Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. When Matt Tolentino was eight years old, and most of his peers were shooting each other with Nerf guns, he was writing a strongly worded letter to then mayor Ron Kirk. Tolentino had visited the Bank of America building with his grandfather, and from the vantage point of its 40th floor, he had looked down on the Wilson Building and noticed it was in need of repair. So he went home and got out a pencil and paper. "I told him, 'I think the roof of the Wilson building really needs some attention,'" Tolentino says. To his surprise, Mayor Kirk wrote back, thanking him for raising the issue and for taking an interest in Dallas' historic architecture at such a young age.
The precociousness and appreciation for history that is evidenced by that story reflects Tolentino's character to this day. Now 29, he has merged his passion for the old world with music, as the leader of an 18-piece band, The Singapore Slingers. That band, founded in 2008, has a repertoire composed of American popular music from 1895 to 1935. Tolentino is an incredibly versatile musician, playing accordion, clarinet, tuba, piano, and saxophone, among other instruments. In addition to The Singapore Slingers, he heads up several smaller bands, including The Matt Tolentino Band and The Royal Klobasneks.
When I spoke to Tolentino, he was at Wurstfest in New Braunfels with The Royal Klobasneks, a 7-piece traditional polka band. This is their second year to play the ten-day festival. What's a Klobasnek? "It's a little sausage pastry that you'd find at the Czech Stop," he says. "I started The Royal Klobasneks on a lark in 2010. I found out in Texas, there's actually a pretty good market for it."
Contrary to what you might assume about the demand for Tolentino's style of music in 21st century Dallas, opportunities for Tolentino and his bands seem to be constant. This year he has played all manner of galas, house parties and private events, including a stint providing musical accompaniment to Rawlins Gilliland during his sold out storytelling streak.
The Singapore Slingers recently put out their second CD, although Tolentino says it feels like their first because, "the pedigree of the sound has improved so much." This Saturday, The Singapore Slingers will perform after a screening of "Gone With The Wind" at The Texas Theatre and on New Year's Eve, they will headline their first show at The Kessler Theatre (at least, the first one they've produced themselves). That's just a small preview of what Tolentino will be up to in the coming months.
Around the same time as his infamous letter to the mayor, Tolentino's next-door neighbor gave him a recording of The Coffee Club Orchestra, the house band of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. It made an impression on him, and he began picking up instruments. "Growing up, I always wanted to hear this style of music, but the only time I did was in a high school band class, or maybe I could hear Cole Porter at Dallas Summer Musicals once a year," Tolentino says. Today, the music he plays with The Singapore Slingers is similar to what he heard on that Coffee Club album and it satisfies the niche he wished had existed when he was a boy growing up in Dallas.
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In 2008, he began to assemble musicians from pit orchestras he'd played with around town. "I sought out musicians I knew would be interested in this project, and who would understand that they wouldn't be coming home with 200 dollars at first," he says. "A lot of the original members of The Singapore Slingers are still with us today."
When asked about the challenges of drumming up interest in older music in Dallas, versus other American cities that seem more steeped in an appreciation for the past, Tolentino describes Dallas' lack of exposure as a creative opportunity. "You go to a place like New York or New Orleans and there is so much that has happened there that hangs in the air," he says. "Dallas isn't as into its history as other things, but through music I've found the people in town who do appreciate it. Dallas is basically a blank canvas. If you're willing to work and you're creative, you can make it whatever you want it to be."
The crowds at Tolentino's shows vary. When The Singapore Slingers play at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, they tend to draw an older crowd that is seeking out the music of their parents. Other shows, like the ones they've played at The Kessler, bring out younger people who want to dance. Tolentino's goal heading into 2015 is to continue to expose younger people to the music he loves, and to show them that it's still relevant. He credits period-accurate television like Boardwalk Empire with helping to get new generations on board. "I want more younger people to understand that these aren't museum pieces," he says. "This was the party music of its day."
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett