The legendary conjunto accordionist Tony de la Rosa was onstage at Rosedale Park. It was Sunday, May 24, 1982, and his conjunto was the last of seventeen groups to perform that weekend at the first Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio. De la Rosa had already played a couple of songs when, amid the applause and gritos of thousands of adoring fans who crowded onto the dance floor and around the stage, he stepped up to the microphone and spoke:
Bueno, como ya saben que pocas veces hablamos por micrófono, pero qué bonito es estar con los profesores, y yo que fui discípulo, estar viviendo y estar en el mismo foro que ellos, como Valerio Longoria, Narciso Martínez [applause], don Pedro Ayala, los pioneros de la música, onda regional, don Santiago Jiménez, todos los muchachos. Estoy seguro que todos ellos se sienten tan jóvenes como yo. No le hace qué edad tengan, pero el corazón es el que manda, y es bonito, es lo más bonito. Y yo, como ellos también son conocidos por las polcas, yo también tengo algunas que ustedes vinieron a conocer y [applause]...gracias...también nos aceptaron con eso. Y traemos otras cositas que orita también se las vamos a tocar, pero yo no pude venir a una cosa de estas y saber que todos los demás tocaron sus polquitas, y yo no tocar las mías.*
That said, he adjusted the straps on his red, three-row Hohner button accordion and squeezed out the piercing first notes of "Atotonilco," one of the classic instrumental polkas that, since the 1950s, have defined his unique staccato style. La raza exploded with more gritos and applause as the bass, bajo sexto, and drums jumped in on cue to provide the rhythmic accompaniment to de la Rosa's accordion lead.
In front of the stage a crowd of people stood, concert-style, some tapping their feet to the driving polka beat, while several women raised their arms and moved back and forth in time with the music. Two men lifted their beers to salute de la Rosa as they yelled out their approval. Lovers held each other round waist and shoulder, swaying from side to side.
The pavilion's concrete dance floor was filled with Chicano men and women gliding and shuffling to the rhythmic one-two compás de la polca. Couples in cowboy hats and blue jeans twirled, spinning into and away from each other's arms. Chucos strutting their tanditos and Stacys clung tight to their rucas as they executed the stylized steps of el tacuachito and el serruchito. Older couples moved in harmony, holding each other in respectable, upright, stoic embraces. Children danced with their mother or father and sometimes, if they were very young, were cradled in their parent's arms. And little girls danced together joyfully, as they imitated the grown-ups on the floor. At the tables alongside the dance floor compadres sat, listening to the music or talking and drinking, some eating their tacos de tripitas and fajitas con guacamole. Others stood behind the tables, soaking up the suds and reveling in the music under the stars.
On this dance floor, there were no rich or poor—just a community of people enjoying the alegría of conjunto music as they danced, counter-clockwise, in a circle, or listened and swayed to the beat. This festival was a celebration of a music, a people, a culture. It was la raza claiming their identity, their rights, their public space. It was sharing. It was sacred. It was the first of many more Tejano Conjunto Festivals to come.
The music that all these people came to enjoy and celebrate— conjunto music—is one of the two principal types of music created by Texas Chicanos, or Tejanos. The other is orquesta tejana. Both types fall under the larger rubric of Tejano music.
Conjunto music will be defined and described in multifaceted detail in the chapters that follow, so for now just a few basic words should suffice. "Conjunto" in Spanish simply means "group," or "ensemble." For Tejanos, however, "conjunto" has come to denote a specific type of musical group, and a specific form of music that combines German, Mexican, Latin American, and U.S. influences. The lead instrument in the traditional four-piece conjunto is the button accordion. The other instruments are the bajo sexto (a twelve-string bass-rhythm guitar), bass guitar, and drums. Conjunto music is dance music, and currently its most popular rhythms—enjoyed on the dance floor of the Tejano Conjunto Festival and in clubs and dance halls around the nation—are the polka and the cumbia.
