By Iliana Ramirez
On Saturday August 31st, the multi-city event, iEso Es!, made a stop in Austin, Texas at Mohawk. The lineup included an array of Latinx artists such as Neon Indian, Empress of, and Bidi Bidi Banda. I got the opportunity to sit down with the lead singer and mind behind the Selena tribute band, Stephanie Bergara. In the interview we discuss the importance of representation in today’s society, her favorite Selena moments, the Tejano band’s evolution, and her thoughts on the growing city of Austin.
Iliana: How are you doing after your performance?
Stephanie: I’m good! It was very warm up there and I made the unconscious decision to wear a long sleeve black dress covered in fringe!
I: How did you and all of the members meet and decide that you wanted to do the band?
S: Bidi Bidi Banda was an idea that I had about 6 years ago. I was co-producing a Latin music festival and we were looking for something big and exciting to do at our kick-off party. We just really wanted to get people excited about the show. So, I figured I could dress up like Selena and do a Selena tribute. The festival director loved the idea so that’s what I did. I called the 10 best musicians that I knew that I thought I needed for the band.
We played 6 songs at our first show ever and now we can play 35 songs. The commitment of my bandmates to play the songs just like they were recorded is so impressive to me. Fortunately for me, I can sing all of the songs in the same keys that Selena sang them in. We did our first show in May of 2014 and here we are. Tomorrow is September 2019 and we’re still doing it.
I: Going back to the songs, how often do you guys change the set list?
S: Not very often. We don’t change them very often just because of the demand of the songs. We have a couple of songs that we’ve retired and a couple that we’ve added in the last year. We played the state fair of Texas last year which was a huge deal for us, and we learned six new songs for that. That was the last time we learned a whole bunch of new songs.
For the most part, if you come to a Bidi Bidi Banda show and we play 40 minutes like we did today, we’re definitely going to do “Carcacha”, “Baile Esta Cumbia”, “Como La Flor,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and typically “No Me Queda Mas”. That song is the reason that I started singing in the first place. Most of the time those are our standard songs but if we have room, we’ll fit in other songs. “Juana La Cubana” is a song that almost every Tejano band, even Selena’s band, has covered. We added it because it’s so meaningful to the genre that we play in and because it always starts the party.
I: What is your favorite song to perform?
S: I’ve been doing a lot more stuff by myself recently. I think that anything that is good for me is good for the band, so I’ve recently learned a bunch of new songs. I recently learned “Amor Eterno” by Juan Gabriel, one of my all-time favorite songs, which I sang last week at a friend’s event where they were doing a tribute to the El Paso Victims. Juan Gabriel is from Juarez so it’s such a special song for that group.
It was a really hard song to learn; I probably listened to it 300 times that week. I sang it in front of all of those folks, many who were from El Paso who were all crying. It was all very special. I’m getting ready to play a Lauryn Hill song called “Everything is Everything” at a tribute in October. Anything that I can do to expand my horizons is great.
I: Have you met any of the Quintanilla family?
S: No, but I have met Chris and he was incredibly kind to me. He knew the band and he was really nice and told me that he really loved what I was doing. I got a chance to perform with Pete Astudillo a couple years ago who was Selena’s long-time back up vocalist. He wrote “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”. He and I performed “Baile Esta Cumbia” and the song that he wrote for Selena, “Como te Extrano tu”. He’ll text me every once in a while, when he’s playing in Austin. To have Chris and Pete say nice things about me just makes me feel like a giant ball of emotions. It makes me feel like we’re doing something right.
I: What was your experience like as a little girl growing up with Selena in your life?
S: I was obsessed with Selena. I remember the first time I saw her on TV. I grew up in Austin listening to her, loving her. All of her music was just a part of every special event. Before she passed away, it was just like Tejano music on the radio. I never got to see her perform live, but she was always in the background of my life. After she passed away, it felt like one of my family members had passed away. She was the first person who I ever saw on television that looked like she could be related to me.
