Record producer and musician Gabriel Zavala is perfectly content letting his significant other bask in the spotlight.
Of course, that’s a no-brainer when your partner is Grammy-nominated Tejano artist Stefani Montiel, the talented pop singer who fronts the dance floor provocateurs Lush.
But that doesn’t mean Zavala, a four-time Grammy nominee as a record producer, doesn’t have his own adoring fans.
You see, he’s also the host of KSAT’s popular “Tejano y Mas,” and he’s experienced firsthand the power that TV can have.
“The door guy at Walmart is always saying hi,” said Zavala, 33. “I do get recognized a bit.”
Only the Walmart guy may not realize “Tejano y Mas” is just one of Zavala’s many hats.
He’s easy to miss. Zavala prefers staying in the background. With Lush, he mans a Yamaha MOTIF XS6 keyboard and laptop computer, playing symphonic riffs along with programmed flourishes.
Zavala was born in Tyler and grew up in Jacksonville, a small rural community in East Texas.
He never really knew his father, an aspiring singer-songwriter with Nashville dreams named Gary Allen Mann. Zavala is his mother, Lydia’s, maiden name.
As a kid, Zavala played drums, piano, guitar, bass and accordion.
“All my uncles wanted me to play their instruments,” he explained. “I kinda learned them all at the same time.”
He describes his childhood music education as “whatever was on the radio.” That meant everything from Chicano rock ’n’ roll, Little Joe y La Familia and the Texas Tornados to MC Hammer and Paul Abdul.
But it was a documentary about Quincy Jones (“Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones,” 1990) that had the greatest impact on the self-described music geek.
Zavala was 12 years old.
“At that moment, I just felt that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “He talked about being behind the scenes and taking care of artists without being in the limelight, and that always stuck with me.”
His path to that dream has been admittedly haphazard. Zavala quit high school after his sophomore year and moved to Corpus Christi to play in bands at the tale end of Tejano’s Selena era.
“I regret it. I didn’t realize that there were so many possibilities (for music education) in college,” he said.
However, that decision led him to Montiel, who was looking to form a band. They met in San Antonio.
“We were hanging out like crazy,” Zavala recalled. “It was like we were soul mates. It was really cool hanging out with her, and that developed into a relationship.”
Now he produces her albums, including the Grammy-nominated “Divina,” which sported an edgy Donna Summer-ish vibe and dance floor attitude, as well as reflecting upheaval and heartbreak in Zavala’s and Montiel’s personal life. They’ve been together for 17 years.
“It was getting kind of crazy,” Zavala said. “It was like a pretty big bump. We broke up for awhile. It was just so strange because everything that was happening, Stef took that emotion and put it in the songs.” Keeping the romantic side of things separate from the professional side can be impossible at times.
“That’s one of the things we’ve struggled with,” Montiel said with a giggle. “Absolutely.”
Facing those emotions head-on is characteristic of Zavala, who hates to play it safe. In his own way as a producer — he’s also worked with Chris Perez and Los TexManiacs — he’s infusing the ailing Tejano music scene with contemporary sounds.
“It’s just soul, that’s the one thing that Tejano really lacks,” said Zavala, who is producing new albums for Montiel, A.J. Castillo and David Marez.
“There are a lot of artists that are scared of breaking tradition. They feel radio won’t play them or Tejano fans won’t like them. There are a lot of Tejano artists out there that love rap, that love rock. But for some reason, when it
comes time to create in the studio, this wall goes up. What I’m trying to do with all the artists that I work with is break down those walls.”
Fans don’t always get it, he acknowledged – “Divina” included.
“Overall, we accomplished what we wanted to, and we definitely made a statement,” he said. “That’s why we continue to push the boundaries a little bit.”
It's telling that extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter, record producer, musician and TV host Gabriel Zavala is feeling frustrated in his efforts to “expand the horizons of Tejano.”
“I've had some people tell me that what I'm doing is not Tejano,” said Zavala, 34, whose boundary-pushing music is influenced by hip-hop, pop and electronica.
“I'm afraid that I may have completely overshot the genre, and that what I was trying to do has begun to backfire. I've always tried to make music appealing to a younger generation.”
But Zavala, who hosts the “Tejano y Mas” TV show, is being way too hard on himself worrying about a perceived cold shoulder from the industry.
The reality is that the 2013 TMAs — from its nominees and performers to its presenters — reflect (imperfectly or not) the genre's love of the old guard and its changing face and new attitudes.
