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Narciso Martinez

Artist Biography: Los Donneños, Norteño Pioneers

Los Donneños, a duet formed in the late 1940s in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, were pioneers in the evolution of norteño music during the 1950s. They went on to become one of the first Tex-Mex acts to find major success on both sides of the border.

            The historic duet was formed by two musicians, Ramiro Cavazos on guitar and Mario Montes on accordion. They both hailed from the Mexican border state of Nuevo Leon, but they met only after moving to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

            Cavazos was born in 1927 in Garza Ayala, a rural community on the road between Monterrey, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. Montes was born four years earlier in General Terán, southwest of Monterrey, home to another famed norteño group from the same period, Los Alegres de Terán, Tomás Ortiz and Eugenio Abrego. In fact, in the early years of both acts, Cavazos performed with Los Alegres and actually recorded with them on several 78s for the Orfeo label, billing themselves as Ortiz y Cavazos con el Dueto Abrego.

            Cavazos and Montes immigrated separately to the United States and met in the sleepy town of Donna, Texas, named after the daughter of an early frontier developer, Thomas Jefferson Hooks. When they arrived in the late 1940s, the town of some 5,000 residents still had schools with three tiers of segregation: whites, Mexicans, and migrants.

             In Donna, both musicians held day jobs while pursuing their passion for music—Montes picking fruit in the fields and Cavazos washing dishes at a small restaurant for $14 a week.

            More than 60 years later, Cavazos still fondly recalled the first time he met his future partner, as he told journalist Eduardo Martinez in a 2012 interview published by The Monitor of McAllen, Texas. He said he was riding his bicycle one day when he saw two men playing music on the street. When Cavazos approached, one of the men, who turned out to be Montes, asked if he was a musician. Yes, Cavazos said, he played the guitar and sang. That’s all it took to strike up a lifelong musical partnership.

            Cavazos and Montes made their first recordings in 1947 for Discos Falcon, based in McAllen. According to an article in El Extra, a news website in South Texas, the initial tracks were “Ojos Negros Nunca Engañan” (Dark Eyes Never Lie) and “El Corrido De Bernabé Mata,” released on 78-rpm disc the following year. However, the Frontera Collection has a different song on the flip side of the duo’s debut disc – “Así Se Baila en Reynosa” (This is How They Dance in Reynosa). The aforementioned corrido is cited incorrectly; it’s actually titled “Bernardo Mata” and is a popular ballad that appears in the Frontera archive by a dozen different artists. In the database, recordings of the corrido by Los Donneños include a 45-rpm single and an album track on a greatest-hits compilation, both on Falcon’s Bronco imprint.

            The group’s early recordings featured Cavazos on guitar rather than the traditional bajo sexto. But he would soon take up the 12-string guitar commonly used in conjunto music because he said it had a stronger and more appealing sound. He won acclaim for his style on the instrument, which played bass lines against the accordion in these early duets.

            Following that first recording session, Falcon label owner Arnaldo Ramirez dubbed the new act Los Donneños, based on the fact that they were residing in Donna. The artists were perplexed, however, because they were actually from Mexico and had just recently moved to their namesake city, and didn’t stay there long. But the name stuck, as if they were native sons.

            Still, their partnership remained fluid in the early days.

Montes soon married a U.S. citizen and legalized his status. Meanwhile, Cavazos, who remained undocumented until 1954, would spend time across the border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. There, just across the river from McAllen, he played guitar with Los Alegres, performed constantly, and made good money. The musician recalled that heady time in an interview with Frontera Collection founder Chris Strachwitz, who wrote liner notes for a 2006 retrospective album, Los Donneños: Grabaciones Originales/Historic First Recordings, 1950-1954 (Arhoolie 9057).

            “Around 1950, Ramiro made more records with Tomas Ortiz for the Orfeo label but earned his living playing weddings, quinceafieras, and on weekends in the cantinas,” Strachwitz wrote. “Ramiro said that in those beer joints there was plenty of money to be made from the Braceros who had come back from the cotton fields of Texas and wouldn't let the musicians go until two or three in the morning. They charged three Mexican pesos per song and made about 40 or 50 pesos each per night, with which he says you could live like a king!”

