Remember the Conjunto: San Antonio’s flourishing festival celebrates a revitalized roots music
“The festival was a celebration of a music, a people, a culture. It was la raza reclaiming their identity, their rights, their public space. It was sharing. It was sacred.”
— Juan Tejeda, “Introduction,” Puro Conjunto
“From the Anglo Texan perspective, the Texas Mexican was indistinguishable from the Mexican and historically was held to second-class citizen status. However, among audiences outside of Texas, conjunto was being described as pure Texas roots music.”
— Cathy Ragland, “La Voz Del Pueblo Tejano: Conjunto Music And The Construction Of Tejano Identity In Texas,” Puro Conjunto
“Don Americo Paredes, the famous anthropologist at the University of Texas, Austin, observed in class one day that many festivals originate ‘by the people, for the people’ and then move toward ‘by the people, for the tourists.'”
— Carmen Luevanos, “The Tejano Conjunto Festival En San Antonio: Eight Years Of Change,” Puro Conjunto
The exhaustively detailed, handsomely illustrated Puro Conjunto: An Album In Words & Pictures can’t help but enrich any fan’s appreciation of this irresistibly vibrant music. But at the same time, the collection of essays — from the aridly academic to the colloquially personal — reinforces the sense that those of us who are converts to conjunto will never have the same affinity as those born to it.
In examining the history, sociology and development of the music long dismissed as basic barroom fare, Puro Conjunto explores issues of class distinction and prejudice, of assimilation and acculturation, of maintaining pride in one’s cultural identity as that culture inevitably evolves, with implications that extend well beyond the sprightly notes of the button accordion against the bass progressions of the bajo sexto.
The book anthologizes some 17 years of writing and posters initially commissioned by the Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio. It’s hard to imagine any fest that feels more like a family reunion than the annual gathering at the city’s west side Rosedale Park, where the music will return May 8-12 this year.
On weeknights and all-day weekends, teenagers and grandparents engage in a counter-clockwise twirl around the floor of the open-air dance pavilion, while the full continuum of conjunto, from traditional roots to the showiest strains of more pop-oriented Tejano, takes the bandstand. Kids swarm the playground down the hill to the soundtrack of perpetual accordion, as aromas from the stands selling everything from chicken fajitas to cheese enchiladas to fried tripe tacos — family and communal recipes rather than restaurant fare — reinforce the significance of music and food as flip sides of the same cultural coin.
Increasingly, the festival has been extending its hospitality to fans from near (Austin) and far (California, Europe), while presenting conjunto in conjunction with related strains from zydeco to country. Yet the fest remains a communal celebration rather than a tourist attraction. Whether Los Lobos is paying homage to Esteban “Steve” Jordan — the virtuosic San Antonio visionary who is to conjunto what Ornette Coleman is to free jazz, what Jimi Hendrix was to rock guitar — or Flaco Jimenez is returning to home base after spreading the seeds of conjunto throughout the world, the majority of the music comes from artists rarely heard beyond the Chicano community.
With booking for this year’s fest still in the early stages, headliners likely will include Mingo Saldivar, Los Dos Gilbertos and veteran balladeer Ruben Ramos, while the event is importing one band — Conjunto San Antonio — all the way from Spain. “Conjunto,” in Spanish, simply means group, though as a musical category it denotes the dance music of an ensemble featuring guitar and bajo sexto, most typically in combination with drums and electric bass.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten a larger Anglo crossover audience, but this is our music, with a very special connection for the Chicano people,” says Juan Tejeda, the book’s co-editor, who founded the Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio in 1982 as director of the Xicano Music Program at the sponsoring Guadalupe Cultural Art Center. “We grew up with it, our parents were listening to it when we were young, it’s part of our culture. We may leave and go through a cycle of rock or jazz or blues, but conjunto is always there, always with you. And eventually you come back to your roots.”