Chapter 5 “Tejano and Proud”: Regional Accordion Traditions of South Texas and the Border Region
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5 “Tejano and Proud” Regional Accordion Traditions of South Texas and the Border Region cathy ragland Atthe1993TejanoConjuntoFestivalenSanAntonio,thepioneeringaccordionist NarcisoMartínezdidnotperformashehaddonealmosteveryyearsincethefirst festivalin1982.HisdeathinJune1992markedformanyconjuntomusiciansand enthusiasts the end of an era in the history of Mexican American music in Texas. And though the entire festival in 1993 was dedicated to the memory of Martínez, it continued on as it had in the past. The raíces (roots) night in which Martínez had been featured continued to celebrate the influence of conjunto’s pioneers as it had in previous years. Each year since, the festival has been rejuvenated with a newrosterofconjuntoheroesreplacingthosewho,likeMartínez,hadpassedon. The term conjunto, it should be noted, simply means “group” or “ensemble,” but in South Texas it refers to a musical style associated with the Mexican American or “Tejano”—the identifier many people in this region have come to prefer. One notable aspect of 1993’s raíces night was that not one of the accordionists performed without bass and drums. Up until his death, Martínez was one of a handful of accordionists who still performed accompanied only by the bajo sexto (a combination bass/rhythm guitar with twelve—six double-course—strings believed to have originated from the state of Durango in Mexico). In years past, the festival director Juan Tejeda introduced Martínez and his bajo sexto player (usually Fred Zimmerle or Toby Torres, each with his own story as a pioneering artist) as representing the “original conjunto style and where it all began, with just the 88 cathy ragland Figure 5.1  The South Texas-Mexico border region. Map by Helena Simonett. acordeónybajosexto.”1 The double bass (known locally as the tololoche) was added in San Antonio during the late 1940s. Some sixteen years later, there are very few conjuntomusicansatthefestivalwhowouldhaveanymemoryofhearingthegenre playedlivewithouttheelectricbassanddrums.Forthem,thenotionof“traditional conjuntostyle”meanssomethingdifferentthanwhatTejedadescribed.Today,at the annual conjunto festival, there is no longer a “raíces night,” where those who actually made some of the very first recordings of Tejano conjunto, in the 1930s, 1940s, and even the early 1950s, held forth as living proof of the music’s staying power. Those influential artists and accordionists—Martínez, Valerio Longoria, Tony de La Rosa, Juan López—are all gone now, and the new “pioneers” are recognizedforkeepingthemusicaliveastheytravelthe “tacocircuit”ofsmalltowns andurbancentersthattakesthemhundredsofmilesthroughoutSouthTexasand, attimes,topointsfurtherbeyond.Someoftheseartists,likeFlacoJiménez,SantiagoJim énezJr.,MingoSaldívar,andJoelGuzmán,haveevenplayedattheWhite House and to fans throughout Europe and Asia. These individuals have made the music their life’s work, as the first “global” ambassadors of conjunto music and representatives of a people who had once struggled to be counted and recognized fortheircontributionstotheuniquecultureandmusicoftheregion.Buttheyalso 89 “Tejano and Proud” havemuchincommonwiththefirstpioneers.Manyoftheseartistsstillplaysome of the same songs that the raíces artists made popular in their early recordings, and each is known for having crafted a distinct style of accordion playing. Santiago Jiménez Jr., the son of the influential San Antonio accordionist SantiagoSr .(theoriginal“ElFlaco”)andbrothertoLeonardo(Flaco),hassaidthat,to him, “traditional conjunto style is the two-row Hohner accordion, bajosexto, and tololoche(doublebass). . .withnodrums.Thedrumscamelater,andthatchanged thestyle.”2 TonydeLaRosa,whowasaboutadecadeolderthanSantiagoJr.andis credited with having developed the “modern conjunto style” in the mid-1950s, when he added the electric bass and drums to the accordion and bajo sexto core, once said in an interview that “the bajo and I can sit there and play all day and all Figure 5.2  San Antonio accordionist Santiago Jiménez Jr. continues the Jiménez family tradition of playing polkas and schottisches on the German-made Hohner accordion. Photograph by Jane Levine. 90 cathy ragland night long. But for me, if the drums aren’t there I cannot get into the rhythm.”3 Fromthisperiodon,conjuntoaccordionists(typicallytheensembleleaders)could not imagine playing this music without the rhythm section. However, Martínez’s earlyrecordingsin1936onBluebirdRecords(asubsidiaryofRCA),featuringonly the accordion and bajo sexto, are considered by many to be the first recordings of conjunto music and, therefore, the beginning of a Tejano music tradition. By playing vibrant polkas, schottisches, mazurkas, waltzes, and Mexican huapangos (afolkdancewitharapidlyalternatingrhythmicpattern)onthetreblebuttonsof the Hohner, two-row diatonic accordion and leaving the bass notes alone, Mart ínezallowedhisbajosextoplayer,SantiagoAlmeida,theopportunitytodevelopa distinctivestyleofplayingbyusingacross-pickingtechniquewithanalternating pattern and by playing the notes of the bass chord individually. This approach to playing the instrument produced a syncopated effect and increased the tempo of these rhythms (and the dancing), which set the Texas-Mexican sound apart from that of the local German and Czech population, who initially brought the accordion and early repertoire to the region. These early Martínez-Almeida recordings made the pairing...


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