For eighteen years, from 1980 to 1998, I had the good fortune of working as director of the Xicano Music Program for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. In that role, I founded the Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio and directed it for seventeen years, until my departure from the center. Avelardo Valdez, the other editor of this volume, also has a long history with the festival and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, having served on the board in various capacities over the last twenty years, including two years as chairperson.
The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center was established in 1980, as a nonprofit, barrio-based organization. It is dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and presentation of Chicano, Latino, and American Indian arts and culture. Now one of the largest and most diverse organizations of its type in the United States, it offers programs and classes in music, literature, visual arts, theater, dance, and media arts. Among the annual events and festivals produced by the center, the Tejano Conjunto Festival stands out, especially in terms of the size and scope of its activities.
Since its inception, the Tejano Conjunto Festival has played a major role in sustaining and cultivating that original genre of Chicano music known as conjunto. It has showcased the best in conjunto music, from the traditional, to the popular, to the progressive. It has honorecl those artists who pioneered this genre and have made key contributions to its development. And it has nurtured a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chicano music and culture. Indeed, the festival has been credited with contributing to the revitalization of conjunto's popularity that took place during the late eighties and early nineties, and with broadening its audience base, taking it beyond the barrios and the pueblos of South Texas and onto a world stage.
The Guadalupe staff achieved these results by carefully crafting the festival's program of performances, as well as by developing a range of complementary events and projects. We founded the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame, which honors the tradition bearers as well as the innovators of conjunto. We initiated classes in button accordion and bajo sexto that are offered to the community, along with conjunto student recitals. We established an annual poster contest, whose winning entry becomes the official poster for that year's festival. And we created a program-magazine that, in addition to the festival's schedule of events, contains essays and stories on conjunto music and interviews with conjunto artists. Since 1984, the festival program-magazine has appeared as a special annual issue of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center's magazine, Tonantzin. We also began documenting the festival in various formats—audiotape, videotape, and photographs—for historical, public-relations, and commercial purposes.
Thanks to the success of these various programs and ventures, over the years the Tejano Conjunto Festival evolved into a tradition, a mainstay of the cultural life of the city of San Antonio, which became known as the Capital of Conjunto Music. The festival, which began as a three-day event in 198', grew to seven days by 1992, tapering slightly to six days thereafter. Some years saw special theme nights such as "Women in Conjunto Music," "Conjunto Meets Cajun/Zydeco," "Conjunto in Film and Video," "Raíces Mexicanas," and "New Directions in Conjunto Music." Between 198Z and 1998, thirty-two individuals were inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame, and more than one thousand students enrolled in the accordion and bajo sexto classes. Over I50 different bands performed at the festival, with many returning for repeat performances. They included all the legendary local and Texas groups as well as conjuntos from elsewhere in the Southwest, from the Midwest, and from Mexico—and even one, Los Gatos, from Japan. And every year thousands of people flocked to the festival from all over Texas and the United States, with international visitors arriving from Mexico, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and other countries.
Like the Tejano Conjunto Festival, this book, Puro Conjunto, An Album in Words and Pictures, celebrates conjunto music. Exploring the music from a wide variety of vantage points, it provides a panoramic portrait of this vital popular art form. It offers seventeen years' worth of writings on conjunto and a special commemorative portfolio of posters and photographs.
Prior to the festival's inception, only a handful of writers had taken up the subject of conjunto music, and consequently very little had been published on it. Even today, other than the present volume there are only three books dealing extensively or substantially with conjunto. This collection should thus serve as a valuable resource for students of Chicano music and culture.
All the writings in the collection originally appeared in the festival's Tonantzin in the years 1982 through 1998. There are thirty-three pieces, diverse in genre. They include scholarly essays, popular accounts, interviews, personal histories, poetry, and short stories. Twenty-four authors are represented, among them some of the most renowned Tejano-music scholars and journalists. Most of the articles were commissioned specifically for Tonantzin. Few have been published elsewhere.
