By RENE TORRES
Special to the NEWS/PRESS
Narciso “Chicho” Martinez was born with a gift bestowed to few. He was a musician who could not read a note, but his innate love for music made him one of the most popular musicians in Spanish-speaking nations and communities here in the states.
In the 1930s, his tunes dominated the radio waves. When the people of then dialed in any Mexican, Cuban or Latin American station —there was no escape from his brand of music.
The sound of his accordion traveled faster than the spoken word, aided by the radio and the jukebox. More than ever before, his music attracted a larger audience beyond the radio.
In an earlier period in Brownsville, the picturesque street musicians provided music for every occasion. From dusk on, those relics of the past walked the streets of the city, especially around the Market Square area playing music for every occasion.
As time progressed the radio took center stage in almost every living room in America, and the jukebox had countless listeners.
The popular “music machine” found in every tavern carried Chicho’s music throughout the streets, alleys and rooftops that lined the local “cantinas,” adding flavor to the ambience of hardship.
According to Chicho, among the cantina favorites were—Muchacha Bonita, El Jilguero, Cubanita, La Chinita and Carrejo. And just like Beethoven, his music, “struck fire from the heart of man, and brought tears to the eyes of woman.”
It was late during the “Depression Era,” between 1937 and 1939, that the man and his music reached the pinnacle of success—cutting about 50 records, all original compositions born from the land and folklore of the Rio Grande Valley.
Speaking in the 1940s from his La Paloma, Texas, ranch house, Chicho commented, “I don’t wish to take all the credit. There is a guitar player from Brownsville named Santiago Almeida who teams up with me on polishing the songs.”
Although Chicho was a brilliant musician, neither he nor his partner ever attempted to write lyrics or words for his tunes.
“Neither I nor Santiago knows a note,” the 31-year-old Chicho explained, “but somehow the songs just come from the heart.”
In 1944, a Brownsville journalist wrote, “Chicho’s songs have a basic simplicity and warm charm that comes only with genuine music of the soil—music of the people. That’s exactly why this brush country vaquero is piercing together music that’s bound to click with his people and with folks that appreciate Mexican music.”
Chicho’s musical recordings hit a dry spell during the war years, forcing him to work from sun-up to sun-down producing cotton instead of music.
World War II interrupted the daily lives of all Americans, including Chicho’s ability to record new songs—especially because of the scarcity of good accordions.
“I used to play for barn dances in the Valley but cut that out to preserve my accordion as long as possible. Without it, I’m lost. There are many accordions, but only one Hohner,” said Chicho referencing the brand of his quality accordion.
Unfortunately, because Chicho and Santiago lacked business sense and bargaining power, his ability to make money suffered. From his 50 recordings he and Santaigo recorded, they only made $500 and $250, respectively, each.
The musical movement he created survived through the decades—producing songs not as they were, but as he saw them. During the Depression his music, perhaps for a short time, erased the pains of the era.
His music also had an impact during WWII—using short-wave radio that played his valses rancheros and polkas, he brought smiles and created new fans overseas.
In the beginning, he was described as a brush country troubadour, later he became a legend and today, he is an institution. Chicho is no longer with us, but his music will live forever.
Editor’s Note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian, and humanitarian with a wealth of community service to his credit.