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Sombrilla

The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Nuevo Tejano

AJ Castillo ’08

AJ Castillo prefers his Louis Vuitton sunglasses to cowboy hats, and he is not apologizing for it.

In fact, he credits his blend of traditional Tejano and cumbia mixed with hip hop and R&B for his many young fans.

“A lot of artists are used to the way they’ve been doing things for the last 15 years, and they don’t want to grow or expand,” he said. “They get comfortable. And when you get comfortable, someone new is gonna come along and take your spot. You’ve got to be hungry.”

Castillo’s style seems to be working both with fans, who now number at least 700 per concert, and with critics. In 2010, he won Best New Male Artist at the Tejano Music Awards and was named the Tejano Academy’s Best Emerging Artist and Accordion Player of the Year. He also just signed an endorsement deal with Hohner accordions. In October, he released a DVD that includes live performances of his songs and background stories about some of the tracks.

Castillo, 27, graduated from UTSA in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He credits his experience at the school with helping him grow up away from his family’s home in Austin, which allowed him to gain independence.

He also came to UTSA to work the music scene in San Antonio.

As a 10-year-old in South Austin, Castillo began playing his grandfather’s accordion around the house. By 13, he was playing in the family’s Tejano band alongside his father, Arturo.

When he came to San Antonio, Castillo was able to work with Tejano Grammy award winners Gilbert Velasquez (who produced A.B. Quintanilla and Selena, among others), David Lee Garza and Grammy nominee Ram Herrera.

Now, Castillo is on his own and reinventing the genre. Many of his songs are traditional Tejano or cumbias that he remakes with a sharper, more modern sound. He and his 19-year-old brother, Sergio, who is a vocalist in the band, project a masculine image onstage (his concert crowds are 70 percent women).

In his music video for the cumbia “Todo Me Gusta de Ti,” Castillo has a beautiful girl on each arm in a chic nightclub.

“I lean more toward the hip hop generation,” said Castillo, although he grew up idolizing Tejano stars La Sombra, Mazz, Jay Perez and David Lee Garza. He designs his own blinged-out accordions and has a large tattoo that wraps around his upper right arm. Graffiti-like fonts title his videos.

His fans love it, and Castillo loves them back.

He has had performances all over Texas and in Topeka, Kan.; Milwaukee, Wis.; and Tucson, Ariz. With a Facebook fan page with 5,000 people, a Myspace page full of updates and videos, and a new collection of songs called The MixTape that he is giving away to anyone who asks for it, Castillo makes sure he is in touch with his base. In fact, he included his personal cell phone number on his last CD, and now says he receives hundreds of calls per week.

Castillo said he will keep trying new things on his independent label. “I am going to continue to make music the way that I want it to sound. I want my sound to be more international, and to expand to different genres as well. I want us to continue to grow.”

—Erin Eggers

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