Antolino, Juan and Chano continued to perform with their father.
When Antolino married Leonor in 1942, he discovered from his birth certificate that his actual name was “Antonio.” He came to California in 1945 to enlist in the United States military, but was rejected due to flat feet. Leonor followed two years later with their daughter, Lee, and son, Hector. Antonio and Leonor added three more daughters to their family – Anna Maria, Theresa and Laura. Antonio continued to play music off and on at family gatherings with his brothers and brothers-in-law, but his main focus for the next 30 years was to earn a living and take care of his family.
By the early 1970s, Antonio and his younger brother Juan would sit in with a Latin dance band that played mambos, cha-cha, swing, and foxtrots. The brothers then joined two Zacatecan musicians to form the first tamborazo band in Los Angeles.
The band had a promoter who got them a recurring gig on a variety show called “El Show de Aaron Burger” that was broadcast out of a Burbank television station. Many times they were paid with a post-show meal of hamburgers instead of money. A fellow musician told Juan he had heard that the promoter was pocketing the earnings instead of divvying it up among the musicians.
The band had a following by now, and people began to go directly to Juan to hire the band. When Juan refused to let the promoter see the band’s latest contracts, he and Antonio were forced out by the other bandmates, who allied with the promoter and replaced them with musicians from Tijuana.
Juan and Antonio set out to form their own tamborazo band – by recruiting their brothers; Robert (who had been playing mariachi music) on trumpet, Chano on clarinet, Lupe on the redoblante/tarola (snare drum), and Chencho on the tambora (bass drum), who they flew in from Oakland on weekends. Antonio continued on clarinet and Juan on trumpet. They were also joined by two saxophone players whom Antonio and Juan had met in the Latin dance band, brothers David and Nacho Santana.
Their former promoter and bandmates were not happy to hear that they had competition.
By 1972, Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá (Zacatecan Drumbeat by The Alcalá Brothers) performed at rodeos, parades and private parties throughout Southern California – from Ventura down to San Diego. They were hired to perform at Disneyland for a week (backing Antonio Aguilar, the “Johnny Cash of Zacatecas”) and at Magic Mountain. They inaugurated the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, a Mexican rodeo venue. They performed as the backup band at recording sessions. For several years they appeared in the East Los Angeles Mexican Independence Day Parade. Often after special events, they were hired to continue their performance at bars and private homes.
The band never needed to hire a promoter; weekends were consistently booked. Their wives, children, grandchildren and only sister would often attend gigs. Audience members would hang around afterwards and reminisce with the brothers. Several times those who approached turned out to be long-lost relatives.
Once after a gig, the band returned to their van to find it burglarized; gone were the music cassettes that catalogued their songs. Sometime later a nephew of Leonor’s was at a local swap meet when he heard some familiar strains of tamborazo music. He followed the sounds to a vendor who was selling CD copies of what he later discovered was the stolen music of Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá.
Throughout these years, the brothers maintained full-time jobs. Most were grandfathers, some had kids in college, some were empty-nesters. They did not want music careers, they disliked the industry’s games. They preferred instead to negotiate their own contracts. Sometimes their gigs cost them more in gas and hotels than what they earned. What mattered most was their love of tamborazo and that they were together every weekend.
It was therefore a natural decision that while at the top of their game in 1982, the brothers agreed to stop performing together. Juan continued with his own tamborazo band into the early 1990s. He finally quit after younger band members wanted to play modernized arrangements of tamborazo and told him, “We don’t need you anymore.”
Antonio, meanwhile, was hit hard when his brother Lupe died from liver cancer in 1984. No music was played or listened to in his home for over a year. After that he would occasionally play his clarinet and saxophone when he joined former bandmates Nacho and David Santana for dance band gigs at the Santa Fe Springs Community Center. Antonio gave one of his clarinets to his grandson, Jeff, when he joined his school band. His other musical instruments made their way into the hallway closet.
* * *
In 2000, Antonio and Leonor’s daughter Laura took them back to Cueva Grande, Zacatecas, where people remembered that the Alcalá family band had played the best tamborazo music. Later they visited the city of Jerez, where on Sundays bands in the plaza can be hired to play. They walked around until they found a band with a sound similar to that of Los Hermanos Alcalá. The saxophone player turned out to be Manuel – also known as “El Filoso” (“the sharp one”) – who as a fledgling musician had learned so much from the Alcalá brothers while performing with them in Los Angeles. Antonio joined his former bandmate on the snare drum.
The Alcalá family’s contribution to tamborazo was documented in 2014, when Antonio was interviewed by a Zacatecas city radio station for their “History of Zacatecas” segment – and again in 2015 when Onesimo Alcalá (the youngest brother who played the tambora in the final years of Los Hermanos Alcalá) was interviewed for the television show “Crónicas de Calera.”
Antonio turned 95 in 2017. He lost his only son unexpectedly in 2001 and his wife in 2016. He has health problems, but is cared for by his daughters. He listens to music every day. He sometimes has two CD players on the kitchen table.
There is a twinkle in his eye when he recalls stories about Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá. He smiles when he hears his daughter Laura speaking of his great-grandchildren; Nathan plays piano and clarinet, Anthony studies voice, and Lauren and Lukas play piano and sing.
On Christmas Day, at home surrounded by his family, he was serenaded by Nathan on clarinet with “Heroes and Glory.” Gianna performed a Christmas carol – on the harmonica which she had just received that morning.