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Published: Wednesday, 7/5/2006

Versatile Toledo performer Jesse Ponce immerses listeners in Hispanic heritage

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jesse Ponce fingers an accordion. The Toledoan borrowed an accordion from a friend and six weeks
later, after practicing 12 to 16 hours a day, performed with other musicians at a wedding. Jesse Ponce fingers an accordion. The Toledoan borrowed an accordion from a friend and six weeks later, after practicing 12 to 16 hours a day, performed with other musicians at a wedding.
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After moving to Toledo from Texas in 1979, Jesse Ponce was eager to start playing upbeat polkas and sentimental ballads in a conjunto band.

A skilled bajo sexto guitarist who had toured internationally with Grammy winners Ry Cooder and Flaco Jimenez, Mr. Ponce searched for an accordionist who would drive the Tex-Mex melodies he learned as a child from his father and brothers in San Antonio.

"I found some [accordion players] but not the quality I was looking for. It was more headaches than anything else," Mr. Ponce says. In addition to accordion and bajo sexto, conjunto bands often include drums, bass, and keyboard.

He eventually borrowed a button accordion from a friend and practiced 12 and even 16 hours a day. Six weeks later, with some other musicians, he played accordion at a wedding.

"I feel I have music in my blood," Mr. Ponce says.

Soft spoken, lean, and tall, Mr. Ponce, 63, lives in a studio apartment on the northern edge of downtown Toledo. He doesn't perform much because of kidney problems that require him to undergo dialysis threetimes a week and leave him exhausted.

He is, however, recording a second album of labor and folk songs with Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. And he appreciates the attention he has received in the last year.

He's the subject of a new, 28-minute video produced by WBGU-TV (Channel 27) in Bowling Green. He released a 17-song CD, "Playing from the Heart," that was a hit on a San Antonio radio station, and he received a Heritage Award from the Ohio Arts Council for sharing his cultural gifts.

"I didn't get recognized in Texas, there's so many good musicians. Ohio has given me a lot of recognition," he says.

In the spotlight

The CD and video were done with the support of several people who believe in Mr. Ponce and wanted to promote northwest Ohio's Hispanic culture, says Lucy Long, an assistant professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University. She wrote grants for and helped produce both projects.

"Each individual has a story, and when the story reflects the larger community, it is significant for the story to be told," Ms. Long says. "He's an incredibly good musician. He's very versatile in a lot of styles. He has a real love and respect for the traditional Mexican music."

Mr. Ponce, left, with Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Mr. Ponce is recording a second album of labor and folk songs with Mr. Velasquez. Mr. Ponce, left, with Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Mr. Ponce is recording a second album of labor and folk songs with Mr. Velasquez.
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And after years as a backup musician, Mr. Ponce wanted a moment in the spotlight.

David Harnish, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at BGSU, says he and Ms. Long intended the recording to represent the conjunto style in the Toledo community. "But it turned into a more personal CD," Mr. Harnish says.

Mr. Ponce wanted his nephew, who lived in Texas, to play drums on the disc. He also asked Mr. Harnish and Ms. Long (a guitarist and fiddler, respectively) to join in on some tracks. And he added several songs. Recording sessions at Indian Ridge Studio in Delta, scheduled for four hours, sometimes stretched into 14 hours, and took a year.

Jesus "Jesse" Ponce was the fourth of six sons, and one of 10 children reared in a three-room home in San Antonio. Jesus "Jesse" Ponce was the fourth of six sons, and one of 10 children reared in a three-room home in San Antonio.
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"He likes to help people," says Mr. Harnish, noting that Mr. Ponce and Toledo musician Frank Ibarra have been stalwart performers at the Sofia Quintero Center, at churches, in jails, and for FLOC events. In the 1980s, Mr. Ponce started a Toledo band, Sal & Pimienta, with his son Bruce Lee Ponce and others.

Jesus "Jesse" Ponce was the fourth of six sons, and one of 10 children reared in a three-room home in San Antonio. The boys slept on the floor of one room, the girls in another.

When he was very small, his Spanish-speaking parents traveled Texas, picking cotton; he remembers snakes in the sandy soil and being frightened of coyotes he heard scratching at the cotton gin near where the family slept.

In the 1940s, the family moved to the city so the children could attend school. Their mother was a homemaker who had a beautiful voice. Their father worked as a handyman and played violin, guitar, accordion, and stand-up bass.

Mr. Ponce remembers a family dinner that consisted of a single tortilla. His older sister said to put lard and salt on it and share it.

When Jesse's three older brothers were about 8 to 12 years old, their father organized a band, Conjunto Ponce. At dance halls and house parties, the musicians played waltzes, polkas, and emotional rancheras, and all earnings went toward household expenses. Not wanting to be left behind, 5-year-old Jesse climbed onto a chair and learned to play the upright bass. "I noticed it didn't have any frets. The hardest part was trying to find where the notes were or where the chords were."

But he really wanted to play the big bajo sexto, a guitar with 12 thick strings and nonstandard tuning. It belonged to his older brothers, but when they were drafted into the army, Jesse, then about 10, taught himself to play. Friday nights, his father would take him to a bar where young Jesse picked at the guitar and his father played accordion for tips.

There are still painful memories of teachers who embarrassed or pinched him when he didn't know the answer, and of being expelled from school when he was 14 because he didn't have the black shoes required for ROTC class. "I wanted to take music so much and they declined it and made me take ROTC. What can you do? My mother didn't speak English, she couldn't defend me."

He lied about his age to land a job in a slaughterhouse, then a grocery store, and played bajo, electric bass, and upright bass in Tex-Mex, rock, and bluegrass bands. He loved Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. When he bought a wah-wah pedal to create special effects with his amplified guitar, disapproving traditional conjunto musicians stopped calling him for gigs.

He married and had four children, and toured, playing bajo sexto with five-time Grammy winner, accordionist Jimenez, also from San Antonio. "Flaco is a very energetic, very clever musician. He was exciting to play with because he always was discovering new tunes."

In 1976, he jumped at Jimenez's invitation to play bajo in the touring band with guitar impresario Cooder.

"It was exciting because I was meeting people from different cultures," he says. "It's like a good dream."

They played the Grand Ole Opry, and wound up their tour with a December, 1977, appearance on Saturday Night Live. But life as a touring musician took its toll on Mr. Ponce's family life, and his marriage dissolved.

Later, during a gig in Toledo, Mr. Ponce looked up an old girlfriend, Tila Montelongo, and they rekindled their romance. He moved here in 1979; they married and he worked as a plumber until he became ill with diabetes and later, kidney failure. Tila died in 1996.

The pokes of needles from five years of dialysis have created masses of scar tissue on his arm, "I'm losing feeling. I chose my right arm [for the needles] because I play [frets] with my left hand and you have to grip it."

In San Antonio, where the Ponce name is associated with many musicians, a song on Mr. Ponce's album, "Mexican Joe," was a hit for months on KEDA-AM radio, says Ricardo Pena Davila, a co-owner of and DJ at the Texas station.

"It's a good conjunto song," says Mr. Davila, in a telephone interview. "Everybody knows Jesse is a pioneer. You all are very lucky to have him in Ohio."

Adds fellow musician Mr. Ibarra: "He loves to play music and he plays with a lot of happiness."

For information about "Playing from the Heart," contact Indian Ridge Music at 419-923-0100.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.


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