Prose and Conjunto

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

In the beginning, there was the accordion. Puro Conjunto, An Album in Words & Pictures (CMAS Books; distributed by University of Texas Press), a collection of writings and artwork about the traditional Tex-Mex dance music, covers virtually every significant artist the scene has produced. But the real star of the book is the instrument they all play.

Edited by Juan Tejeda and Avelardo Valdez, the book is an outgrowth of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center's annual spring Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio, which was launched in 1982 by Tejeda, the GCAC's Xicano Music Program director, and run by him for the first 17 years. For my money, it's one of the nation's leading music festivals. Begun as a three-day event before growing to seven and then cutting back down to six, the Conjunto Fest has presented the oldest and most traditional accordionists (including the late Don Santiago Jiménez, father of Flaco and Santiago Jr.) to the young progressives of recent years (Jaime y los Chamacos). The conjunto fest has also played host to everything in between, from selected artists in related fields (the late Doug Sahm, Los Lobos, zydeco's Queen Ida and Boozoo Chavis) to the occasional oddity such as Los Gatos, a Japanese conjunto act.

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.

Yet the festival has always specialized in staging whatever was happening in mainstream conjunto at the time, and all the music's big names--Flaco, Santiago Jr., Mingo Saldivar, Eya Ybarra, Valerio Longoria, Esteban "Steve" Jordan, Tony de la Rosa, Roberto Pulido--have played there repeatedly. Free for several years, and still priced at less than the cost of a 12-pack, the festival is one of the season's top family social events in San Antonio, with couples dancing counterclockwise in big circles around the covered pavilion at Rosedale Park.

In 1984, Tejeda began commissioning and/or reprinting articles on conjunto and running them in the GCAC's quarterly Tonantzin magazine, which every spring also served as the festival's program book. The pieces ranged from scholarly (Manuel Pena's "From Ranchero to Jaiton: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-Mexican Music") to journalistic (Carlos Guerra's "Accordion Menace...Just Say Mo'!) to essays such as Tejeda's moving recollections of his own political and cultural awakenings ("An Odyssey Through the Magical Land of Conjunto, El Movimiento Xicano, and the Tejano Conjunto Festival"). Besides these writings, Tonantzin also featured Q&A interviews, poetry and even short fiction. In addition, the GCAC held contests every year in several age categories to produce the marvelous festival posters that so brilliantly capture the life and culture of Aztlan (the mythical Chicano homeland that's located in neither Mexico nor America).

Those articles and artwork have been cherry-picked by Tejeda and GCAC mainstay Valdez for Puro Conjunto. Given the structure, there's considerable repetition between some pieces, but taken together, they touch all the necessary historical, sociological and musicological bases, making this far and away the most exhaustive book on the subject. (Indeed, Manuel Pena's work, especially 1985's The Texas-Mexican Conjunto is the only other literature on this subject.) You can read the pieces in pretty much any order you choose, and you'll still wind up with an overview that covers culture, economics, geopolitics and race relations. If you are a decent editor as you read, you can carve out a comprehensive linear history of the music.

But always, you will come back to the accordion. The book covers some of the top bajo sexto players (such as Toby Torres), saxophonists (Frank "Panchito" Villarreal Jr.), orquesta tipica leaders (Beto Villa, Isidro Lopez) and singers (Lydia Mendoza), but the true story of conjunto begins soon after the accordion was invented. (In Berlin or Vienna or Italy in 1822 or '23 or '29--depending on whom you believe.) One-half century later, the accordion--cheap, sturdy, versatile, portable--was becoming entrenched among the rural working class on both sides of the Rio Grande, brought there by German settlers at a time when European salon music (polkas, waltzes, schottisches, redovas) was becoming a full-scale fad in the Western world, including Mexico. While those European forms were becoming Mexicanized, indigenous forms such as the ranchera and huapango were being accordionized. The mexicanos who embraced the instrument favored the diatonic, one-to-three-row, button accordion, which can produce both melody and bass parts, and is tuned so that when two adjacent buttons are played together, they produce a third interval--the basic harmony of Mexican vocals.

Originally soloists or accompanied by percussion (or, very rarely, violins, woodwinds or guitars), Tex-Mex accordionists were augmented around the turn of the century by the bajo sexto, an oversized, 12-string, bass-rhythm guitar that dates back to 13th-century Spain. Until the postwar years, conjunto accordionists played only instrumentals, sitting down, and their music, the sound of the gente pobre (poor folks), contrasted sharply with the strings, horns and voices of the orquestas of the gente decente (decent folks). Although Bruno Villarreal became the first Tejano accordionist to record in 1928, the emergence of a distinctive, trebly Tex-Mex style is considered to have emerged with the 1936 polka "La Chicharronera," the first side cut by Narciso Martinez. While dropping his use of the left-hand (bass-accompaniment) side of his instrument and leaving rhythmic and chordal patterns to his bajo player, Martinez created a staccato, higher-pitched, melodic style with the right hand that advanced the instrument past familiar German motifs and made him the "father" of conjunto. Further north, in San Antonio, Santiago Jiménez Sr. was on the radio as early as 1933 and began recording in '36.

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.

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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