Prose and Conjunto

A new book finds the squeeze-box heart of Texas-Mexican music

Almost as soon as Tejanos began playing the accordion, they slowed down the tempos to more easily accommodate dancers; indeed, renegade accordionist Esteban Jordan, in his interview here with Tejeda, stilldefines the music regionally according to tempo (slowest in the Valley, a little faster in Corpus, faster still in Houston) and dance style (tacuachito in Houston, serruchito in San Antonio, tiezo in West Texas). In other words, there is huge variety within this seemingly rigid style confined largely to Texas. After the war, several new developments made the music even more of a dance-hall phenomenon. San Antonio's Valerio Longoria added vocals to the polka beat to create the cancion and drums to the ensemble to more or less introduce (with the subsequent addition of bass) the modern conjunto ("group"). He also adapted boleros, a complex orquesta rhythm of the jaitones (high-toned people) to accordion, blurring class lines among music fans.

Beginning with his first records, cut in the Valley in 1950, Tony de la Rosa extended Longoria's innovations, particularly in tonality, while playing even more staccato, more danceable. And Paulino Bernal of Kingsville's El Conjunto Bernal, which first recorded in 1954, took a cue from his group's other accordionist, Oscar Hernandez, and began playing the five-row button, or chromatic, accordion. This created a whole new range of possible sounds, expanding the music to the very limits its audience was willing to accept, and made conjunto, finally, as sophisticated and respected as orquesta. Until recently, there had been few significant innovations in conjunto since the emergence of the Bernal Brothers (who also popularized two-and-three-part-harmony ranchera singing).

Which is not to say the music has since come close to dying. Over the next three decades following the Bernals, the elite school of squeezebox sensations grew considerably, adding to its ranks the likes of staunch traditionalist Santiago Jiménez Jr., dazzling experimentalist Jordan, country crossover Mingo Saldivar, novelty and topical songsmith Nick Villarreal, as well as its first stone original female stylist in Eva Ybarra. Flaco Jiménez, who along with zydeco king Clifton Chenier has done more than any American to popularize the accordion, took the sound national and then international, touring and recording first with Doug Sahm and Ry Cooder, then with Dwight Yoakam, the Rolling Stones and any other pop stars willing to wait in line for his services. This in turn contributed to the rise of Los Lobos, Brave Combo and the Texas Tornados. And in the last 15 years or so, a remarkable movement has blossomed among young Chicanos. Tejano bands--the pop-oriented, synth-based, small-combo successors to orquestas--quit thinking of conjunto as the tired old field-worker music of their parents and began adapting accordion to their own modernist music. This is clearly an extension of the early-'70s brown-pride movement Juan Tejeda revisits so movingly in his memoir-essay.

The late Valerio Longoria onstage at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s annual spring Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio at Rosedale Park in 1993. Longoria played the festival every year since its inception in 1982 until his death in 2000.
The late Valerio Longoria onstage at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s annual spring Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio at Rosedale Park in 1993. Longoria played the festival every year since its inception in 1982 until his death in 2000.

Today, Tejano is overrun with young conjuntos following in the footsteps of Jaime y los Chamacos and La Tropa F, two of the pioneering groups who peaked in the mid-'90s with a Tex-Mex sound equivalent to Dwight Yoakam's honky-tonk country--i.e., strictly traditionalist but with rock-and-roll punch. Young, south Louisiana musicians of the '70s and '80s went through a similar transition, learning the French language of their parents they'd previously rejected, studying their own history and culture in school, bringing Cajun cuisine to the fore and hanging up their rock-and-roll shoes in favor of modernizing traditional Cajun and zydeco. Much of the rest of America seized upon both cultures, finding in them a rootedness and pride missing from mainstream society, and especially from popular music; as Jordan insists, "...the accordion is getting hot because people can tell the difference. It gets to people because it's not electric. The thing breathes; it breathes just like we do."

And as it does, it continues to raise questions and orchestrate issues both within and without its community. Among the more arresting pieces reprinted here, Pena's "From Ranchera to Jaiton" explores how the eventual merging of conjunto and orquesta relates to the rise of the Tejano middle class. The exploration doesn't end there. Carlos Jesus Gomez Flores clumsily tries to argue norteño (the sound of northern Mexico) is "better" than conjunto in "The Accordion on Both Sides of the Border." California literature and folklore professor Jose Reyna makes a case for the accordion as the instrument of chicanisimo in "Tejano Music as an Expression of Cultural Nationalism," while Avelardo Valdez and Jeffrey A. Halley's "The Popular in Conjunto Tejano Music: Changes in Chicano Class and Identity" declares the accordion the instrument of "hybridization." In "La Voz del Pueblo Tejano: Conjunto Music and the Construction of Tejano Identity in Texas," musicologist Cathy Ragland takes the book's sole look at the power of Tejano radio. (And it's a shame nobody did the same for the record labels that grew up in San Antonio and the Valley after the majors stopped recording Tex-Mex in the postwar years.) Austin English and anthropology professor Jose E. Limon provides an appropriate mix of humor and poker-face as he lays out the dance-hall diablo myth in "El Baile: Culture and Contradiction in Mexican American Dancing," and Susana Nevarez Morton's autobiographical "Conjunto Memories" reveals why Tejanos put such happy dance music to such sad lyrics.

As some of those titles suggest, the more scholarly pieces can be daunting to the casual fan. But anyone with an interest in music--ethnic music, Texas music, American music--will find Puro Conjunto well worth the effort, if not downright indispensable.

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