Texas and Mexico celebrate European roots on the dance floor
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A DRIVER IN SOUTH TEXAS SCROLLING THE RADIO dial will hear stations—KROB, KEDA or KUKA, say—playing fast, exuberantly rhythmic Spanish-language songs featuring the accordion. That is conjunto, Spanish for “group” or “ensemble,” a music developed by working-class Tejanos—Mexican-Texans—beginning in the ¥9th century. Rooted in the polka, the schottische, the waltz, and other Old World styles, this form is a remarkable example of cultural collision and transmission.
The soul of conjunto is the accordion, which came from Europe. In the 1820s, Friedrich Buschmann, an instrument maker in German-speaking Thuringia, invented what he called the handaoline or Ziehharmonika—a hollow cube containing 21 metal reeds that made individual musical notes when air passed over them. To supply and control the air, Buschmann attached a bellows. A player could select which notes to play and how long to play them using a keyboard. In 1829, the Austrian Cyrill Demian improved on Buschmann’s device. Demian’s instrument had a right-hand bellows and was played left handed, using four buttons, each producing one chord when the player was squeezing the bellows and another when the player was stretching the bellows, like a harmonica player breathing in and out over the same reed to make two notes. Demian patented his squeezebox as the “accordion,” for its capacity to play chords.
At first, Europeans made accordions by hand, always tinkering. Buschmann’s handaoline had no left-hand buttons; Demian’s had no right-hand buttons. In London, England, Charles Wheatstone built a bellows instrument able to play chords with the left hand and melodies with the right—a concertina, he called it. Thanks to ease of use and portability, variations on this
arrangement captivated Europeans, especially Germans and Italians. A single musician could accompany dancers, making the accordion, an expensive hand-made artifact, a staple of entertainment. These instruments were primarily diatonic, like harmonicas. A concertina player’s right hand controlled one or two rows of buttons, the left hand a few bass buttons. German bands played dance music like the polka, the waltz, the schottische, and similar tunes, emphasizing the beat for dancers with a bassy “oom-pah” and right-hand melody. For harmony, a musician could play two melody notes at once. Many players read music, and sheet music for accordions was distributed widely.
By the mid-1800s, Germans were mass-producing accordions. In the 1860s, a market bloomed in Mexico, when Emperor Maximilian recruited immigrants from the Continent. Germans especially settled in the northern Nuevo Leon, around Monterrey, home to a burgeoning brewing industry and soon a center of accordion music. In the United States, German and Czech settlers in and around San Antonio, Texas, also were buying accordions.
German immigration to Mexico included trained musicians whose sophisticated salon music appealed to upper-class urban Mexicans. Accordion ensembles played from written scores, familiarizing Mexicans with the instrument and its place in polkas, waltzes, and other German dances like the redowa, or redova, a waltz-time step from Bohemia often called the “leaping waltz” for the requisite bound on the second beat.
WORKING-CLASS MEXICANS also took to the imported sounds, playing the economical button accordion at weddings, fiestas, and other celebrations. These musicians learned and played by ear, adapting European tunes and rhythms to a hybrid eventually known as norteño, as in northern Mexico. Texas, part of Mexico until 1836, had a porous border across which the norteño sound and customs flowed, with Mexico influencing Mexican Texas as much as Texas influenced life south of the Rio Grande.
“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Monterrey functioned as an economic and cultural metropolis, with Texas forming part of its hinterland,” Manuel Peña writes in his 1985 book The Texas-Mexican Conjunto. Many Texans began as Mexicans, their nationality shifting when the Texas Republic formed in 1836 and again in 1845, when Texas joined the United States of America. These Spanish-speaking residents call themselves Tejanos. Influenced by cosmopolitan Monterrey, salon music, the province of trained players, found its way into elite circles in San Antonio, Laredo, Corpus Christi, and other cities with a Mexican bourgeoisie. As in Mexico, the Tejano working classes had their own ideas about music. They adapted songs, dance rhythms, and instrumental techniques, making the simple button accordion their main instrument because a player could solo while keeping a beat.
A big driver of Texan accordion and polka music was German migration to that state. European political and economic turmoil made Germans the largest European demographic to migrate to Texas starting in the 1830s, when Texas was still part of Mexico. They came for the plentiful farmland and the long growing season. Another factor was a land grant program Stephen F. Austin promoted with permission from Mexican provincial authorities. Tirelessly boosting “Austin’s Colony,” Austin at one point backed Texas as a Mexican state, but in the end reluctantly endorsed the Texas Revolution. Named the new republic’s secretary of state in September 1836, Austin died that December at 43. The state capital is named for him.