Saturday's lineup of performers and presenters includes upstarts Ruido Añejo, La Conquista, Los Bad Apples and Sebastien De La Cruz, as well as standard bearers Grupo Siggno, Elida Reyna, Stefani Montiel, Shelly Lares, Jay Perez, Ram Herrera and many others.
The TMAs begin at 7 p.m.; red carpet from 5:15-6:15 p.m. Compete list of nominees and performers available at www.tejanomusicawards. com.
Cacy Savala is nominated for best new female artist and plans to perform her new single, “Amor Desesperado.” The nomination is huge for the San Angelo native, who said she has dreamed of the moment since she was a kid.
“We do definitely need to grasp the younger generation,” said Savala, 32, who feels a kinship to artists such as Ricky Valenz and Zavala.
“It's really important to evolve and grow because things have changed. It's important to keep the young generation involved just as much as the generation that was around in the '80s and '90s.”
But that's where a lot of the fun is. Saturday pits David Farias against his friend and former bandmate Max Baca (as well as himself) in the conjunto category. Farias is a former member of the Grammy-winning Los TexManiacs.
“I have two chances to win,” joked Farias about the TMAs.
“It means a lot,” Baca added. “It's right here in our backyard.
Tejano star Sunny Sauceda said the TMAs are a time to look beyond the backbiting and politics. He described the vibe as a “family reunion.”
“Things are changing,” Sauceda said.
“There are a lot of new faces, and they're sticking together like the rappers. They're all connected. I see Gabriel Zavala connected to all these new artists. His vision is to create something, new, fresh, hip and outside of the realm of the spectrum of stereotypical Tejano. I like what he's doing. I want a piece of that.
Zavala will keep pushing. “Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy for the nomination. But I wish there were more 14-year-olds, 15- year-olds, 17-year-olds that were nominated,” he said.
BY HECTOR SALDAÑA / EXPRESS-NEWS : JULY 26, 2011
PUBLISHED: MARCH 13, 2013
As singer Stefani Montiel's husband/producer, as a member of Lush, and as the host of Tejano y Másfor the last four years (KSAT Channel 12, 11:30 p.m. Saturdays), up until now Gabriel Zavala has done his best to adjust to what "being a Tejano musician" was: a mild polka beat here, a little sax and keyboards there, corny (and awkward) Spanish-language lyrics, and a desire to play "for the fans."
He's been just one in a long list of Tejano musicians stubbornly embracing a genre that has been on life support since, well, forever; especially since Selena's and Emilio's and La Mafia's heyday in the '90s. But two things happened to Zavala, and he's now a man on a mission: to offer a more contemporary, sophisticated, and edgy version of the genre.
The first turning point took place in 2010, when Stefani Montiel's Divina (which he produced) lost a Best Tejano Album Grammy to Los Texmaniacs'Borders y Bailes in 2010.
"We strongly felt [Divina] was the one," Zavala told the Current. "We worked so hard on that one." The loss (a fair one, since the conjunto-based Borders y Bailes was superb) proved to be a blessing in disguise: it opened Zavala's and Montiel's eyes to the fact that, rather than continuing to rehash an old formula, they had to find their own sound.
Zavala's first solo album, released last August, sent a somewhat misleading message: on the surface, Algo Alternativo ("something alternative") seems to be yet another Tejano concoction, but a closer listen shows strong tracks, imaginative arrangements, and a cry for help: "Yo sé que pronto llega mi hora favorita" ("I know my favorite hour is coming soon"), he sings on the title track. His "favorite hour" may well be Montiel's imminent new release, Paraíso (Paradise), which will include — thank God — more English-language tracks than usual.
"Let's face it: we're not that, how could I say this… fluent in Spanish" said the multi-instrumentalist Zavala. "What's the point of singing in Spanish when we don't speak it that often? You have to be true to yourself and do what you're best at."
Judging by a few tracks he played for me, Paraíso confirms Zavala as a producer to reckon with, but it's still only a glimpse of what may be: Zavala taking upon himself the reinvention of a genre that desperately needs a make-over; if anyone could do it, it's him.
Friday's Tejano y Más industry mixer is open to the public and a good chance to start bidding farewell to Zavala's and Montiel's old selves: yes, Tejano fans will find what they would expect from a "Tejano."
"But hopefully they'll find some more," Zavala said before shooting a little joke. "After all, my show is Tejano y Más [Tejano and More], isn't it? This is it for us. We're entering new territory, and we're not looking back."