The book has been organized thematically rather than chronologically (according to the years in which the articles were published). It is important, however, to keep in mind when these pieces first appeared, because they contain specific temporal references—to the conjunto festival, to certain individuals, some of whom have since died, and to occasions and places. For this reason, the year of publication is included on the title page of each chapter.
Because the writings were previously published, they underwent only minimal editing for this book. The titles of a few articles were altered slightly, primarily for concision.
The portfolio contains color reproductions of seventeen Tejano Conjunto Festival posters along with twenty-two black-and-white festival photographs. The photos are all by native sanantoniano Al Rendón, who has photographed the festival throughout much of its history. The posters, representing the first seventeen years of the festival, are the official posters for each year, selected by means of a juried contest. Three artists won the contest twice, so there are fourteen artists represented here. They are a widely diverse group, especially in terms of art background and style, and include commercial artists and both self-taught and academically trained fine artists.
The Seven Parts
Part One. Part 1, which consists of one article, provides a basic introduction to conjunto music. In this "primer," the San Antonio columnist Carlos Guerra describes the beginnings of conjunto in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among poor mexicanos in rural South Texas. He also discusses the subsequent development of this highly danceable form of music, giving special emphasis to the instrumentation of the traditional, four-piece conjunto ensemble.
Part Two. The eight articles in part 2 explore conjunto history from a variety of perspectives. Manuel Peña, the foremost scholar of Tejano music, contributes three essays. In the first one, he discusses the emergence of conjunto music among the working-class TexasMexican people during the 19ZOS and 1930S. Pena traces the stylistic development and maturation of this music through the 1960S, examining the contributions of such influential performers as Narciso Martínez, Santiago Jiménez, Sr., and Paulino Bernal. He focuses on the sociosymbolic significance of conjunto music for working-class Texas-Mexicans in relation to both Anglo domination and the emerging Mexican American middle class.
Peña's second article examines the relationship between conjunto and orquesta tejana during the period 1935-1965. Peña demonstrates how both forms, in a "remarkable accident of history," came into their own at the same time. He also explores the dynamics that sustain these twin forms, considering them in terms of working class versus middle class, ethnic resistance versus cultural assimilation, ranchero versus jaitón.
In his third essay, Peña surveys the first fifty years (1936-1986) of conjunto music, recapitulating the significant contributions of the key figures in the genre. He concludes that since the late sixties conjunto music has maintained a conservative, stable course without any major innovations. And that in spite of commercialization and the onslaught of "pop" music, conjunto music "continues to provide the tejano working class not only with a satisfying vehicle for esthetic expression, but also with a powerful source of self-identity and cultural reafffirmation."
Part 2 continues with the Mexican writer Carlos Gómez Flores, who takes a look at the historical development of música norteña (conjunto's cousin, the accordion-based music of northern Mexico) and conjunto tejano. He offers a comparison of accordion styles on both sides of the border and quotes from interviews with such norteño notables as Juan Torres, the accordionist from Los Tremendos Gavilanes, and Javier Ríos, from Los Invasores de Nuevo León.
The next four articles in part 2 address an assortment of conjuntohistory topics. The music writer Ramón Hernández goes in search of three of the best bajo sexto players in the history of conjunto music: Santiago Almeida, Reynaldo Barrera, and Eloy Bernal. The article by Ramiro Burr, music writer with the San Antonio Express-News, provides an overview of women in conjunto music beginning with Lydia Mendoza, Carmen y Laura, and Chelo Silva, and ending with Chavela, Lupita Rodela, Eva Ybarra, and Laura Canales. Burr briefly explores the reasons for the scarcity of women in conjunto music. In the following article, the San Antonio novelist Max Martínez traces the development of one of the greatest conjuntos in the history of Tejano music: E1 Conjunto Bernal. The last article in part 2—by Carmen Luévanos, a graduate student at the time— poses the provocative question, Did the Tejano Conjunto Festival start out as a celebration for Chicano people and end up being for the tourists?
Part Three. Part 3 focuses on the two principal instruments in the conjunto ensemble—accordion and bajo sexto—and also on the saxophone, which has played a peripheral albeit interesting and increasingly important role in the modern, progressive-style conjunto.