“German Belt” transplants encouraged friends and relations in the old country to come on over. That produced a string of mostly German towns. Within 100 miles of San Antonio, in 1880 itself one-third German, arose the Teutonic towns Schulenberg, Gruene, Kerrville, New Braunfels, Weimar, Comfort, and Fredericksburg. Most German immigrants farmed but German professionals and intellectuals also settled in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Houston. Czech and Polish immigrant ranks included trained accordionists who played at public sings and dances. These communities developed the state’s first for-profit dance halls.
HOSTILITY AND SEGREGATION could not keep music from flowing between Europeans and Tejanos. In San Antonio, Tejano musicians learned tunes by ear from German bands and adapted them for hometown listeners. Tejanos associated accordion music with dancing. By the 1890s, guests at Tejano weddings, fiestas, and parties were bopping to European steps as well as the
huapango, a fast-moving 6/8 dance from Mexico. Anyone with a musical ear could learn the one-row accordion and play loud enough to propel a tune across a dance floor, in one package delivering melody and beat. A single musician could power a heck of a party.
Until around 1920, Tejano accordionists customarily worked with a percussionist using a tambor ranchera, or ranch drum—a goatskin head stretched on wire and struck with wooden mallets. The ranch drum gave way to the bajo sexto, a large-bodied guitar with six courses of two strings each, believed to have originated in Mexico. The button accordion and bajo sexto formed the core of conjunto—the music of working-class Tejanos—sometimes augmented by a tololoche, an upright acoustic instrument with three or four strings resembling but smaller than the European double bass.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tejano accordionists like Narciso Martinez and Santiago Jiménez advanced and solidified conjunto. Martinez was born in 1911 in Reynosa, Mexico, but his family soon moved to a small town near Brownsville, Texas. Raised in the country, the boy frequently moved as his family picked crops. He had scant formal education, spoke almost no English, and could not read or write any language. For a living he drove trucks and tractors, fed zoo animals, and worked in the fields.
Narciso took up accordion in 1927, learning from older brother Santos. Within a year Narciso was playing dances on a cheap second-hand instrument. In Kingsville in 1930, he bought a new Hohner. By 1935 he had mastered the two-row accordion and was working with bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida. That year Bluebird Records recruited him. Martinez’s first recording was a polka, “La Chicharronera.” By the late `30s, Bluebird was regularly issuing Narciso Martinez records, mostly instrumentals because Martinez regarded airplay as bait for dance gigs, and dancers preferred instrumentals. He learned many tunes from German and Czech bands. He and a friend with a very good ear would soak up a performance; later, the pal would whistle the tunes they had just heard until Martinez got the melody down on the accordion.
Broadcasters like San Antonio’s KEDA and powerful “border radio” stations just across the border (XER, XEP) played Mexican music. Even poor households could afford radios, so Martinez’s recordings gained him many fans. Airplay got him work at weddings, fiestas, and Cinco de Mayo celebrations—honoring an 1862 victory by Mexican troops over French forces—throughout South
Texas. His recording contract was the standard exploitative arrangement of the day, and his live audiences had little money, so he, like other conjunto musicians, was barely covering expenses. Still, Narciso Martinez was beloved of the common people—la gente—who revered him as el Huracán del Valle—”Hurricane of the Valley.” Along with his fast, intricate solos, Martinez’s main innovation was ignoring the bass-chord buttons that gave German music its oom-pah. Instead, propelled by Almeida’s rock-solid bajo sexto, Martinez blazed on the treble buttons. Speeding tempos, he added trills and solo runs, giving familiar material a vivid new feel and composing his own songs. His style became conjunto’s. All his life, Martinez explored genres, including Texas swing in the mode of Bob Wills and Latin American forms like tango and cumbia. Aficionados often hail Martinez as el Primero, or father, of conjunto.
