Left to right: Violinist Ruben Ortiz, Juan Carlos Sigala and guitarron player Marco Ortiz performs with Mariachi Centenario at an outdoor event. (Mariachi Centenario)

Throughout his life, Juan Carlos Sigala has been around celebrations and family members clad in traditional charro – sombrero, wool blanket, poncho and large bow tie.

His parents migrated from the central part of Mexico to Fort Worth years ago. And they brought their music with them.

Sigala, a first-generation American and a third-generation mariachi player, formed a band shortly after graduating college with a degree in music. 

“I wanted to bring that culture, that Latino aspect into the city,” Sigala said. “There’s such a huge Latin American community here and not enough representation.”

His band, Mariachi Centenario, introduced their music to many parts of North Texas. The seven-member musical group performed at community festivals, local concerts and private events, like weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Full of laughter, joy and dancing, the band’s weekends were consistently booked for events, charging anywhere from $100 to $900 per hour.

Then, last year the pandemic hit, stopping their music in its tracks.

“There are so many people passing away because of the pandemic and not a lot of celebrating,” Sigala said.

In March 2020, the state of Texas placed restrictions on large social gatherings and the closure of restaurants and bars. 

Since then, Fort Worth-based Mariachi Centenario has played only a handful of smaller, outdoor events. Because of virus transmission fears, social distancing and widespread cancelation of events, Sigala said, it just hasn’t been the same.

Most in the larger local musician community faced similar fates.

“For musicians out here that I’ve seen and talked to, they are definitely struggling. Because they pay their whole payments with that, they’re paying rent with that, they’re paying their bills with that,” Sigala said. “These people, performing is their livelihood.”

A year has passed since the lockdowns and ensuing turmoil. However, many in Fort Worth’s art community still find it hard to make ends meet.

Facing the music

The economic and societal disruption in 2020 paired with the need for relief and support has strapped the city, local agencies and philanthropies. 

In such unprecedented times, funding the arts may play the second fiddle, which is a worry for Estrus Tucker, an independent consultant and chairperson of the Fort Worth Art Commission.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fort Worth and surrounding areas slashed 15.9% of the workforce in the leisure and hospitality industry over last year – the hardest hit sector during the pandemic. The sector lost more than 19,000 jobs that remains unfilled or got eliminated.

“Too many leaders think that we can’t afford art. Yes, there’s a limit. We do need to put money on the streets,” Tucker said. “But it’s not either, or. We need money on our streets and infrastructure, and we need money in arts.”

The city of Fort Worth currently invests about $1.9 million from the general fund in the local arts industry. 

Fort Worth’s level of funding to local arts programs is below other large Texas cities. The city of Dallas, by comparison, plans to give over $20 million from its general fund to its Office of Arts and Culture in 2021.

Local artists face an intricate challenge. Most work as independent workers or self-employed professionals, which means local musicians and art establishments did not qualify for government aid such as the Payroll Protection Program and individual stimulus payments, Tucker said.

They say additional investment to foster the artist community is critical; otherwise, recovery might be difficult.

“Because of the impact of COVID, we’d need to do much more than what we were planning to do,” Tucker said. “If we’re going to have a thriving art community in Fort Worth, what the plans were in 2019 won’t work now going into 2022.”

Beating the drums

Tucker, however, finds some positivity developing. He said the community cautiously senses glimmers of hope as venues and art establishments return to full capacity with the economy reopened.

“What compels (artists) is alive and well. It’s something about our human spirit. The nature of who we are creates artists and not money,” although, he added, stable finances enable more room for creativity to flourish.

Billy Bob’s Texas, a landmark Fort Worth musical venue in the Stockyards, had to lay off almost 200 employees last summer because it wasn’t able to entertain guests at its 6,000-seat capacity. Billy Bob’s was one of many arts and music-oriented businesses that had to downsize and scale back its operation in order to survive. 

A newly adopted bill, Save Our Stages Act, provides $16 billion in federal aid to music venues across the country. The U.S. Small Business Administration anticipates starting applications processing later this week.

