Remember the Conjunto: San Antonio’s flourishing festival celebrates a revitalized roots music
Tejeda details his musical homecoming as a young prodigal in one of the book’s pivotal contributions, “An Odyssey Through The Magical Land Of Conjunto.” He describes his coming of age in San Antonio, how he learned the accordion from conjunto master Santiago Jimenez Jr., then became increasingly embarrassed by the instrument when he embraced the likes of Grand Funk Railroad and Jethro Tull as a high-school rocker, before attending the University of Texas in Austin.
Though Chicano is the majority culture of San Antonio, Tejeda discovered that it was all but invisible at UT, reinforcing the need among those who shared his background to sustain a cultural identity. In the process, he had to confront some issues that had been plaguing him since grade school, where even Chicanos in the majority carried the stigma of cultural inferiority.
“Why was conjunto music inferior to rock and roll?” he questioned. “Why were tacos inferior to sandwiches? Why was English better than Spanish? Why was white skin better than brown? Why did I feel this way? Where was it coming from? Why did I feel ashamed of my parents, my music, myself?”
For Tejeda, the book represents the culmination of a 20-year crusade to give conjunto its proper artistic legitimacy, to transform what had once been an anachronistic embarrassment for assimilationist-minded Tejanos into a source of cultural pride. When Tejeda launched the fest in 1982, accordion-driven conjunto was largely considered a stereotyped cantina cliche, popular among older generations of the working class and rural poor but rejected by more sophisticated ears. Younger listeners held the accordion music in the same regard that rock fans held Lawrence Welk.
“We wanted to change some attitudes about the music, not only outside of our people but within our community,” continues Tejeda (who left both the fest and the center in 1998, after failing to receive a promotion to executive director). In conjunction with the festival, Tejeda and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center founded the Conjunto Hall of Fame, established an annual poster contest to engage the artistic imagination of younger Chicanos, and commissioned a series of essays and studies to run in the fest’s annual program.
Despite the book’s title, Puro Conjunto is a contradiction in terms, for this was a musical mongrel from the start. As various essays in the book detail, the German settlement of central Texas through the late 19th century introduced the Mexicans who had long made the region their home to both the accordion and the polka, which were easily adapted to the Spanish language and the Tex-Mex musical spirit. In the 1930s, Narisco Martinez, the “father of conjunto,” took the music into the recording studio, while his contemporary Santiago Jimenez (the original “El Flaco,” “the skinny one”) showed that the virtuosity of this rural music could thrive in urban San Antonio.
After World War II, Valerio Longoria added drums to the basic conjunto, while Tony de la Rosa refined the technique of a slower bass tempo and a staccato upper register that distinguishes conjunto accordion. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Santiago Jimenez’s son, who would become the more famous Flaco, introduced the music to fans beyond the barrio, through his appearance in Les Blank’s Chula Fronteras film, his session work with Doug Sahm and Ry Cooder, and a resume that has broadened his worldwide renown over the decades since.
Though conjunto remains its own musical microcosm — and has come to encompass influences from cumbia to country to blues and rock — its popular rise parallels the resurgence of roots music across the broader musical culture. As the ’70s saw a revival of interest in conjunto among young Chicanos, their counterparts in southwestern Louisiana were reclaiming the French patois of traditional Cajun and zydeco music, while honky-tonk revivalism began attracting rock fans who had little affinity for the slicker countrypolitan fare of commercial country.
In each case, a musical form that had been considered old-fashioned and working-class, an albatross from which the upwardly mobile must distance themselves, renewed itself as a progressive alternative to mainstream culture’s homogenized sprawl.
In the process, the humble accordion found itself redeemed as an antidote to soul-deadening technology, as the squeezebox extended its popular domain from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to the “Streets of Bakersfield.” Compared with synthesizers that could do anything but seemed to feel nothing, the accordion sounded human.
“This thing breathes,” insists Esteban Jordan, as quoted by Carlos Guerra in the book’s “Accordion Menace…Just Say Mo’!” “It breathes just like we do.”