Ernesto Portillo, Jr.'s love for music started at home and began with a love for radio. The Arizona Daily Star columnist and editor of its bilingual edition, La Estrella de Tucson, started working in radio at Cholla High School while his father, a Spanish-language radio pioneer, was general manager of Radio Fiesta, KXEW-AM, must-listen radio for the Chicano/Mexicano/Latino community. It was there that Portillo developed his appreciation for música mexicana.
What was the first concert you attended?
Almost sure it was Cat Stevens at the newly opened TCC. My father took me. He was on the TCC advisory committee and the city was concerned about pot smoking at the concerts. Committee members were asked to attend a show and take a whiff. I was not his expert guide.
What are you listening to these days?
Mainly Brazilian—specifically old school Brazilian funk and soul, samba and my fave, bossa nova. Also Latino jazz and rock en español.
What was the first album you owned?
Carole King's "Tapestry." Technically it belonged to my older sister, Carmen, but I think I listened to it far more than her. So I claimed it. The album remains one of my all-time favorites.
What artist, genre or musical trend does everyone seem to love, but you just don't get?
Techno-banda. It's an amped up version of banda music from Sinaloa, Mexico with percussion and horns. But it's too loud and busy. I'll take the old stuff.
What musical act, current or defunct, would you most like to see perform live?
Two: Antonio Carlos Jobim, the great bossa nova composer, and Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine genius creator of nuevo tango. Both composers and musicians took their music—samba for Jobim and tango for Piazzolla—and turned it up on its head and created lasting, indelible music, filled with riffs of jazz and classical.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Carpenters and Neil Diamond. They were so cool. Still are.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"La Bikina" with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán of Mexico. This song, more than any other Mexican rola, introduced me to the joy of the music and culture. I listened to this song, interpreted by different mariachis, repeatedly. But I'll take Vargas' version as the group is considered the best.
What artist changed your life and how?
Salsa great Willie Colón. I grew up listening to Mexican music but when I first heard salsa music, specifically Colón and singer Hector Lavoe in the '70s, I discovered the rich diversity of Latino music, fused with jazz, blues, Brazilian and Caribbean rhythms.
Figurative gun to your head, what is your favorite album of all time?
"Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66" on A&M Records. Yes, it's considered watered down bossa nova by some but for me it opened up so many musical avenues for me as a fan to explore. His arrangements, the female voices and his piano playing were magnetic.