I was listening to an interview with Awkwafina, and she said something similar to “when you don’t see people in the media, on TV, or out in the world who look like you being successful, it makes you feel like your dreams aren’t possible.” Selena made me feel like my dreams were possible. I didn’t really have the words to convey that until I heard Awkwafina say that. People aren’t even thinking about representation in 2019, they’re just doing it. I can tell you that 10 years ago, an iEso Es! would not have happened.
Typically, when the banda plays shows, we play in front of people who look like my parents. While we love that and have gotten success from them, it has opened so many doors for us. If you would have told me five years ago that we were going to be playing with Neon Indian, I would have been like, “that’s not what we’re doing here”, but it is what we’re doing here. There are five very different bands on a stage here tonight, but the common denominator is that we are people of color.
I love the idea of people saying, “I love Latin music”. I love Latinos who make music and I think that’s what iEso Es! and Margin Walker had in mind when they did this. I’m so happy to be here and this is a huge opportunity for us. The best thing I can do now that a door has been opened for me is to hold it open for people like me to be able to come into places like the Mohawk or ACL Live. We have gotten to do some incredible things that I would have never imagined we would do; we played Blues on the Green! I was the first Latina to play that event.
I: How long have they been doing the event for?
S: 25 years! I was also the first Latina to ever win the Austin Music Award in my category and the first Latina to ever headline Pecan Street festival. Talking about Selena and Bidi Bidi Banda and doing a tribute, I feel like in the five years that we’ve been doing this, I could have just been a Selena tribute that dressed up as her and put on a costume. I’m not a Selena looking woman and I don’t need to put myself into that box. There’s already a Selena; I’m borrowing these songs so that I can get off of my feet and move onto the next thing.
I: I know you guys play shows all over the country. Is there any other place besides Texas that has a big Selena fan base?
S: Some of our biggest shows that we’ve ever played have been out of state. We played in New Orleans at the House of Blues, which for me was the most shocking. I was five months pregnant when we got there. I told the band, “you know guys, if people don’t come, its ok, it’s an adventurous market.” But people showed up, they stayed, they danced, and it was amazing. I never have the expectation of us going out there and people drooling over us. I feel like we have to earn every person who is a fan of the banda. Our best out of town markets are Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. We’ve never not had a sellout show in Phoenix. If the band were a city, it would be Tucson.
I: Is there a certain place where you guys perform and it’s always special to you?
S: First, Phoenix is such a special place to me. It’s the first out of state place that we ever played and sold out. The first time we went on tour, it was the furthest that we were going to go, and it was one of my proudest moments in this band. That same tour, we finished the San Antonio show and I got life-threatening laryngitis. I lost my voice and we had to finish the tour like that. By the time we got to El Paso, I had no voice. We get to the venue and the line to get in was around the block.
Up until the minute we got on stage, I was backstage sobbing because I couldn’t sing, and all of these people were expecting us to be out there and perform. The people of El Paso carried that show for me. I was doing all of the motions, but nothing was coming out. The crowd was singing so loud that the guys couldn’t even hear themselves play.
Lastly, I have a very special relationship with the city of Dallas. We got asked to do the House of Blues show and we had only played in Dallas once before where we didn’t do very well. We arrive to the venue and the line is three blocks long. As people were filling into the venue, I was thinking to myself, “I wish my mom and dad were here to see this”. Low and behold, my dad drives a truck across the country, and he showed up to see the show.
I: Do you have a favorite Selena moment?
S: I have a few. One time, she was doing an interview at the Grammys and she brought her camera, but they didn’t let her bring it in. She said, “I left with a Grammy instead!” She was really funny and conservatively sexy. If you look at the other women who were playing Tejano music during the same time Selena was, they were in a head-to-toe monochromatic look with tassels and cowboy hats. They were very covered up. So, when Selena showed up and was hardly wearing anything, people were shocked.