Billy Bob’s and other venues that managed to ride through the pandemic-laden storm of uncertainty are coming out the other side now. Billy Bob’s said it was able to rehire most of its furloughed workers in time for the venue’s 40th anniversary April 1. Billy Bob’s celebrated the occasion by opening its doors to full capacity for a Gatlin Brothers concert.

On the southern side of Fort Worth, musicians found a new stage to jam and perform even during the pandemic. Tulips FTW opened as the newest music venue in the city in November.

Tulips FTW co-owner Jason Suder said the decision to open was based on calculated risks, and a necessary one because nurturing and promoting artistic talent is a high priority for Fort Worth.

“Fort Worth was not the easiest upbringing, and there weren’t very many spaces to freely express your opinions and endeavors and art histories,” Suder said. “But what has happened over the past 10 to 15 years, it’s been really remarkable. It has given voice and space to people who could not freely express themselves previously.”

In the last four months, Tulips FTW, which can hold 600 people but currently operates in a lower capacity, has been able to consistently book and present live shows featuring local bands and musical acts.

About 15 live shows are scheduled for the second half of April. Show lineups for most days in May are also on the program calendar.

“What we’re hoping to do is figure out how we can all work together to create an industry, to create a music community, where we’re working together to promote not just ourselves, but for the artists, the arts in general,” Suder said. “We don’t need to be looking at the same shows that you can see at any one of the other local places.”

Suder speaks highly of other medium-sized Fort Worth music venues, like Lola’s, The Post and Main at South Side. He also commended the spaces that echoed the city’s sound in the past and venues that inspired him, like J&J Blues Bar, Blue Bird, Wreck Room and the fabled Caravan of Dreams – all of which have long been closed creating a musical void.

“Music is storytelling. Music is history. So we should be speaking to each other. Because at our core is dedication to work together to where we are providing something for everyone within our community,” Suder said. “Our goal is to make Fort Worth a well recognized musical entity so that we don’t have to drive to Dallas to see our favorite musicians; so that we can continue to grow and progress and evolve”

Changing the tune

With sources of income quickly drying out last year, musicians had to either pivot to a new career or adapt to the changes.

As venues shuttered and patrons stayed home, the only stage available in the beginning and midway through the pandemic was behind the digital curtains of social media and other online platforms.

Leon Bridges, the Grammy-winning recording artist, quickly jumped on the digital trend to help Fort Worth’s creative class at the height of the COVID-19 surge. Last May, Fort Worth native Bridges performed in an online concert to raise money for the retail and entertainment workers of Near Southside, which in recent years has become a major artistic and creative hub.

The show streamed online fetched about $63,000. So far, the fund providing relief grants has raised over $163,000 with more than 1,800 individual donors contributing.

Jazz and old-time musician Brandi Waller-Pace demonstrated a similar digital capability and reach March 13 when she organized the first-ever Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival.

Waller-Pace and her bandmate Dean Barber had a year of limited activity, in terms of doing live performances. But she continued having musical conversations on Facebook, where she already had built relationships with groups of Black musicians passionate about traditional African-American music.

“It just kind of planted a seed,” Waller-Pace said. “I was like, I can create something for Fort Worth. There’s so much wonderful stuff out there. People can come to us. You know, the closest festival of that type that I had been to was the Austin String Band Festival.”

Now, she expects to organize the event on an annual basis following this year’s success.

Ten different musical acts from across the country performed live online for more than 1,000 audiences from their living rooms, bedrooms and front porches. Waller-Pace performed from inside the Southside Preservation Hall, where next year’s in-person festival is planned to take place.

First annual Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival was held online Saturday, March 13

The festival raised about $8,400 in support and donations, which went into compensating the artists, Waller-Pace said. The festival remains free for anyone to watch and enjoy.

“I want people to go, ‘Every year I have to make sure that in March Fort Worth is on my calendar,’ ” Waller-Pace said. “I want that community for artists.”

Neetish is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Neetish Basnet

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...

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