Steve “Rat” Silvas is the musical director and keyboardist for Cañonazo. To many Latin music insiders, the current Austin-based band needs no introduction. Those who follow Tejano music for the past few decades are aware of Silvas’ extensive career playing and recording with big bands. A glimpse of the history behind the artist, who started Cañonazo initially about a decade ago, reveals a youth nine years of age already playing keyboards in the Baptist church where his father was a preacher in Junction and later Colorado City.
Once the family moved to Central Texas in the early 1970s, it meant the start of a different life for Silvas. “I played locally from 1970–1974 with bands such as The Impressions, Dave Gutierrez, Frank Nuñez, and Ray and Rudy Vasquez and The Chicanos. I lived in Waelder, Texas, and they (the bands) would go pick me up and drop me off (from the gigs),” said Silvas in a recent conversation. “So I started to figure I had something (going). I moved to Austin then. ”
Silvas declared 1975 as the beginning of his professional career when he performed with Augustine Ramirez for four years, followed by a couple of years between the Royal Jesters and backing Ruben Ramos. In the early 1980s, he and his brother, Gilbert Alba, started the Super City Band, which allowed them to perform and record together. Silvas stated, “About two years later, Sunny (Ozuna) heard me playing an Armando Manzanero song. Fred Salas had produced a CD for him and Sunny asked me to teach his guys (musicians) how to play boleros.” After performing briefly with the Sunliner band, Silvas returned to Austin. It was during a gig in Chicago with another band that he was picked up by Al Chavarria from Grupo Mayo and from there he started earning lucrative wages for a while.
His life journey brought him back to Austin, and in 1984 he was invited to join Little Joe Hernandez’s popular band, La Familia. This time around, Silvas was not only playing keyboards, but also contributing to arrangements, producing and recording with the Grammy winning outfit. The time and anecdotes Silvas provides about his career with Little Joe y La Familia can fill a volume on its own. Subsequently, Silvas played for a year with Archie Bell and the Drells. More recently, he has performed with his brother’s band, Yayo Castillo y Rumores, as well as Bidi Bidi Banda.
Silvas started Cañonazo about 10 years ago, which included a period with a featured singer from Guadalajara, Carlos Zaira, for one year. “I tried to get him signed with Capital Records – he is a great singer and he had won a Vicente Fernandez vocal competition over there,” Silvas said, but it did not materialize. Subsequently, the lead singers Cañonazo leaned on were a husband/wife team, Tony and Erica Pacheco. Nikki Lopez sang with the band for two years, as well before departing.
A veteran and savvy musician if there ever was one, Silvas has recreated Cañonazo to reflect the dynamic young talent residing around Texas, especially those that are interested in the Tejano genre. “Yes, I was looking for people who have a fresh face and ideas,” he said. The most tenured member of the band at present is Lubbock native, Jazz Garcia, on drums. “Jazz Garcia has played three years with the band. He was not a Tejano player at the beginning – he played more jazz music with NYOB- Not Your Ordinary Band.” Silvas added, “I ran into vocalist Erika Santana doing karaoke – a Selena song. She has a strong voice and in key. So I started looking for musicians.” He added Chris Perez from Gonzalez to play guitar and 21-year old Rogelio Quintanilla, known as “Q,” to play bass guitar. The latter has been with the band two months. Silva remarked, “I do Christian music too and found him (“Q”) at a revival. He played for two bands and he wanted to be in a Tejano band.”
Robby Garza, a 26-year old Eagle Pass native, rounds out the group on vocals. Last October, he placed a close second in the annual Austin Tejano Music Coalition’s Tejano Idol contest. Silvas provided some background on the up-and-coming artist, who he first heard sing during a benefit hosted by Garza’s family members in Austin. “Robby has been with me for about a year. After having Carlos Z in the band, I knew what Robby had and what I could do with him.” Silvas describes Robbie as “a good person; he is a humble, a likeable person with a tremendous voice.”
With the youthful singers on board, Silva discovered there would be a learning curve, though one he knew the talented vocalists would gladly engage. “When Robby came, I wanted him to learn (the song) ‘Tejano Enamorado.’ But he did not know who Latin Breed is. Erika did not know who Laura Canales was. They did not know Jay Perez or Tortilla Factory. Today’s musicians did not grow up on it (Tejano), so a lot of it has to do with that. This is why I am bringing it back.
“Today’s music is okay, but not if it is not strong. Strong music is like Little Joe, Tortilla Factory and Latin Breed. They have a strong sound.” Silvas believes, though, that he does have the ability to recognize that with music, “everybody is unique in their own sound.”
As a musical director, Silvas sees a need to act as a bridge between generations of musicians. He regards the music he has played for over 40 years as a platform to address the next wave of artists. “Since Tejano seems to be fading away a bit, these guys are doing old-school stuff – SINGING – not rapping.” Silvas said he previously gave songs to Robby to learn “and now Robby is calling me about what songs he wants to do. Since Erika learned about Laura Canales, she likes her music and has learned it.”
Silvas shared an exchange he had with local radio personality, Joe Morales, who told him that nobody plays the late Canales’ music, so Silvas is trying to bring back her music. “I’ve got them learning ‘Borrachera’ – Robby said he’d try and I told him he will learn it. I don’t let up, but they do know how to approach me so they can say what they are comfortable with. I tell them if there is something with the arrangement they don’t like, they need to say so, as they will be singing it for the rest of their life.”
Despite the extensive career and all that he is doing with the young new artists, Silvas believes that, “‘Q’ has come a long way, too. I am his–well–I am not a teacher, but everything I know, I teach them. If they are willing to listen, they will learn. I learned from people I played with in the bands and those that are in other bands.”
Silvas has a unique perspective about the vocalists he calls bandmates with Cañonazo. “I let the singers take the limelight. I want them to be recognized as the stars. I see it as selfish to have my name in the band. We call it our band. It takes everybody to make a unit. I don’t do it be myself.”
Currently, the band is in the studio recording, allowing more teaching moments for Silvas. “I am starting them on the recording aspect,” said Silvas. “We are in the arranging mode. I am sharing what I learned – with the singers to the drummer – front row to the back row.” The goal is to have the CD completed by March, as there is a surprise planned in April centering on Erika Santana.
“I don’t want this music to be forgotten and I’m using these guys to be role models for the younger artists who want to come out as musicians and singers.”