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In 1972, Paulino converted from the apostolic Christian denomination of Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism and founded Bernal Christian Records in order to evangelize his Protestant Christian beliefs. Through his La Nuevo Cristiana ministry, Bernal currently owns and operates more than a dozen Spanish Language religious radio stations located in Texas carrying a satellite-fed programming schedule. In 2008 Paulino Bernal released a new CD of polkas produced by Grammy-winning producer Armando Lichtenberger Jr., "El Maestro Del Acordeon Y Sus Polkas" on Urbana Records and received his first Grammy Nomination for Best Polka Album for the 51st Annual Grammys.
Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) have always been prolific music makers. They have been the music trendsetters among Mexicans in the Southwest throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, beginning in the 1930s, the Texas-Mexicans created the two most powerful regional styles ever to emerge among Mexicans anywhere – orquesta and conjunto.
The best of the conjuntos is, beyond a doubt, El Conjunto Bernal. Described by connoisseurs of conjunto music as "the only one of its kind" and "twenty years ahead of its time" El Conjunto Bernal is well known for its tremendous range of innovations. Its musical experiments spanned the gamut of conjunto, from the traditional polka to Latin music such as the bolero, cha cha cha, and even American rock and roll. El Conjunto Bernal owed much of its originality and meteoric rise to fame to the genius of its founder, Paulino Bernal.
Paulino Bernal was born June 22, 1939, in Raymondville, Texas. Reared in the grinding poverty that was experienced by most Chicanos of his generation, Paulino was forced to give up schooling when he was in the seventh grade. An accomplished accordionist by that time, he left school "to try and earn money and get us out of the poverty in which we found ourselves."
Bernal’s mother was a divorcee, and early on she moved to Kingsville, Texas, where Paulino, his older brother Eloy, the younger Luis, and three sisters were all forced to pick cotton, cucumbers, and other crops to help support the family. One day a man came by the house selling a guitar, and Mrs. Bernal "with great sacrifice," bought it for the boys. Paulino soon learned enough to play the cantinas with an elderly accordionist, where he picked up tips to help buy food for the Bernal family.
But Paulino's future lay with the accordion. He remembers hearing the best accordionists of the late 1940s and early 1950s on the radio – Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Tony de la Rosa – all of whom were recording for the largest Mexican-American company at the time, Ideal Records. Paulino dreamed of joining their ranks, and when a friend of his was given an accordion as a gift, it was Paulino who spent the most time practising on it. Shortly afterwards, during a trip to visit his father in Rio Grande Valley, Eloy was given a bajo sexto by him and the Bernal’s were soon on track toward their future.
Los Hermanitos Bernal launched their musical career in 1952. They were hired to play a dance in nearby Premont – Paulino on accordion, Eloy on bajo sexto, and a friend, Adan Lomas, on drums. According to Bernal, "a lot of people attended, and they liked the Bernal Brothers so much, they kept calling us back." They began playing in Falfurrias and in Alice nearby, the home of Ideal Records. Soon the Bernal Brothers came to the attention of Armando Marroquin, the man who recorded all the artists for Ideal Records.
The Bernal Brothers were first recorded as the backup conjunto for some of the duets then popular among Texas-Mexicans, such as Carmen y Laura. In March 1955, Marroquin gave the Bernals their chance as headliners, and a 78 rpm record was released with the cancion ranchera Mujer Paseada on one side and the romantic bolero Desprecio on the other. With the release of their first record, the Bernal Brothers quickly put their cotton picking days behind them forever and soon joined Valerio Longoria and Tony De La Rosa as the top conjuntos in Texas.
El Conjunto Bernal recorded prolifically for Ideal between 1955 and 1960 and some of the best sides including the monster hits: Mi Unico Camino and Sentimiento Y Renco, both from late 1958, are on this CD and cassette.
Marroquin began taking them on tours throughout the southwest and beyond where they always played for packed houses. They were especially popular in Arizona where local bandleader Pedro Bugarin was fond of featuring them with his orchestra. In fact, according to Paulino, he and Eloy used to sit in with Bugarin’s band, and some of the band musicians would in turn sit in with El Conjunto Bernal. This exposure to band music inspired Paulino to branch out of the normally simple ranchera music of the conjunto into the more sophisticated style of the orquesta.
When Armando Marroquin ended his relationship with Ideal Records around 1960, El Conjunto Bernal stayed with him and recorded for his new label, Nopal Records. Shortly thereafter, Conjunto Bernal relocated to McAllen, Texas, across the border from Mexico in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Bernal began working with Victor Gonzales and the two men founded Bego Records (the company name a combination of their two last names). The Bego years represent some of Conjunto Bernal’s most innovative work. It was at his time that Paulino attracted the most talented musicians in the conjunto traditions to his group.
In the late 1960s, Gonzales bought out Paulino’s interest in Bego Records and Paulino went on to found Bernal Records, which also produced many outstanding hits by El Conjunto Bernal. By this time however, Paulino had given up performing in favor of the administrative aspects of show business. He ran the recording company, hosted a regional TV music show, and generally concentrated on the promotional aspects of the business. Meanwhile, Oscar Hernandez and other very able accordionists picked up the slack and carried on the tradition of excellence begun by Paulino. During this same time, success in the music field took its toll on Paulino and he succumbed to the allure of alcohol and drugs.
In 1972, however, a cook Paulino had hired to work in a restaurant he owned changed his life by converting him to the teachings of born-again Christianity. From that day on Paulino gave up the life of alcohol and drugs to devote himself to preaching. He also resumed his career as accordionist, only this time he did so in the service of Christianity. He started a new recording company, Bernal Christian Records, under whose banner he has continued to develop his inimitable style. As he once commented in an interview, "People who knew me before lament that I’m not playing anymore. They don’t seem to realize that I play more now than I ever did before!"