Renan Villanova has been playing music in Dallas for a very long time. More than 40 years, in fact — ever since he left Mexico City at the age of 18 to follow a girl to North Texas. Many of the musicians he's befriended and performed with are gone now, but at least three nights a week Villanova is out performing in restaurants or outside grocery stores, for as many as six to 10 hours in a day.
“I like it here,” Villanova says. He's been offered work in other cities, particularly Miami, but he's never wanted to leave Dallas. “I like the musicians I used to play with. Many of them are dead already. Now I am an old man.”
A full time drummer and singer, Villanova can play more styles of music than most people could name. There are many bands that play for a few hours a night in bars. A musician can get serious chops with those kinds of regular gigs.
But when he was younger, Villanova played 7 nights a week at restaurants for as long as eight hours at a stretch. Now 59, he performs a few days a week, but hasn't exactly slowed down. For example, he is currently scheduled to play at two Fiesta grocery stores on May 22. From 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. he will perform at the Josey Lane location. From there he will quickly load up his sound system, drums and microphones, and head to the location on Buckner for a show from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Sitting at a table in a Fiesta, he sips Topo Chico with a strained voice. A couple days ago, he pulled a 10-hour shift by performing for four hours at a private party in between grocery store gigs. “I’m flying!” Villanova says, with a laugh, about rushing between gigs. “I’m fast.” He is currently playing drums and singing with a keyboard player. He has written songs and recorded sparsely throughout his career, usually preferring to perform playing covers live.
“Everything,” Villanova says, when asked what kind of music he plays. Working in restaurant bands with all sorts of musicians, he knows Greek songs, as well as Russian, Persian and Iranian. If you see him at a grocery store he takes requests. But these days he always plays Cumbian rhythms from Colombia, as well as mambo and rumba songs from Cuba and music from Honduras.
“Lots of people know me,” Villanova says. There are people who have been seeing him play in restaurants for decades. Six years ago, he learned that Fiesta was looking to hire a musician to play live in front of their stores, especially during sales. They knew exactly who he was and gave him the job. It's been one of his primary gigs ever since.
“They like it,” Villanova says, of the grocery store customers coming in and out of the store. He occasionally sees people’s faces light up as they recognize songs. “I feel beautiful,” he says, when asked how it makes him feel. Sometimes the music even makes people cry. “It makes me feel nice,” he adds. “They’re reminded of something in their lives.” But it also makes a lot of people dance in and out of the store.
“They call me Coochie,” he says. “Like 'Coochie, coochie, coo!' to the little babies. But very nice. Sometimes they do a different meaning for that.” Sometimes they call him Mr. Coochie. “Oh my god!” he exclaims, when asked how he was given the name. As it turns out, Villanova started performing at the original Mariano’s Hacienda location at Greenville and Lovers Lane in 1971, the year it opened.
“Oh, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders,” Villanova says. “Coochie, coochie.” He says they were in the restaurant all the time, as were Dallas Cowboy players. Villanova had first said, “Coochie, coochie” to the women, who said it back, and then people started asking whether Mr. Coochie was playing.
Villanova also says he was performing in Mariano's Hacienda when it started using the world’s first frozen margarita machine, invented by the restaurant’s owner, Mariano Martinez. “He went to a 7-11 and saw one of those machines,” says Villanova. “Slurpies.” Inspired by a Slurpee machine, Martinez started tinkering with a soft-serve ice cream machine.
Villanova was once married, but divorced in 1989. But a failed marriage and watching fellow musicians pass away has not put a damper on his demeanor in any way. “Golf,” Villanova says, and starts laughing. “Golf is my passion. I love it. If you asked me if I prefer a woman or golf, I say golf."
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