As Martinez was on the rise, so was Santiago Jimenez. Born in 1913 in San Antonio, Santiago was the son of accordionist Patricio Jimenez, much sought for Saturday night dances in the barrios. Santiago learned accordion at 12 or so by copying his father. Jimenez senior had German friends, especially in nearby New Braunfels, from whom he learned songs. Most Germans “didn’t like Mexicans very much,” Santiago said, but for Patricio Jimenez and European performers musicianship trumped racism, and German musicians from New Braunfels frequently performed in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park, where the Jimenez family and other Tejanos heard and appreciated their music.
Santiago Jimenez played traditionally until he added the tololoche, whose bass notes lent great depth to the button accordion and bajo sexto. His music began as old-school instrumentals, but he and then other players began composing tunes, often commemorating an event, place, or acquaintance. All were instrumentals; Tejanos associated vocals with less-than-proper cantinas and bailes de negocio. Cantina music summoned images of whores and rounders; at bailes de negocio poor families brought girls to dance for pay. Male customers would purchase chips for 15 cents a dance, paying their temporary companions with them. Girls got a nickel a dance, a seamy arrangement that conjunto musicians avoided. They wanted to play bailes decentes—decent dances—in homes, at fandangos, or public dances, at weddings, and to accompany other respectable celebrations.
An additional strain of Tejano music began during the early 20th century in northern Mexico. Mexican-born Eugenio Abrego of the popular group Los Alegres de Teran and Pedro Ayala, an
innovative conjunto accordionist, were sons of squeezebox-playing fathers. To the intergenerational aspect these musicians added continued contact with German and Czech music, whether flowing south from Texas or north from Mexico.
AS BLUES DISCS WERE GAINING traction on radio, first among African-Americans and then a growing white listenership, record companies Okeh, Decca, Vocalion, and others, deciding conjunto recordings might prove similarly profitable, signed Tejano singers and bands, often paying as little as $25 per session, with no royalties. The first Tejano accordion 78 rpm record was the half-blind button accordionist Bruno Villareal’s in 1928. Villareal’s style relied heavily on German-style bass chording. His early recordings have been lost, but by the mid-1930s, he was recording “La Cascada,” “Tres Flores,” and other instrumentals. A self-taught musician so well known for busking in South Texas towns that his nickname was El Azote del Valle, “Scourge of the Valley,” Villareal became an Okeh stalwart.
Radio was a lifeline for conjunto. No large venues existed in which to stage live shows, but airplay boosted demand for performers at dances, weddings, and fiestas. The language barrier and segregation kept conjunto off Anglo radio, but among the Tex-Mex working-class, Spanish-language radio ruled.
After World War II, larger labels dropped conjunto for more sophisticated Mexican music, reframing radio in every Southwestern state except Texas. To preserve and advance their tradition, Tejanos started independent labels like Falcon Records and Ideal Records, as well as smaller labels: Corona, Globe, El Zarape, Rio. The most successful, Ideal Records, kept older conjunto artists like Narciso Martinez before the public and introduced new performers like Valerio Longoria, Tony de la Rosa, and Paulino Bernal. Despite conjunto’s historic male lineage, there also were
outstanding female accordionists like San Antonio-born Eva Ybarra.
Younger postwar Tejano performers made vocals a must in conjunto. Among these pioneers was Longoria, a accordionist and vocalist who adapted the traditional canción ranchera, or ranch song, as well as canciónes corridos. Ranchera and its lyrics embraced and jumpstarted a Mexican tradition of often slow-moving songs of love, beauty, and heartache. Longoria’s most famous ranchera may have been 1947’s “El Rosalito”:
El rosalito se está secando, Ya no enverdece las flores
Tambien mi vida se está acabando, Por falta de sus amores
The little rose is drying up, it no longer produces flowers;
Likewise my life is ending, for lack of your love.
Longoria blended conjunto with bolero, a big-band sound until then associated with groups favored by sophisticated Mexican-Americans in Texas. This mix stressed the accordion player’s vocals against the ensemble’s wall of sound. Corridos presented epic narratives about heroes and villains and border-region life, often mocking Anglos. The most famous, “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez”), tells of a language misunderstanding that leads a sheriff to shoot Gregorio’s brother and try to shoot Gregorio, who kills the lawman in self-defense. Another venerable corrido, “Quinientos Novillos” (“500 Steers”) explains how Mexican cowboys outdo Anglo counterparts:
Quinientos novillos eran, todos grandes y livianos,
Y entre treinta Americanos, no los podián embalar.
Llegan cinco Mexicanos, todos bien enchivarrados,
Y en menos de un cuarto de hora, los tenían encerrados.