In the section's first article, Carlos Guerra informs us that the accordion was invented by Friedrich Buschmann in 1822 in Berlin, and then apparently reinvented the following year by Cyril Demian in Vienna. Guerra goes on to trace the accordion's evolution and discuss some of the different types in existence. Ramiro Burr follows with a look at the accordion and its importance in the world-music scene. He also examines its growing presence in U.S. popular music. What explains the accordion's recent comeback? he asks. For him the answer is simple: in the age of high tech, it's an acoustic instrument that produces earthy sounds and makes the kind of "real" music that people are craving.
The bajo sexto is the subject of the next two articles. Ramón Hernández provides us with a brief account of the origins of this twelve-string, bass-rhythm guitar, and also discusses its tuning. In addition, he explores the bajo sexto's uniqueness and its incorporation into the conjunto ensemble as the principal companion instrument to the accordion. The article by Ron Young, a music journalist and songwriter, focuses on Martín Maícas, master craftsman and specialist in handmade bajo sextos and guitars, and the legacy that he left his sons Alberto and Luis.
Part 3 ends with a groundbreaking essay by José Cuéllar, a San Francisco-based scholar, activist, and musician. His article chronicles the introduction and development of the saxophone in the kin traditions of Tejano and norteño music. He examines the life and music of various saxophonists on both sides of the border, contrasting their distinctive styles of playing. Cuellar concludes that the saxophone has become integral to the sound of contemporary norteño and Tejano groups.
Part Four. Part 4, the portfolio of posters and photographs, serves as a centerpiece, and visual counterpoint. Most of the photographs depict major conjunto figures—such as Narciso Martínez, Valerio Longoria, Tony de la Rosa, Esteban Jordán, and Eva Ybarra—performing live at the Tejano Conjunto Festival. Other photos capture different aspects of the festival, such as Lydia Mendoza accepting her Conjunto Music Hall of Fame award, Flaco Jiménez signing an autograph for a fan, and a couple dancing in the chuco serrucho style. All the photographs were shot at the festival except for three: Valerio Longoria's accordion class at the Harlandale Civic Center, Toby Torres's bajo sexto class at Toby's Custom Recording Studio, and Santiago Jiménez, Jr., performing at a student recital at the Guadalupe Theater.
The posters' colorful images represent conjunto music and the Tejano Conjunto Festival in ways that words could never do. The poster from 1983, for example, depicts a typical restaurant "tabletop-scape" complete with salt and pepper shakers, pico de gallo and salsa dispensers, and a cold glass of beer. Above the table is an old-style jukebox selector listing songs by conjunto artists. You can almost hear the music as it pulsates from the small speakers. The poster from 1985 portrays the conlunto pioneer Don Santiago Jiménez, Sr., playing his two-row button accordion as he looms like a saint over the San Antonio skyline. In contrast, the central figure in the 1988 poster is a Chicano man who plays a double-sided accordion. Sporting a golden guayabera and dark gray pants, he also has chicken feet! He is the devil that is said to appear at bailes all over South Texas. All of these posters are classics. They eloquently convey the spirit and texture of conjunto music and the culture that gave birth to it.
Part Five. Part 5 addresses the cultural and social aspects of conjunto. In the first article the scholar Jose Reyna explores Tejano music as a major source of cultural identity and pride for Tejanos— which in turn, he argues, explains the music's survival and growth. In the following article, the sociologists Avelardo Valdez and Jeffrey Halley demonstrate that the increased popularity of conjunto during the 1980S—and of Tejano music, in general—is linked to changes in Chicano class formation and cultural identity. The authors describe how different "scenes" such as clubs and festivals attract people from different social classes. Chicano music is a hybrid, just like the Chicano people. Thus it expresses a reconciliation of diversity and class distinctions that affirms ethnic identity. The ethnomusicologist Cathy Ragland also explores the complex relationship between Tejano music and social identity. In addition, her article offers an analysis of how this music must compete as a commodity in the popular-music industry.
