The Chief of conjunto

Santiago Jimenez Jr. reverently lowers the needle of one of the old wooden phonographs onto an old 78 RPM record made by his late father, Don Santiago Jimenez, in 1928. "Now this is the first record he ever recorded," Jimenez explains, before sitting down in his San Antonio living room to quietly enjoy the music. Despite the scratchy sound, the music feels like a revelation--aggressive guitar picking, simple and taut rhythm lines, deep yet romantic vocals, all of it spiritually and musically similar to the early country, blues, and bluegrass made by whites and African-Americans at much the same time. It's almost the Holy Grail of conjunto, recorded before Santiago Sr. switched from guitar to accordion to pioneer the Tex-Mex conjunto sound as it's known today.

For Don Santiago's 51-year-old son, collecting his father's recordings has been an almost Arthurian quest. "I have been working all my life to get all of his records. I have found some of them; I still need about 10 more, maybe less," he explains. "I drove 2,000 miles to see what I could find of my father's in Los Angeles, Berkeley, El Cerrito--where Arhoolie Records is. Me and Esther [Santiago Jr.'s wife], sometimes we would go every year, bring back all these 78s and 45s."

The shelves lining Jimenez's living room are racked by the yard with 78s, along with LPs by himself, his older brother Flaco, and other conjunto greats like Esteban (Steve) Jordan. A few simple religious icons hang on the sparsely decorated walls of his impeccably neat home that stands out in the funky block of barrio south of downtown San Antonio. With its shiny chain-link driveway, manicured lawn, and a bass boat on a trailer in the driveway, the setting signals not only a certain success, but just as much a respect for order and tradition tinged with a measure of pride.

In the world of conjunto, the Jimenez clan is the musical First Family. Though such pioneers as Narciso Martinez and Pedro Ayala in the Valley also brought the accordion into their small orquestra tipicas to develop conjunto around the same time Don Santiago started playing, the elder Jimenez embraced the central Texas German waltzes, schottisches, and polkas while adding the tololoche (upright bass)--all the elements of the traditional conjunto style. It's what Santiago Jr. calls "our sound."

Conjunto is best known to Anglo ears thanks to Leonardo "Flaco" Jimenez, whose membership in the Texas Tornados and work with the likes of Ry Cooder, Dwight Yoakam, and Linda Ronstadt has helped to expand the music's range and audience. But if Flaco is the Crown Prince of conjunto accordion, it is Santiago--five years younger, and known as "The Chief"--who guards the family legacy as if it were the crown jewels. You can see it in the way he handles the lacquer 78s as he shows them to a visitor, and how he coaxes gorgeously powerful notes from the traditional two-row button accordion (as opposed to the newer, more facile three- and five-row models most players prefer).

The Jimenez patrimony began with The Chief's grandfather, Don Patricio Jimenez, who was born in Texas and could be found playing a one-row button accordion at neighborhood functions in San Antonio around the turn of the century. Nearly seven feet tall, he begat Santiago Sr. in 1913. The son grew to be somewhat of a giant himself, in actual stature as well as musical influence, playing guitar with his father as a youth, then switching to accordion in his early 20s.

"My grandfather used to take my father to New Braunfels to see those German people play," Jimenez explains. "That's how my father got the idea from the oom-pah-pah music they were playing, picking up the German polkas and waltzes and kinda mixing it up with the Tex-Mex sound, making it a little more festive." Santiago Sr. cut scores of sides for labels like Imperial and Decca when their scouts would pass through San Antonio and Dallas recording regional and "race" music in local hotels.

Santiago Jimenez Jr. was born into Don Santiago's brood of eight and was surrounded by music from his early youth. "My father would be sitting on the sofa practicing, and I would be sitting in front of him just seeing him play when I was young," he recalls, "and I would have chills up and down my arms, because I could feel what he was playing. He knew that I liked it a lot.

"Everybody in the family knows a little music," he explains. "They all play guitars, accordion, sing. We had music all the time when I was young. We would practice; I would play the guitar, my brother would play the accordion. Everybody would rotate. Flaco was already playing professionally, so he wasn't hanging around much. But the rest of us would go together and play around."

By the age of 16, Santiago Jr. was playing accordion at parties and clubs; soon after, he began recording and made his first album with brother Flaco, who played bajo sexto (Mexican 12-string guitar). By the 1960s, the Jimenez family ruled San Antonio conjunto.

During the next decade, Santiago Jr., who had cut numerous records for local labels, emerged on the folk festival circuit and began recording for such folk labels as Arhoolie and Rounder (the latter of which issued two Jimenez albums produced by Brave Combo's Carl Finch). After his father died in 1984, the younger Santiago intensified his devotion to his father's music, founding Chief Records in 1989 to issue cassettes by himself, his father, and other conjunto acts. He insisted the music on the label stick to the traditional accordion-bajo sexto-tololoche line-up.

But, ironically, the three albums The Chief has recorded for Austin's Watermelon Records in recent years best show off his vision. Jimenez's association with Watermelon came about through bassist and musical schemer Mark Rubin of the Bad Livers; Rubin--an admirer of the late Juan Viesca, the tololoche master who had played with Don Santiago--hunted down Santiago Jr. and volunteered his services on the upright bass. Corazon de Piedra, the first Jimenez disc on Watermelon in 1992, collected 22 tracks of waltzes, rancheras, polkas and canciones into a Grammy-nominated release, while 1994's Canciones de Mi Padre found The Chief recording 14 of his father's songs.

On this year's Musica de Tiempos Pasados, del Presente, y Futuro, however, Jimenez hit his stride. With Rubin producing and his fellow Bad Liver Danny Barnes doing the recording at his home studio, Jimenez finally achieves an expansive traditionalism to rival the almost careerist burgeoning of his older brother's work. But where Flaco will cut a track with, say, the Mavericks or Linda Ronstadt, Santiago worked with such ingenious neo-traditionalists as Rubin, fiddler Erik Hokkanen, and Tailgator J.J. Barrera. Adding clarinetist Stan Smith to the mix only recalls the earlier musica del norte from which conjunto sprang. The album lives up to its billing as something of the past, played now, while bringing it all into the future.

As the interview winds down, Santiago invites his guest into the den that serves as the current headquarters for the semi-dormant Chief Records. Though he has recorded albums with the equipment he has here, much the same as his father did decades ago--"No reverb, no equalizer, just a recorder," he says. "I like to do it the old-style way"--Santiago proves himself to be anything but a hidebound purist as he shows off his latest electronic toy from Japan, a mini-compact disc recorder. "It's got a good sound, and you can record over on it 300 times," he enthuses as he switches it on to play the posthumous Selena album Dreaming of You.

"Those new generation kids, Emilio Navaira, what they're doing, I respect that," Jimenez says of the Tejano generation, the younger artists who blended conjunto with modern pop. But his father's imprint is indelible, best captured in a memory from Santiago's first attempts at playing accordion like his father. "One day I was playing the accordion, and he got mad at me. He said I was going to play it right; otherwise, don't play. He was right.

"I'm the only one who plays this style," he says. "Nobody else plays my father's music. I'm the only one...and it's good. Because everybody wants to play like Emilio Navaira, everybody wants to play like Flaco Jimenez and the Texas Tornados, everybody wants to do like everybody does. But they don't want to do like I do, so that's good for me."

Rob Patterson is an Austin writer and the co-producer of Austin Country Nights on Watermelon Records.

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Rob Patterson