            Later in the 1950s, Cavazos and Montes appeared in five films along with the colorful norteño singer and movie star Lalo Gonzalez, a.k.a. "El Piporro." In this clip from the 1959 film Dos Corazones y un Cielo, the duo expertly accompanies the showy star on the comically flirtatious ditty, “Las Quedadas” (The Spinsters). Piporro also took Los Donneños on tour as his backup group throughout the United States, Venezuela, and Cuba, boosting their popularity internationally.

            When their Falcon recording contract expired in 1954, the duo went looking for better deals, as Strachwitz notes. They first jumped to Discos Torero, a Corpus Christi label owned by Genaro Tamez. Frontera has 32 of those tracks, all 78- or 45-rpm singles, on Torero, whose slogan was “Cada Disco, Dos Exitos.”

            By the time the duo returned to Mexico in 1957, they had signed a new contract with Columbia Records, recruited by the label’s renowned artistic director Felipe Valdez Leal. They remained on the Columbia roster for the next 17 years, defying the presumption that Mexico City labels were not interested in promoting “low-class” conjunto music from across the border.

            More than 140 of those Columbia sides, mostly 45-rpm singles, are featured in the Frontera Collection. They include a newer version of the corrido of “Bernardo Mata” with improved sound quality that is especially noticeable on the vocal harmonies. In all, the archive holds a total of 373 tracks by Los Donneños on some 20 labels, with Cavazos credited as composer on dozens of tunes.

            In 1962, their wide popularity was confirmed with their triumph at a national competition involving more than 85 musical acts, held in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. Los Donneños walked away as Campeones Nacionales de la Musica Norteña, the recognized leaders in their field. The win gave them the nickname of champions: “Los Campeonísimos Donneños.”

            By the mid ’70s, the duo had returned permanently to the United States. Cavazos opened his own record label, Discos RyN, and a retail music store in downtown McAllen. His store became a cultural hub in the area, and the label recorded many important artists from the Rio Grande Valley, including Narciso Martinez, Conjunto Tamaulipas, Beto Quintanilla, and Ruben Vela. Sealing the band's cross-border ties, Montes married Alma de la Garza on February 25, 1951, their union officiated by the Justice of the Peace of Donna, Texas. Their daughter Diana later married famed Tejano saxophonist and bandleader Roberto Pulido, and their children, Bobby and Alma Pulido, also went on to build separate Tejano music careers of their own. 

            In 1976, Cavazos appeared with Conjunto Tamaulipas in the Les Blank/Chris Strachwitz documentary Chulas Fronteras, the seminal documentary on conjunto and norteño music. The film opens with Cavazos delivering a classic interpretation of “Canción Mixteca,” the nostalgic song of immigrant yearning for the homeland.

            After Mario Montes passed away on January 28, 1993, Cavazos went on to perform with other outstanding accordionists, including Rene Maciel, Juan Antonio Coronado, and Beto Espinosa, in various incarnations of Los Donneños. In 2007, at age 80, he was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame.

            For the next decade, the octogenarian could still be found behind the counter at his record store on South 23rd Street in McAllen. And he continued to perform.

            In 2010, Cavazos participated in a recording that brought together other veteran stars of the norteño genre, including Hector Montemayor, Lorenzo de Monteclaro, and Poncho Villagomez, calling themselves Los Amigos Desde el Rancho. The CD, entitled La Antología de La Música Norteña, features Cavazos on his own composition, “Enseñate a Perder (Learn to Lose).” The studio recording was followed by a live performance on a separate disc, Los Amigos del Rancho, Vol. 2, Live At Allende Nuevo León. It includes another Cavazos composition, looking at heartbreak from the losing side, “Enseñame a Perder” (Show Me How to Lose).

            On February 16, 2019, Cavazos celebrated his 92nd birthday with a backyard concert, captured in a homemade video posted to the band’s Facebook page. In the clip, he performs one of Los Donneños’ most famous songs, “Mataron a la Paloma,” which Cavazos co-wrote with Basilio Villiareal, “their old compadre,” as Strachwitz calls him. The tune is a tongue-in-cheek torch song about a heartbroken man who sends a message to his lost love via messenger pigeon; tragically, the bird is killed before completing is mission, so the woman never learns that the man is sorry and wants her back. In the song, he says he’ll never forgive himself for trying to save himself a stamp with mail service being as good as it is.


Mataron a la paloma que te llevaba el recado,
Por eso siempre pensaste que yo te había abandonado.
El recado se quedó en el pico de una loma,
Allí prietita querida, mataron a la paloma.

Por eso aunque pase el tiempo no me podré perdonar,
Que habiendo tan buen correo, con quién te lo fui a mandar.

En él te contaba todo, pidiendo que regresarás,
Que perdonarás mis faltas y conmigo te casarás.
Por eso aunque pase el tiempo no me podré perdonar,
Que habiendo tan buen correo con quién te lo fui a mandar.
Por ahorrarme una estampilla, maldita estampa, la mía!


            “Ramiro Cavazos is an icon and a legend in his own style that only he can produce," Lupe Saenz, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, told The Monitor. “His compositions are constantly being recorded by conjuntos because they know that his songs are quality compositions. Composers like Mr. Cavazos are few and far between.”


– Agustín Gurza


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Artist Biography: Santiago Almeida

Santiago Almeida was an exceptional bajo sexto player who gained a historic place in the pantheon of Mexican-American music as the pioneering partner of famed accordionist Narciso Martinez. Together, the duo would shape the style we know today as conjunto music, with the accordion and 12-string guitar as its instrumental core.

Almeida was born on July 25, 1911, in Skidmore, Texas, a town of 1,000 residents at the time, located between San Antonio and Corpus Christie. His family were farmworkers who played music in their spare time. By the time he was a teenager, Almeida had learned to play the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar built with bass strings in six double courses, or rows. At 14, he was playing along with seven brothers in the traveling Almeida family orchestra, which performed at dances in towns all along the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

La Orquesta Almeida was one of the so-called “orquesta tipicas” popular in those days, consisting of clarinet, flute, bajo sexto and string bass. Because they provided the entertainment at a wide variety of social functions, orchestra members “had to be familiar with just about every type of dance tune popular at the time,” writes Chris Strachwitz in his liner notes to the LP Narciso Martínez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto, a compilation released by Arhoolie Records. “The tunes in those days were not as simple as they are today; they had more involved chord changes and modulations which only a musician well-trained in the repertoire could master.”

It was in the mid-1930s that Almeida teamed with Martinez, and the duo developed a unique style of playing together that helped shape the sound of conjunto music and influenced generations of musicians to come. Martinez became known for his distinctive style on the accordion that emphasized the right-hand melody, at the expense of the bass side of the squeezebox. But for his new style to work, Martinez had to depend on Almeida to pick up the slack, playing bass and harmony parts on his bajo sexto. This innovative technique gave the duo its trademark sound—one that earned them the reputation as the founders of the modern Tex-Mex conjunto.

Indeed, Almeida was much more than just a back-seat accompanist to Martinez, even though the accordionist gained more celebrity and enjoyed a longer career, later as a solo act. Fans and students of the genre also recognized Almeida for his musical contributions.

“Almeida played the accompaniment for the innovative accordion leads of Martínez, but was also an innovator himself,” states a biography posted by the National Endowment for the Arts when it named Almeida a 1993 National Heritage Fellow. “He played in all keys without a capo, using a technique similar to what is known today as cross-picking. He used a three-note ‘bass arpeggio,’ alternating each bass note with a single higher drone note, all at a relatively high speed. This technique is especially effective in accompanying waltzes and huapangos, but can also be applied to the performance of other musical styles.”

In 1936, a year after Almeida and Martínez started working together, a local merchant by the name of Enrique Valentin heard them play and persuaded them to go to San Antonio to meet Eli Oberstein, the recording director for the Bluebird label, an RCA Victor subsidiary. On October 21 of that year, the pair recorded their first 78-rpm single for the Bluebird label: a polka titled “La Chicharronera” and a schottische, “El Troconal.” Experts regard these as the earliest recordings of modern conjunto music. The A side, translated as “The Crackling,” was an instant hit and remains a standard of the genre.

During that marathon session, they recorded a total of 20 songs at the Bluebonnet Hotel in San Antonio, where labels would set up mobile recoding studios. According to one source, the two musicians were paid $150 for their work, of which Almeida received a third. The duo would go on to make more than 60 records for Bluebird between 1935 and 1938, including redovas, polkas, huapangos, schottisches, and mazurkas. The pair soon “became the most imitated and sought-after conjunto musicians in South Texas,” according to the NEA.

Almeida and Martinez continued to perform together into the 1940s. They toured extensively and were in demand as studio musicians to back up popular singing stars of the day. The duo also continued to record together for independent labels, mainly Disco de Oro and Ideal Records, where they became “the house instrumentalists,” as described on the website for American Sabor, a Smithsonian exhibition. “During their time there, they recorded hundreds of songs with many musicians and vocalists also involved in the development of conjunto and Tejano music.”

Almeida stayed with Martinez until 1950 when demand for conjunto music started tapering off. The guitarist first moved to Indiana but eventually wound up in the state of Washington where he and his family made a living picking apples. He settled in Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, a hub for Mexican-American migrants in the northwest. He started teaching music and mentoring young guitar players interested in his distinctive style. He continued to play his bajo sexto for family events and for dances at the local Assembly of God church, where he was a member. 

During retirement, Almeida fell into such deep obscurity that fans and friends back in Texas thought he had died. However, his reputation was revived in 1987 when he was inducted into San Antonio’s Conjunto Hall of Fame. Six years later, his home state honored him with the Governor's Arts and Heritage Award, recognizing artists for their contributions to the creative vitality of Washington. That same year he became the first Washington resident to be named an NEA National Heritage Fellow, which earned him a $10,000 award from the NEA.

Almeida died on July 8, 1999, just before his 88th birthday.


          -- Agustín Gurza

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Guest Blog: The Norteño Accordion, Part 1

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the first articles I wrote as a music critic for the Los Angeles Times was about a documentary that told the story of how the accordion became a lead instrument in Mexican-American music. Titled Accordion Dreams, this 2001 PBS production traces the history of the instrument from its German roots to its adoption by Tex-Mex musicians along the U.S.-Mexico border and its evolution in the hands of experimental young players today. The accordion is a showcase instrument in two closely related genres that are central to the Frontera Collection: norteño and conjunto.

Over the years, accordion music from the collection has been featured on compilation albums released by Arhoolie Records, the label launched by Frontera Collection founder Chris Strachwitz. One such album, for example, focused on the music of Narciso Martinez—a.k.a. El Huracán del Valle—who is considered the genre’s most influential instrumentalist. Martinez is also known as the father of conjunto music, due to his novel style of playing, which Strachwitz discusses in my earlier blog about conjunto music.Arhoolie also released a series of three compilations, these by various artists, focused specifically on the “Norteño Acordeon.” They are Part 1: “The First Recordings:” Part 2: “San Antonio, The 1940’s and 50’s;” and Part 3: “South Texas and Monterrey, N.L., The 1940s and 50s.” Each album was issued with liner notes by Strachwitz, revealing his broad knowledge of the music and first-hand experience with many of the artists. We are reprinting those liner notes as a series, with links to examples from the Frontera Collection. (The notes have been updated for clarity and accuracy, in the case, for example, of artists who have since passed away.) We begin with Part 1, released in 1975, in which Strachwitz touches on the origins of the accordion in Germany and discusses the songs and artists included in this first compilation. The notes also feature a brief sidebar written by musician Ry Cooder, who explains the workings of the button accordion (also known as the diatonic accordion), which is favored by Tex-Mex musicians over the piano accordion. Learn why in the Part 1 liner notes below.      ̶ Agustín Gurza


The first accordion was built in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann (1805 –1864), a German musical instrument-maker also credited with inventing the harmonica. He called it a Ziehharmonika (zieh in German means pull). However it was Cyrill Damian who in 1829 in Vienna, Austria, began to mass-produce and adopt the name accordion for these instruments. (In Spanish, the name of the instrument is spelled acordeón.)

I found the first written report of the accordion being used along the border in John Peavey’s Echoes from the Rio Grande Valley (Springman-King, 1963, page 27). He describes an open-air dance about 1905 where a band consisting of fiddle, accordion, and drum supplied the music. Most people told me that the instrument was brought into the area by German and Bohemian settlers who were also active in the construction of mines and railroads in Northern Mexico. Some of the tunes heard on this compilation may also be of central European origin.

The Musicians

Among the first accordionists to become popular in South Texas via phonograph records were Jose Rodriguez and Bruno Villareal. Both came from San Benito. Bruno Villareal, almost blind, was labeled on his records “El Azote del Valle” (the Whip of the Valley) and is today still remembered by people as far north as Amarillo, Texas, playing in the streets with a tin cup attached to his piano accordion, which he used from the late 1930s onward. “La Cascada,” one of two Villareal tracks heard on this compilation. Is a mazurka recorded in San Antonio with bajo sexto and tambora on January 31, 1935.

While Bruno was an itinerant street musician, Jose Rodriguez played primarily for dancing. Fellow musician Narciso Martinez recalled attending a dance where Jose Rodriguez, known as “La Bamba,” was playing. Upon spotting Narciso, Jose stopped the dance and told Narciso that he did not want him around because he wanted to guard his tunes for his own recording sessions and accused Narciso of “stealing” his material. (More on Martinez, a key figure in the music, in a moment.)

Jesus Casiano, another squeezebox player heard on this album, lived in San Antonio where he continued to record for Rio Records in the 1950s. Known as “El Gallito” (The Little Rooster), he made polkas his specialty, such as the one included in this compilation, “La Bien Polviada.”

Lolo Cavazos, who was born January 5, 1906 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and later settled in Alice, Texas, recalls that accordion music was popular since he was a little boy. He believes norteño music got started in the Rio Grande Valley. Self-taught, he played a two-row instrument and in the 1950s recorded for the Ideal label.

The most important and influential accordionist in the San Antonio area during this period of the first recordings was Santiago Jimenez Sr. (1913 – 1984). Born in San Antonio, Santiago was labeled “El Flaco” (the Skinny One) on his first records, a nickname later inherited by his son. He started to play accordion about 1923 and learned most of his early tunes from his father, Patricio Jimenez. About 1935 Santiago bought his first two-row accordion at a pawnshop and within a year was broadcasting daily over the radio. Thomas Acuña, music store owner and talent scout, heard these programs and asked Santiago to record. The pay was only $7 per record and no royalties but via his records and radio programs Santiago became more and more popular. During World War II the major record companies stopped recording regional music, giving rise to many small firms in the late ‘40s. Santiago was one of the first to record for Globe and Imperial and was especially successful with “Viva Seguin” and “La Piedrera,” which have become polka standards in South Texas. In “La Nopalera,” a polka recorded in San Antonio in September 1938, he is accompanied on bass by Santiago Morales.

Santiago used to get his accordions tuned and repaired by the Stark Brothers, both immigrants from Germany during the 1920s. Chris Stark vividly recalls how Mr. Jimenez “was always trying to do something different” and asked that accordions which came from the factory in the key of G or C be put into a lower key like E, which Santiago preferred. Santiago Jimenez lived in Dallas in the mid-1970s (at the time of this writing), but still played from time to time especially when visiting his children, particularly Leonardo, who gained fame by his adopted nickname, Flaco Jimenez. The musical patriarch’s other son Santiago Jimenez, Jr., known as Jimmy, plays very much in his father’s tradition and most of the other children play as well. The delightful Jimenez accordion sound will live on, and Flaco’s little boy has already mastered “La Piedrera!”

Finally the Father of Norteño music, Narciso Martinez, was no doubt the most popular accordionist from the 1930s to the ‘50s. Born October 29, 1911 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Narciso grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and became known as “El Huracán del Valle” once he started to record in 1935. Besides being a superb musician, Narciso emphasized the treble end of the accordion, leaving the bass part to his bajo sexto player. In the 1940s when Ideal Records started, Narciso became their primary artist who not only recorded prolifically on his own but also helped create the Norteño style: two voices backed by accordion. The singers were Carmen and Laura and their records were very popular and influential. On “Flor Marchita,” a schotis, Narciso is accompanied by Santiago Almeida on guitar or bajo sexto and Santiago Morales on bass. It was recorded in San Antonio on September 13, 1937. During the 1970s when he was in his 60s, Narciso continued to play for dances and parties while working as an animal keeper at the Brownsville zoo.

