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Studying the origin of music, a musician learns about himself

By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
April 12, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.
Updated April 11, 2012 at 11:12 p.m.

Robert Ojeda laughs as he reflects on his long relationship with Tejano music, ranging from ranchera to polka and cumbia.

Quotes about music

"Music happens to be an art form that transcends language."

- Herbie Hancock

"Music is the best means we have of digesting time."

- W.H. Auden

"My music had roots which I'd dug up from my own childhood, musical roots buried in the darkest soil."

- Ray Charles

Source: brainquote.com

PORT LAVACA - With a sharp pull of his fingers across the strings, Robert Rivera Ojeda filled the small room of his home studio with sound.

Strumming his guitar with a confident hand, he began to sing an old song.

The beat thumping across the guitar strings came from a polka brought across the sea by German settlers. The melody originated in Old California. The words were from the days of the California Gold Rush, when the Old West was still the new frontier.

But it's a familiar tune. When he adjusts the beat and slides the words into English, it's unmistakable:

"Oh, Susaaaaaasanah. Oh, don't you cry for me. I've come from Aaaalabama with a banjo on my knee."

This is what Ojeda does, tracing the origins of the songs that have been a part of his world since childhood. For Ojeda, the world opened up when he started learning about the music he has loved since he was a kid. In learning the history of the music, he learned about himself.

"This is what developed here. This is our roots," he said, as he continued to strum the melody on his guitar.

He was only 12 years old when he started playing music, eagerly blurting out the notes in band class and the Tejano songs he grew up with in the band he formed with his friends.

They played their first gig in a small neighborhood cantina in Port Lavaca, and from that moment on, Ojeda was hooked.

He worked hard to become a good trumpet player, picking up some skill on the bass guitar, the guitar and eventually the violin and piano along the way.

Still, he tried to be practical. Growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, he could still remember the days that he and his friends were forbidden to speak Spanish in school. Their cultural history wasn't taught, and he wasn't expected to attend college after high school graduation.

He was always playing music, but he began taking the path expected of him. He was married with two children and working as a stock clerk. He couldn't move up in the company because he only had a high school education.

It seemed that would be his life - stock clerk by day and musician by night - when a friend told him he should get an education and showed him how to enroll in college.

He started out studying business, but when he found out they offered music classes, he began taking those as well. All of his skills improved. He could read music a little, but he became a stronger reader, a stronger composer.

"It just gives you another perspective when you look at something like this. I'd never realized you could actually sing notes. I'd always played them on the trumpet, but singing them with your voice? I didn't even realize that was possible," he said.

After bouncing around various junior colleges, he enrolled in the University of California - Santa Cruz. There he began studying his music - musica chicana - in earnest. Ojeda dug into the songs that were so familiar he could play them in his sleep. He looked at who wrote them, where they came from, what they used to mean and how that meaning had changed. No matter how much he dug in, there was always something more to unearth, another piece to the puzzle of how songs are shaped and molded as they are passed down through time and collective memory.

"It's like a thread," Ojeda said. "I look at who wrote it, when did it happen. I learn that and then it has a different meaning to me now."

While he was learning the origins of the music he loved, Ojeda never stopped playing. He kept his day job, but music was when he was doing the work he loved.

One day, after five years as an inventory control manager, he knew he had to change things and find a way to do the work he loved.

"It's not about the money. Money comes and it goes. It's about the work," he said.

Since then, he has thrown himself into the music. He teaches mariachi music, plays all kinds of music whenever he gets the chance. Now when he picks up a guitar or trumpet to play a song, he can trace it's origins through his mind as clearly as he can transcribe the notes and rhythms to the page.

He got involved with the California Arts Council and found out that there are people out there who valued what he knew about where the music comes from.

He recently earned his master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix and his dream is to share what he knows about his music as a teacher.

He does presentations now, pulling out his collection of instruments and taking people through the history of the songs as he plays them. He doesn't want that history to be forgotten.

"I love to get the chance to explain what our music is about, where it all comes from. It all mixes together eventually, but it's important to know our roots," he said.

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