To hear Uzziel Pecina (one of Trio Aztlan's founding members) tell the story, the group's development has been a matter of negotiation with its environment and its audience. For the past decade, a debate has raged between musical purists who disapproved of the band and those constantly pushing it to expand its boundaries. One of the conclusions Pecina has come to accept from such talk is that the band was a new breed from the start.
The band initially decided to perform boleros in an effort to find a niche. "I wanted to join a mariachi band," Pecina says. "My voice wasn't good, and I just wanted to stand back there with the hat and look pretty and play. But there wasn't room for me in the mariachi groups around here, so I just thought maybe I would do my own thing.
"I met Luis Portillo when we were put together to play a fund-raiser," he continues. "We started playing around, and we noticed that many of the songs I knew were boleros that I learned at K-State with some of my Puerto Rican and Latin American friends, and then it just dawned on us. We don't need an eight-piece band. We don't have to go find trumpeters and violins and all that stuff. We decided we could do it ourselves."
The new trio ran into considerable resistance. "As a 22-year-old, a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old, we weren't given much of a chance," Pecina remembers. "We were too young to understand the music, according to a lot of the older folks and established musicians."
Even their first break almost didn't happen. "We'd heard through the grapevine that Manny Lopez was looking for a mariachi band," Pecina says. "We only knew thirteen songs. We went in to play for Manny, and at first he didn't like us at all. He wanted a mariachi, and our voices weren't loud -- we were still shy, and we were still holding back. But he was convinced by two other people there, Tony Villegas and Bob Garcia, to give these boys a chance and see what they can do. And so Manny would put us out on a weeknight, and he would have us go out in the middle of the room and play, and he would be in the background saying, 'Louder, louder, louder!' We would play those thirteen songs in one room, go to the next room, and play those thirteen songs in there. And ever since then, we've tried to learn songs that people would ask for. We've tried to please our fans."
The effort has often met with mixed results. "About three years ago, we incorporated a friend of ours, Juan Porraz, who played the accordion. A lot of people loved the Tex-Mex sound and the nortena sound that we were playing with him. But then we had people who were criticizing us, saying we were not a nortena band. We were still a trio and don't go away from it. But we have never been the purist type of Mexican musicians," Pecina says. "We all grew up here in the States, so we have all different kinds of influences. I absolutely love blues, jazz and rock and roll, and that comes from my dad, who was an immigrant. But then we also grew up listening to traditional Mexican singers like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, the famous trios of Mexico, Trio los Panchos, Los Dandy's, and Los Tres Ases. Then in the '70s and '80s, we had disco, punk, rap and acid rock. So when we play, that comes out."
The band's musical diversity is compounded by each member's background. "Luis Portillo is classically trained, and he went to the conservatory, so he has a whole different view on the Mexican style. And Ulyses Torres is from a tremendous musical family. His dad was a professional musician in Mexico, and his grandfather was a professional musician, so it is just a blend of musics, a sopa," he says.
But the band didn't set out to be different. It had to learn to accept its mission.
"We tried to replicate what was on the records that we wanted to learn, and it never came out, and we never understood why," Pecina says. "It wasn't until later that I realized it was because of our influences that the music was going to be different, and that shook me down. I'd be a little disappointed, and it would make us try harder. But the harder we tried, the more the differences would come out."
Fortunately, Aztlan was met with an equal and opposite reaction from some encouraging places. "Other people would say, 'I love your sound! You guys are unique.' And we would hear this, believe it or not, from my cousins from Mexico. When I'd go down there, I'd take my guitar, and I'd play some stuff that I thought would be Mexican enough for them, and they would absolutely love it because they heard the blues influence. They heard the jazz, and they loved it," Pecina says.
Grupo Aztlan features three additional members on percussion -- Pat Conway, Mike DeLeon Jr. (whose father played in Mambo X) and Victor Velasco. Ironically, this new instrumentation not only allows for the salsa, meringue and rock to blend but also more accurately captures the sound of those old bolero records. "We've never had percussion behind us as a trio," Pecina explains. "But if you listen to the traditional trio records, they always do. Even when we perform as a trio, we often bring along with us two percussionists, so they fill in the background, and it sounds beautiful."
A large part of Aztlan's audience has continued to push the band to try new things. "At the restaurant, we were always bombarded," Pecina says. "People would ask us to play Lynyrd Skynyrd for them or Van Halen. If they asked for the Beatles, boom, we would play a Beatles song for them. If they ask for funk, we throw some funk at them. We play some Santana now. We've realized our horizons. We've realized that we can expand."
But Pecina insists Grupo Atzlan will always return to its bolero roots. "I have been resisting going into salsa because the bolero for the trio is what we created," he says. "It has been our bread and butter for ten years. But I love playing salsa and meringue. It's the first time for me, as a Mexican, to be playing these Caribbean sounds, and it's enticing."
That enticement is what makes Grupo Aztlan special for its fans and for the musicians themselves. "Latin Americans happen to be some of the luckiest people on the earth, because we can listen to U.S. music and the beautiful Latin American music that we have in our own cultures, and we can appreciate both worlds," Pecina says. "That's what I'm doing now. I'm just eating it all up."