She completely changed the way that people were thinking about the music she was making. There was no keeping up with her because she was a force to be reckoned with. I’m so happy and so proud of the fact that we may be one of the first Tejano bands to ever play the Mohawk. Other than that, just everything about her is so inspirational and all of her “firsts”.
I: I read previously that you work for the city of Austin. What all does the job entail?
S: When I’m not doing the banda, I’m working with the city of Austin in the music office. The department that I work in deals with the business of jobs, growth, and revenue. For me in particular, I am with the musician aspect. The city invests in programs that they feel will benefit the music community as a whole and I manage those programs day to day.
I: How did you get involved with the job?
S: I did an internship at Visit Austin which is the convention and visitors bureau for the city. When I was in school, I was a music minor and I needed an internship to move on to the next thing. I wasn’t in it the way that I am now, I was just kind of showing up. They asked me, “Who is your favorite band” and I started talking about it and then I never stopped.
I’ve always loved music. I always thought I would start out as a musician and get into the industry later but did the complete opposite. I got into the industry to help myself and to help my music. It wasn’t until about six years ago that I was ready to take that first step toward doing it. But, the advantage of doing that was that I had already known how to do a lot of music industry things on the back end. So, when I started my band I was prepared, and I didn’t have to ask anyone for help.
I: I feel like you’re the perfect person for that sort of position!
S: Yeah! I believe that musicians deserve respect and it’s something that I walk into my office everyday with. Even when our customers [musicians] are making me crazy, I tell myself that they are artists and they are calling me because they believe in themselves so much. I want to do everything I can to support them because that’s the job I’m expected to do.
I: Talking about the local scene, do you have any local bands or artists that you are into right now?
S: I love the incredible latino music ecosystem that we have here. One of my favorite groups of all time, Grupo Fantasma, they’re a Grammy-award winning band. They’ve played with Prince and they’re incredible! They’re kind of the pinnacle of what we do and the pinnacle of Latin music in Austin. Ruben Ramos, who is also from here, a legendary Tejano musician and Grammy award winner as well. He’s like my Tejano music godfather.
AJ Castillo is an incredible accordion player from here. We both went to UTSA and we’re the same age and every time I see him, I tell him how much I love what he does. I have really good friends in a band called Como Las Movies. Blues on the Green was looking for a Latin band to play the event and I recommended them. The best thing that I can do in the position I’m in is to make sure that bands like that get gigs like that. One of my last favorite bands in Austin is Tiarra Girls. They’re a trio of girls who are all sisters. They are incredible musicians and are such pros.
I: As a local, what are some of your go-to spots in Austin?
S: I like really consistent things when it comes to food. I like any place where I can bring my kid. I’m eating a lot of sushi and poke bowls right now. I love Daily Juice a lot. Everything that makes Austin quintessentially its weird self, I love. I’m definitely not one of these Austinites who hates the changes of the city. Yeah there is lots of traffic but also, we can get juice 24 hours a day! I’m so proud of the growth.
As a native, as a person who works in music in a city where music is so beloved, I feel like I had a tiny hand in helping Austin get to where it is. There’s never going to be less people moving here. There’s no fighting growth. We should all just really be embracing change because it makes everybody better.
I: What do you guys have coming up next?
S: We have two really busy time frames; April and May and October and November. We’re doing a few private events and lots of Dia de Los Muertos stuff. I have a lot of solo stuff coming up as well. We won’t play an event if we don’t totally believe in. We’re getting ready to do a whole new rebrand. There as a lot of physical and personal growth going on in the band that I want to make sure people know about. We’re booked as late as September of next year!
I: Lastly, do you have any words for the people of KTSW or anything else you want to add?
S: I feel the need recently to express my gratitude. It is not easy to do a band for more than a year, but we’re doing it. Please keep coming to our shows, asking us questions, we love it! We love doing the banda and will continue to do it for as long as people want. This band has definitely changed my life for the better.
Featured image by Iliana Ramirez.