The Spanish word conjunto, translated into English, literally means "group." In the Latin music world, the word is applied to an assembly of musicians smaller in number than an orquesta and larger than a duo.
When defining a style of music, though, conjunto is very specific. It refers to the indigenous music of mostly rural, working class Texas Mexicans, one and two generations removed from the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border. This interpretation of conjunto bears striking similarities to norteño music of northern Mexico and the grupo sound emanating from Monterrey, Nuevo León. Elements of conjunto are sometimes infused into contemporary Tejano music, the modern regional sound popular among more assimilated Mexican Americans in Texas and the southwestern United States. But conjunto, the germinating seed of what the general population often refers to as Tex-Mex, is clearly a sound unto itself.
Though little known outside the comfort zone where Texas Mexicans live, work, and dance, conjunto dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the earliest waves of European immigrants arriving in Texas. The mexicanos already here paid close attention to the music the new arrivals played at dances. In the process they created a sound of their own.
Conjunto remains a vital cultural touchstone for a significant segment of the Mexican American community in Texas, no matter how urbane or Americanized they have become. It is heard throughout a region stretching from the Rio Grande to the Brazos River and beyond, emanating from restaurants, bars, dance halls, icehouses, parks, flea markets, television commercials, radio programs, sound systems in slow moving cars, and backyards.
San Antonio is its spiritual capital and commercial center, though conjunto's sphere of influence has become global. For while it may be a Tex-Mex thing, the sound and the compelling nature of its true-story songs and sad romance ballads sung in the heartbreak key long ago transcended its traditional cultural, social, and linguistic limitations. Since the 1970s conjunto has managed to subtly insinuate itself into American country, American rock, Mexican regional, Latin international, and American and European folk music sounds. In fact, conjunto has become so trendy, teenagers in Tokyo have formed their own conjuntos to emulate the sound.
That crossover appeal is underscored by some of the material in the typical conjunto band's repertoire. Even when sung en español and revved up considerably, what can be more American than "Beer Barrel Polka," "Open Up Your Heart and Let My Love Come In," "In Heaven, There Is No Beer," "Release Me," or even "Fraulein"?
Knowledge of Spanish and an understanding of the culture were missing when conjunto first entered the ears of a bored North Texas teenager aimlessly flipping around the radio dial forty years ago. I didn't have a clue what the vocalists were saying, but I could immediately recognize that whatever they were saying was being stated in such a compelling, passionate fashion, and being sung in front of an ensemble that played so amazingly tight and solid and heavy on the beat, I couldn't help but get hooked.
The siren's call of el acordeón working counterpoint against the thick chunks of backbeat strummed on the bajo sexto was irresistible. The sound floated and rose the same way thick air does during the long, hot Texas summer, informed by a sense of place I fully appreciated. Conjunto's heat, though, was a spontaneous combustion caused by a wicked conspiracy between a diatonic button accordion, a bajo sexto twelve-string guitar, and two vocalists harmonizing in Spanish and occasionally English, pushed by a syncopated beat pounded out with military precision.
The melody was familiar enough; the music's roots were firmly planted in the European polka. But this was like no polka I'd heard before. The rhythm pushing the song was too jaunty, too jumping, too Latino. It made me want to dance. I figured out right then and there why some old-timers called conjunto música alegre—happy music. Joy permeated every note.
A better understanding came at Sunday bailes at el club Rockin' M, a country dance hall between Austin and Lockhart during the early 1970s. As I was sitting, listening, watching, drinking, and dancing among four generations of families, conjunto revealed itself as a community glue that held together people who were Mexican in heritage, Texan in outlook, and wholly original. Nowhere but Texas. This was authentic folk music—one of the last places left in America where real folks were making real music, performing in front of folks just like themselves.
I was hardly the only white guy to notice.
On several occasions, Flaco Jiménez's band from San Antonio included a guest player from Los Angeles named Ry Cooder. He was a renowned guitarist and recording artist who recognized conjunto's uniqueness and set about learning it by doing an extended apprenticeship to master one of conjunto's essential ingredients, the bajo sexto.
Many dances at the Rockin' M were highlighted by accordion shootouts, most frequently between Flaco Jiménez, Agapito Zúñiga, El Escorpión de Corpus (the Scorpion of Corpus Christi), and Mingo Saldívar aka the Conjunto Cowboy, also from San Antonio. Jiménez was and is one of the genre's greatest stylists as well as the person most responsible for exporting the tradition beyond its traditional boundaries through his recordings with Doug Sahm and, later, the Texas Tornadoes, Dwight Yoakum, Emmylou Harris, the Rolling Stones, and Buck Owens, among others. Zúñiga was an elder, one of the old guard, well versed in the traditions of the music. Saldívar was the wild card, a middle-aged crazy who replaced Jiménez in Los Caporales, way back when, and who carved out a following from his Spanish language covers of country music chestnuts such as "Ring of Fire" (made famous by Johnny Cash), refashioned, naturally, into a polkita.
