In 2010, as the actors and musicians formed a circle before the start of La Virgen de Tepeyac at Mission San Juan Bautista, a young boy nervously stood in the center with his drum, ready for his first performance. Now, at twenty-two years old, Daniel Valdez is leading some of those same people through their paces in his role as Musical Director for El Teatro Campesino’s La Pastorela.
La Pastorela has been a Valdez tradition ever since Daniel’s grand-uncle Luis Valdez adapted and produced the first version in 1971. Daniel’s grandfather and namesake Daniel Valdez was in the first street performance in 1974, playing Satanas (Satan) to Luis’s Luzbel (Lucifer). In time, his father Mino served as Musical Director until Daniel took over the role this year under the direction of Luis’s son Kinan Valdez.
Daniel’s interest in music began early. “When he was around five years old, he wanted to own musical instruments,” says father Mino, “He didn’t quite play them but he liked them. When he was nine he got his first rock and roll guitar and he loved it and he played it. After a couple years he started asking how to play certain songs and I would draw chord progressions on paper and he would master them in a few minutes.”
Learning to play came quickly and easily. “He doesn’t like the term but he’s an autodidact,” Mino says. “He jumped to drums then to piano then started writing his own songs. We let him find his own pace, the way my father did for me.”
In the beginning, the music seemed secondary in some ways. His memories of his first performances in Pastorela are of the friendships he made there that have lasted him through the years. His motivation for writing music? “I can’t remember the song but it was a song about a girl I wrote when I was twelve. All I remember is that it was bad and super incoherent.” Was she impressed? “I never played it for her. It would have scared her away.”
When he got into Anzar High School, his interest in music grew, writing songs to perform at school talent shows. (Recently he released ten-track collection called “Simple Man” on Soundcloud.) He started working with productions outside the Teatro, starting with other local theater companies often working with Teatro veterans. This year, as he focuses on his work in San Juan Bautista, music he wrote and arranged with his father for a production called “A Xmas Cuento Remix” will be debuting in Chicago, Portland, and Cleveland. Daniel was tasked with traveling to all three cities to work with the producers and casts to perfect each of the productions.
As musical director, his job is to teach the score to the company but it doesn’t end there. He has created new music for the show and is contributing to the sound design. He will also be performing during the shows. He is not quite on his own though; his father and grandfather are there at the rehearsals to back him up. “Any time I have questions or issues or just need to vent my dad is there for me,” Daniel says. “And my grandfather is working as a vocal coach making sure everyone is pushing themselves to their hardest.”
Working as the youngest Musical Director in Teatro history has one interesting side: he now calls the shots for the same musicians and performers he grew up around. “There was a weird transition phase, where it was like telling your family what to do. Some of these performers had their start in shows directed by my grandpa. And here is this kid they knew as a baby, barking orders at them.” The reception has been warm and supporting, with strength coming from the strong bonds of the Teatro company.
“I’m pretty excited about this production,” he says. “We have Kinan Valdez back as a director and he has more tools here at the Tetro than he had at the Mission. We are going to have access to projection screens and sound effects for the first time. Everything is also more intimate. At the Mission, it was more pageantry with a big, broad setting. Here we are going to be able to hone in on the story and the drama of the show.”
There is one change he is very happy with. In previous years the musicians would join the cast in their pilgrimages through the Mission in various parts of the play. In the new production, “we are sitting in one place through the whole show, which is nice. We can do more with the music now.”
The greatest blessing of the season, though is something that took him by surprise. “When I am around my family for the holiday dinners, my tio Luis looks like my tio Luis, eating chicken and stuffing. But here I had a moment when I looked around. My grandpa and I were warming up my Tia Prima, my tio Kinan was walking around giving direction, my dad was sitting there offering suggestions, and we were all doing it in the Teatro that Luis built. I definitely had a moment where I thought ‘this is a blessing.’ How often do you get to work creatively with three generations acting as equals? It’s once in a lifetime.”
The family, needless to say, is proud. “It is incredible to see the evolution take place,” says grandfather Daniel. “Ever since he could crawl he was in the Teatro. He has the shadows of his father and his grandfather as a challenge to him to create his own signature, his own expression of himself. Watching him grow has been like watching fruit grow and ripen. He has grown up and become a man within the Pastorela itself. In some ways, this piece records his whole life.”
Performances of La Pastorela begin on December 6th and will continue on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through December 22nd. Seating is limited. Tickets are available at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4423012. Daniel’s collection of music “Simple Man” can be found at https://soundcloud.com/user-626859411
This article is first in a series about El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista.