Conjunto music, the accordion style so popular with Mexican Americans throughout the Southwest, comprises a cornerstone of the Frontera Collection. Yet conjunto as such does not appear on the list of Top 20 genres compiled for my book
about the Frontera archive and published in 2012 by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press. That fact points to a confusion about the term that sometimes stumps even fans familiar with the genre.
So what is conjunto? The term itself simply means a group or collection of similar elements. And that could be anything: a conjunto of rocks, of stars, of delinquents, scientists, or social problems. As long as the set has something in common, it’s a conjunto. That easily translates to music where, generically speaking, conjuntos are ensembles of musicians that play a certain type of music. You could call it a combo or group. But in Latin America, the term has come to define specific types of music, such as Afro-Cuban conjuntos like Eddie Palmieri’s “La Perfecta,” which helped spark the salsa boom in New York during the 1960s and ’70s. In the Southwest, especially in Texas, the conjunto emerged as the U.S. cousin of Mexican norteño bands.
What’s confusing to people is that normally musical genres aren’t identified by the collective of musicians that perform them. We say rock, not guitar and drums music. Classical, not orchestra music. Jazz, not … well, sometimes we do say big band music. To add to the confusion, Tex-Mex conjuntos play styles of music that we recognize as clearly defined genres. They play polkas (No. 5 on the Frontera list of Top 20 genres), corridos (No. 3), boleros (No. 2) and cumbias (No. 9). (Similarly, Afro-Cuban conjuntos play mambos, guarachas, and cha-cha-chas.)
Some sources, like this Wikipedia entry
, try to define conjunto by its instrumentation: the button accordion, the bajo sexto, an electric bass, and a drum kit. Yet, that is also the basic makeup of norteño groups from Northern Mexico. Música norteña is also a genre unto itself, No. 20 on the Frontera list. Both genres, conjunto and norteño, are interconnected because they both developed along the border, part of the rural, working-class culture that flows freely between the two countries along the Rio Bravo. While closely related they are also distinct, comparable to the close relationship between British and American rock music.
When it comes to conjunto and norteño, it’s difficult to pin down the difference. Norteño groups also feature accordions with vocals and they play polkas, corridos, boleros, etc. So what separates them? Most people just say they know it when they hear it. But there is a fine technical distinction that sets conjunto music apart. Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection and a recognized expert in the field, traces the evolution of the style to accordion player Narciso Martinez, the acknowledged father of conjunto music who grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The accordion pioneer emphasized the melody side of his instrument and left the bass lines to his bajo sexto player. “This established a new sound,” Strachwitz notes, “a sound which to this day is immediately identifiable as Texas-Mexican Conjunto Music.”
The record collector and producer also makes a distinction in vocal styles between conjunto and norteño groups, and he has a clear favorite.
“The conjunto musicians today generally do not sing well, while the norteños, who grew up on the ranchos and are often duetos composed of brothers, have that lovely high pitched rural singing style I much prefer,” says Strachwitz who produced the 1976 documentary Chulas Fronteras focusing on the border music styles. “Judging by what I heard at this last Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, I feel the conjunto genre is barely surviving because it is just one of many urban Latin music styles, while norteño still has a huge rural, lower-class following.”
Martinez began his recording career in 1936, but the earliest conjunto recordings go back a few years earlier. Strachwitz explains:
“An accordionist by the name of Roberto Rodriguez
was actually the first to make a recording in the conjunto style, on June 11, 1930, in San Antonio. The few sides he made, however, either did not have the sound the public wanted or the 75-cent record price at the start of the Great Depression was too high. For whatever reason, he was apparently not asked to return to the recording studio. The next day, however, on June 12, 1930, the same label – the OKeh record company – recorded a blind musician by the name of Bruno Villareal
, who from all accounts played a small piano accordion. Billed as ‘El Azote del Valle’ (The Scourge of the Valley), he went on to record prolifically over the next several years, aided no doubt by the fact that by the mid-1930s, during the depth of the Depression, most record prices had dropped to 35 cents. He is today generally recognized as the first conjunto accordionist on records, many of which are found in the Frontera Collection. (The "Valley" in his nickname, of course, refers to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the border region, where all this music originated.)”
That passage is taken from the producer’s liner notes for the album Narciso Martinez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto (Ideal/Arhoolie CD-361
). Luckily, you can find the full text online
as part of a fascinating and informative collection of articles and essays called Border Cultures: Conjunto Music
presented by the University of Texas at Austin.
The site is a terrific primer on the genre. As stated in its introduction, “The links on this page provide starting points for learning about the conjunto musical style, its history, cultural significance, and artistry.”
The site is divided into three sections:
2. “Yo Soy de Aqui,” a collection of photos of accordion players from central Texas, taken by Daniel Schaefer.
3. An extensive collection of essays and liner notes from Arhoolie Records titled “The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music.”
Aside from the notes on Martinez, the Arhoolie material also includes articles on San Antonio conjuntos from the golden years of the 1950s and a focus on the women artists of tejano music.
After perusing the articles, come back to the Frontera Collection and listen to the music. The Tex-Mex conjunto is amply represented here by stars such as Martinez, Flaco Jimenez, Paulino Bernal and Valerio Longoria. And women are also an essential part of the collection, with recordings made in the Southwest by artists such as Lydia Mendoza, Chelo Silva, and the duet of Carmen y Laura, to name a few.
After a while of absorbing the conjunto sound, pretty soon you’ll know it when you hear it.