The three would trade riffs back and forth with flourishes that became increasingly flamboyant and flashy until finally Mingo Pingo would start playing his instrument above his head and behind his back, and shut down the competition.
I'd learned about Flaco Jiménez through Doug Sahm, the rock and roller from San Antonio who had pop hits in the 1960s as leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet with songs rooted in a conjunto backbeat. In the early 1970s Sahm recorded two comeback albums with a superstar lineup of guest musicians including folk troubadour Bob Dylan and New Orleans keyboardist and composer Dr. John. The guest who caught my ear was Jiménez, Sahm's old compadre from El West Side.
Flaco turned me on to "Viva Seguin," the peppy polka instrumental credited to Don Santiago Jiménez, his father, one of the pioneers of modern conjunto. That led to meeting Don Santiago and posing for a photo with him alongside Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Keith Ferguson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. They got it too.
Santiago Jiménez spoke of the German, Czech, and Polish bands he eavesdropped on at dances around New Braunfels and San Antonio when he was growing up. They were only influences, he said. But Don Santiago couldn't have copied them even if he'd wanted to. Blood and culture turned the same song into something completely different.
As my command of the language improved, so did my appreciation of conjunto's depth and resonance. I realized those mesmerizing melodies that sucked me in were mere embellishments decorating the dramatic songs being performed. That rang especially true for corridos, historical accounts of notable people and events told with a take that's usually different from the official history, and boleros, the eloquent ballads of romance that underscore why Spanish is the loving tongue.
Further exposure made it obvious that conjunto was a thriving subculture that extended far beyond the musicians and their audience. Venues are essential. If not for bars like Lerma's on Zarzamora Street on San Antonio's west side and institutions such as Juan Tejeda's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where preservation is a conscious part of the presentation, and rural dance halls hewn of sheet metal that seem to have been around forever, conjunto would have gone extinct by now. A similar vital role is played by small Mom and Pop record shops such as Janie's and Del Bravo, which is owned by the great corridista Salomé Gutiérrez. Mom and Pops not only carry a far more extensive selection of CDs and tapes than the chains and supercenters do; they also function as community centers and cool places to hang out. If not for them, there would be no scene.
Recording facilities such as ZAZ Studios, Joey López's hit factory where bands can record one day and walk out with finished product the next, bar code and all, are the real star-making máquina of conjunto. And if not for stations like Ricardo Dávila's KEDA-AM, Radio Jalapeño, the best all-conjunto radio station in the whole world, how would the word get out? Fortunately, Ricky not only owns the station, but pulls the morning shift under the guise of Güero Polkas, the screaming, shouting bilingual disc jockey who is a major force promoting conjunto.
Somewhere down the line, the music's ties to the language and the culture, and how both have infused the music with a sense of pride and honor, as well as pleasure, soaked in.
My curiosity eventually led to the living room of Narciso Martínez, El Huracán del Valle, the father of modern conjunto who articulated the melody that blended accordion and bajo sexto. Martínez lived with his wife in a colonia west of Brownsville, a stone's throw from the Rio Grande, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and Latin America. Don Narciso cut a string of tracks for Bluebird beginning in the 1930s and was a pioneering crossover by virtue of recording some polkas under the pseudonyms of Louisiana Pete and Polish Joe to better sell to the Cajun and traditional polka public.
Bruno Villarreal, the blind accordionist credited with making the first conjunto recordings in the 1920s, had departed this earth before I could find him. That missed opportunity has been compensated by being able to witness on numerous occasions the genius of Esteban Jordán, El Parche, the pirate/hippie/jazz cat with an eyepatch who originated a 1960s style described on one recording as acordeón psicodélico. He is hardly the only character in the realm. With band names like Los Test Tube Babes and Los Tall Boys, acts like Cuatitos Cantú, accordion-playing dwarf twins each with six-fingered hands, and people like Wally Gonzales, whose hilarious imitation of an Anglo highway patrolman speaking English made his 1970s hit "El Ticketito" a classic, and Snicky Nick Villarreal, who built a career on the phrase "not to worry," there's plenty of color to go around.
One key reason conjunto didn't completely assimilate and disappear as mexicano-tejanos morphed into americanos is Valerio Longoria, another accordion maestro who introduced vocals and romance boleros to the genre. In the early 1990s, Longoria started teaching conjunto accordion to children and adults, sponsored by San Antonio's Parks and Recreation Department. The classes effectively assured the passage of knowledge and tradition to a new generation of conjunto players that includes women, kids, and people with no Mexican blood whatsoever.
This is as good as music gets: a sound that's underground, out of the purview of the mainstream, made for pleasure, not for profit; and a window to a culture that is rich, colorful, exotic yet strangely familiar, as John Dyer so deftly documents in these pages. His subjects include crossover stars, lesser-known maestros living in relative obscurity, and all sorts in between. On the surface, conjunto music may appear to be a simple pleasure that serves as an excuse for a people of a certain place and culture to get together and have a good time. But look deep into the eyes of the people in these pictures. They all tell you conjunto is more than that. For them, conjunto is life.