Prose and Conjunto

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.

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.

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John Morthland