There were 500 steers, all big and lively,
Thirty Americans couldn’t corral them.
Then five Mexicans arrived, all sporting good chaps,
In less than a quarter hour, they had them penned up.
Just as blues musicians’ adoption of the electric guitar and other postwar technology transformed that genre from a rural acoustic form to a roaring urban dynamo, conjunto performers got powerful results swapping the tololoche for the electric bass. Bands kept the accordion front and center, with most players switching to the three-row button instrument and playing through a pickup or a microphone. Longorio and others sometimes added a second accordion, but eschewed keyboards, brass, electric guitars, and violins. Bands added drum sets, another Longorio innovation, but the bajo sexto remains the standard backbone of basic conjunto.
The period 1947-1970 stands as conjunto’s golden era, with such artists as Longorio; Tony de la Rosa, who excelled on the accordion and introduced a slower dance, el tacuachito; and the Conjunto Bernal, led by Paulino Bernal, who introduced three-part vocal harmony. The music of these and fellow conjunto groups, traditional and newer, resonated on the radio and locally in juke joints and ice houses, local bars where one can have a burger and beer to music. Along the harvest trail leading to the northern plains around Lubbock and Amarillo, South Texas towns
sprouted dance halls, their stages filled by conjunto groups in matching suits and polished boots.
CONJUNTO EVOLVED FURTHER in the 1970s as younger players incorporated R&B, rock, and other genres, added electric guitars, synthesizers, brass, and drums, and, taking a cue from rockers, began performing more theatrically. Out of this movement came “Tejano,” the music of artists like Los Tigres del Norte, Selena, Los Lobos—originally Los Lobos del Este, a pun on the band’s East Los Angeles roots—La Mafia, Isidro Lopez, and Jay Perez. In Mexico, rising demand for cumbia and tropicale, rhythm-heavy Latin beats from Colombia and Brazil, filtered north, further sapping conjunto and its seemingly out of fashion accordion.
But diehard fans nurtured conjunto, holding on in hopes of a revival. In 1981, accordionist Juan Tejeda, director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, launched the Conjunto Festival, showcasing generations of conjunto musicians old and new. More than 30 years later the renamed Tejano Conjunto Festival is adhering to its mission to sustain traditional conjunto while sprinkling its performance schedule with “progressive” Tejano musicians like Augie Meyer.
The American folklore establishment, including the Smithsonian Institution, began to recognize conjunto as folk music. Narciso Martinez and other pioneers appeared at the National Folklife
Festival and in other important settings. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Martinez and artists like Flaco Jimenez, son of Santiago and grandson of Patricio, with National Heritage Fellowships, bringing the form to the world’s attention.
Today’s top conjunto accordionist is Flaco Jimenez, who has held true to the traditional style while infusing the form into pop, rock, and country in performances with Willie Nelson, the Texas Tornados, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, Doug Sahm, the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, and many others. Jimenez’s six Grammys include a 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award. At 78, he continues to tour. His childhood friend Eva Ybarra, grande dame of conjunto accordion, this year accepted a National Heritage Fellowship. “The accordion is the heart of our music,” Jimenez told NBC News in 2015. “Some Tejano artists ignored, hated the accordion and took it out of Tejano music. But if you take the accordion out, you get rid of all the flavor.”
Conjunto gets its staying power from intriguing growth reaching down to deep and specific roots. “Without exception, its contributors had two characteristics in common: they were totally or for the most part illiterate,” anthropologist Manuel Peña writes. “And they belonged to a proletarian class who were relatively isolated from other groups.” Mapped onto listeners’ experiences, this form and its European origins reinforced indigenous listeners’ sense of ethnic identity—making conjunto a banner to wave in the face of disdain from elites. Conjunto transcends entertainment, even musicality, providing vivid relief from the drone of lives spent at menial labor; inspiring resistance to negative stereotypes; and instilling pride among la gente—the people.
Broadcast stations that play Tejano or conjunto music:
KEDA 102.5 FM, 1540 AM, San Antonio, kedaradio.com
KROB 1510 AM, 94.3 FM, Corpus Christi, krob1510.com/music.html
KUKA 105.9 FM, Alice kukaradio.com
Wolfpak radio, wolfpakradio.com
Puro Texas Conjunto Radio, conjunto.org/?cat=130
Rancho Alegre Radio, ranchoalegreradio.org