- Old School Polkas Del Ghost Town and Other Conjunto Music of South Texas by Lorenzo Martinez and Ramon “Rabbit” Sanchez
Old School Polkas Del Ghost Town is a seminal introduction to conjunto tejano and the playing of two contemporary masters: accordionist Lorenzo Martinez and bajo sexto player Ramon “Rabbit” Sanchez. The album was released by Spring Fed Records, based at Middle Tennessee State University, in 2017. As a label with releases ranging from fiddler Clyde Davenport to the Indian Creek Delta Boys and Mississippi John Hurt, it is notable that this is their first conjunto offering and that two others (with bajo player Belen Escobedo and accordionist Felipe Pérez) were released in 2018.
For the uninitiated, a brief introduction to conjunto music is given in the excellent liner notes written by Dan Margolies. “Conjunto music,” Margolies writes, “is the music of Mexican-American South Texas, played on the button accordion and a unique twelve string bass called a bajo sexto. Conjunto is dance music and beer drinking music coming straight out of the cantinas and dance halls.” In these general notes as well as those that are tune-specific, Margolies places Lorenzo Martinez and Ramon Sanchez in context as innovators of conjunto who learned from the foundational masters of the genre. In its formation, conjunto was a proletarian and folk-based form distinct from orquestras and other music designated for high [End Page 99] society. But class designations have never suited conjunto, and it has crossed borders and genres time and time again, even in “Ghost Town” (a colloquial name for the San Antonio neighborhood where Martinez and Sanchez grew up). Martinez and Sanchez, then, present an advanced and novel repertoire in Old School Polkas that is a diasporic cross-section of older influences, incorporating many forms and styles into their conjunto that are impressive to hear today but would also likely delight their forebears. “They boast a rare and beautiful repertoire that is no longer being played by contemporary conjunto musicians,” Margolies writes, and this is the single best element on display in this catchy, upbeat, and virtuosic collection.
For reasons of American prejudices and ethnocentrism, conjunto has never been incorporated into the canon of American roots music, Margolies tells us. Indeed, widespread commercial appreciation of the music only occurred when Okeh, Bluebird, and other labels, having found great success with their “race records,” hoped to find another music with the potential to be a cross-racial hit. In finding audiences for Great Depression-era musicians like Bruno Villarreal, Narcisco Martinez, and Don Santiago Jiménez (from whom Lorenzo Martinez learned directly), record companies did give a few conjuntos larger audiences and small paychecks for music that might otherwise have been lost at los bailes de negocio (rowdy dances) or other marginalized rural venues. That said, the interest of these labels in Texas-Mexican vernacular music was fleeting. Even as innovation flourished in the clubs of San Antonio after World War II, both Martinez and Sanchez worked a variety of working-class jobs across the country to support themselves. Sanchez once sold his bajo sexto (but bought it back—one of the many good stories in the liner notes), and Martinez even gave up playing accordion to support his family, returning to the music a decade later with the help of other musicians. These departures and returns demonstrate the musical ability of the duo and the vibrancy of the conjunto community, which Margolies calls “a true model of a sustainable tradition of regional vernacular music making,” where artists visit, share, ask, and investigate their music. Still, it is true that even those who reached considerable fame in conjunto have rarely made a living playing it.
This project from Spring Fed, then, is refreshingly progressive, featuring playing that is broad in genre and varied in style while still being definitively “puro conjunto”: both Martinez and Sanchez have incredible performance résumés...