In the next article, Avelardo Valdez and Jeffrey Halley apply their critical perspective to the question of why there are so few women in conjunto music. Is this scarcity due to the machismo of the Chicano culture? they ask. Or does it reflect relations in general between men and women in the music world and in the larger culture? Valdez and Halley contend that it involves a combination of both factors. Part 5 concludes with an essay by the noted anthropologist José Limón, who takes us on an ethnographic excursion in search of that devil figure—güero, good looking, and debonair— who has been spotted at Chicano dance halls throughout South Texas.
Part Six. In part 6, "Platicando con los Grandes: Interviews with Conjunto Legends," we hear from the musicians themselves. The first four chapters contain one-of-a-kind interviews with Santiago Jiménez, Sr., Valerio Longoria, Eva Ybarra, and Bruno Villarreal that provide valuable insights into the lives and music of these important conjunto accordionists and tradition bearers. The last chapter in part 6, " ¡Conjunto! Estilo y Clase," presents edited interviews with six major accordionists: Narciso Martínez, Valerio Longoria (again), Tony de la Rosa, Paulino Bernal, Flaco Jiménez, and Esteban Jordán. In this set of interviews, the goal was to have these conjunto artists talk about their views on style: whether they felt that distinctive styles had developed within conjunto, what characterized these styles, and who the major stylists were. All of the interviews are presented in the original Spanish and followed by English translations, done specifically for this book.
Part Seven. Part 7, which ends the book, consists of two personal histories, five poems, and two short stories, in that order. In the opening essay, Ismael Dovalina traces his affinity for conjunto music, recounting how he came to take accordion classes with Santiago Jiménez, Jr., and describing the discoveries he made as a beginning accordionist. In the second essay, I explore the path that took me from my culturally discordant childhood and adolescence in San Antonio, to my involvement in the Chicano Movement and my work with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the Tejano Conjunto Festival.
Of the five poems included in this section, two are homenajes to Esteban Jordán, el mago del acordeón. Eden Torres and Jerry Tumlinson evoke the spirit and style of Jordán and his music in their poetic tributes. Lonnie Guerrero's canción-style poem petitions Valerio Longoria for a job with his conjunto. Frances Yturri depicts the sultry magic of conjunto music on a hot summer night. And José Flores Peregrino takes us to "El Baile Grande," where one can see, hear, and feel the musicians, the music, and the dancers as they unite in the celebratory ritual of the big dance.
Part 7 concludes with two short stories. Joe Saldívar's "Body by Fisher" is a classic tale of barrio life set in the West Side of San Antonio. Excitement and tension mount as a special group of camaradas prepare to attend a wedding dance, where Mingo Saldívar y sus Tremendos Cuatro Espadas will be playing. Finally, Susana Nevárez Morton's "Conjunto Memories" tells the story of a teenage girl who asks her mother to show her how to dance. Her mother complies by teaching her how to dance to conjunto music. In the process, the daughter learns not only about her heritage, her mother, and herself, but also about the father she had never known.
As Tony de la Rosa says, "el corazon es el que manda, y es bonito, es lo mas bonito." Conjunto music springs from the very heart and soul of the Chicano people. We hope that this book will in some measure convey its breadth, depth, and beauty.
*Translation: Well, as you already know that I rarely speak over the microphone, but it's so good to be with the teachers, and I who was a pupil, to be living and to be on the same stage with them, such as Valerio Longoria, Narciso Martinez [applause], Don Pedro Ayala, the pioneers of the music, the regional style, Don Santiago Jiménez, all the guys. I'm sure that all of them feel as young as I do. It doesn't matter how old they are, but it's the heart that rules, and that's beautiful, that's the most beautiful thing. And I, like they too are known for their polkas, I also have some that you have come to know and [applause] . . . thank you . . . you also accepted us for that. And we've got a few other little things that we're going to play for you right now, but I couldn't come to one of these things and know that everyone else played their polkas, and I not play my own.