- Defining Conjunto Quantitatively:Classical and Modernist Styles in a Texas-Mexican Genre
Betraying the genre's heritage in European influences, one of the most frequently recorded songs within the Texas-Mexican conjunto tradition is the "Beer Barrel Polka," translated into Spanish as "El Barrilito." Composed by Czech musician Jaromír Vejvoda and popular worldwide during World War II, the tune has been recorded by a variety of conjunto artists, including the so-called "father of conjunto music" Narciso Martínez; other eminent early stars like Tony De La Rosa, Valerio Longoria, and Ruben Vela; more stylistically innovative musicians like Flaco Jiménez; and even members of the subsequent generation like Max Baca. However, contemporary Texas-Mexican musicians like Juanito Castillo, Piñata Protest, and Sunny Sauceda have not recorded the classic song. This first group of artists represents a collective tradition comprising a common repertory passed down through oral tradition. Meanwhile, recent musicians like Castillo, Piñata Protest, and Sauceda instead create original repertory alongside borrowed songs and stylistic traits from rock, country, and the blues (among others). In addition, while conjunto itself and many of its early artists initiated in rural communities along the Texas-Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley, this "modernist" group of musicians (my term) emanates from the urban center of San Antonio. The quantitative methods in this article then highlight two divergent [End Page 75] versions of the genre, both characterized as "conjunto." The "classic" version of the genre represents a rural, working-class, shared tradition. Meanwhile, the modernist version of the genre has increasingly become an urban, middle-class, autonomous art form.
Furthermore, a number of inter/national musicians have recently started participating in the regional conjunto tradition. Although these artists might be expected to insert elements of their own geographic and/ or cultural heritages into the music, they instead closely follow classic practices. For example, "Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio" was written by Santiago Jiménez Sr., the father of Flaco and a pioneer of the conventional conjunto sound. The song has been recorded by a range of local artists, international conjunto participants, and nationally oriented musicians like the Texas Tornados and Los Lobos. However, it has not been recorded by the modernist group of local conjunto artists—a network of musicians who, secure in their cultural positionality, largely eschew classical repertory for independent song choices and connections to genres like rock and country.1
In recent practices, shared songs represent the role of either classicism or modernism in each musician's interpretation of conjunto. Quantitative methods demonstrate that inter/national artists join with an older generation of regional musicians to maintain a shared repertory, consistent structures, and expected sounds; in short, a classical style. Younger artists in the Texas-Mexican community instead modernize the music through new stylistic traits and original songs. Furthermore, while both versions of the music are subsumed under a categorization of "conjunto," each represents a distinctive repertory and associated group of people. As such, the tradition complicates analytical links between genre and sociocultural identity. The historical notion of genre—as cultivated most prominently as a marketing device in popular music throughout the twentieth century—sets up a homologous system of categorization that connects musical traits to demographics. As David Brackett describes, in historical practices, "a race record finds an African American audience; an old-time record finds a rural, white, Southern audience; a mainstream record finds a white, bourgeois, Northern, urban audience; and a foreign record finds a foreigner."2 As this article will explore, despite these essentializing connections (i.e., conjunto as idiomatically Texas-Mexican; the music and associated community inextricably linked as simplistic and old-fashioned), such systems often remain stubbornly in place. While such categorizations do not seem to indicate any purposeful exclusions, the conjunto genre remains linked to intrinsic understandings of identity, beyond interpretation or intent.
Throughout this analysis, I use the term classical to refer to music that maintains a shared repertory among a wide range of musical participants, considers individual songs as belonging to the community rather than [End Page 76] a single artist, and does not address a national, mainstream audience or use monetary incentive...