            – Chris Strachwitz, 1975

The Button Accordion

The diatonic accordion has been popular with Border musicians for probably over 70 years, and most of the instruments used in the Border area have been made by the German Hohner company. Hohner built their diatonic button accordions simply and inexpensively to popularize the instrument in America. The instrument heard on most of these selections (except the first two items which feature probably a one-row instrument) has two rows of treble buttons tuned in two major scales, such as G/C or C/F, and eight bass buttons, four for each key. The button accordion works like a harmonica in that each button has a two-note value, one pushing and one pulling, so that a scale run is played by working the bellows in and out, unlike the piano accordion, which plays any group of notes in one direction. “Diatonic” indicates that the instrument does not have regular sharps and flats, as does the piano accordion, but it does have one flat key per row at the low end of the treble side.

These accordions are double reed, that is, with each note one reed vibrates at standard pitch and the other about one fourth tone sharp. The dissonance produces a vibrato effect that gives the button accordion its unique sweetness and delicacy. Two adjacent buttons played together almost always produce a pleasant third interval, which is the basic harmony of all Mexican singing. No wonder this instrument became popular with the people of the Border!

The piano accordion never equaled the button style in popularity with Norteño musicians, probably because in addition to being four times as expensive, it doesn’t have the right kind of vibrato sound and staccato action that characterizes the fast, choppy polka and the more expressive corrido and cancion style playing. The simple, direct action makes the button accordion very responsive to the technique of the player, and this flexibility led to the development of individual styles and eventually stylistic trends in Tex-Mex accordion playing. According to several accordionists, people at dances have even expressed their open dislike towards the piano accordion.

                                    – Ry Cooder, 1975



[1] Originally published as liner notes to the Arhoolie/Folklyric LP 9006 

Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings






Artist Biography: Narciso Martínez

Narciso Martínez, nicknamed “El Huracán del Valle” (the Hurricane of the Valley) for his fast and powerful accordion playing, is acknowledged as the father of conjunto music. He was the genre’s first successful recording artist and the most popular accordion player of his day. No single accordionist was more influential or had a more lasting and widespread impact than Martínez, with hundreds of recording credits over his 60-year career. He was known for a distinctive style that emphasized the melody side of the instrument and left the bass parts to the bajo sexto player. It was a technique that created a snappy, staccato sound that was copied or imitated by virtually every conjunto accordionist who followed him. To this day, his sound is synonymous with Tex-Mex conjunto music.

          Martínez was born October 29, 1911, in the border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. He was brought to the United States that same year and lived most of his life in La Paloma, Texas, near Brownsville, in the region known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The son of migrant farmworkers, he received little formal education. In 1928, while still in his teens, he made two decisions that would have life-long impact: He got married and he took up the accordion. He and his wife, Edwina, eventually had four daughters. With the pressures of a growing family, he quickly got good enough on his instrument to perform at dances, picking up techniques from the Czech and German immigrants of the region. In 1930, he bought his first new accordion, a one-row button model made by Hohner, and five years later switched to the more versatile two-row version.

          Around this time, in the mid-1930s, he also began his productive association with the remarkable talent of Santiago Almeida, who played the bajo sexto, a 12-string bass guitar. It was that fruitful teaming that established the basic instrumentation of the cojunto and allowed for the duo’s trademark innovation – right-side melody on the accordion, left-side bass notes on the bajo sexto. In 1936, a year after Almeida and Martínez started working together, a local merchant by the name of Enrique Valentin heard them and persuaded them to go to San Antonio to meet Eli Oberstein, the recording director for the Bluebird label, an RCA Victor subsidiary.  Their first record – “La Chicharronera” (The Crackling) – was released later that year and became a big hit. Soon, they had the most popular and well-known dance band in South Texas.

          Martínez was prolific in the studio, recording up to 20 tracks in one session. His popularity soon extended beyond the Mexican American community. He recorded under the pseudonym “Louisiana Pete” for the Bluebird label’s Cajun series; and for the Polish market, the label marketed his group as the Polski Kwartet. He continued to record for his core audience, doing primarily instrumental polkas, which were his bread and butter, as well as huapangos and Bohemian redovas. His popularity spread nationally and internationally thanks to RCA’s global promotional capabilities. Many of his records were also pressed and distributed in Mexico, a market that generally looked down upon working-class music from north of the border.

          After World War II, with the rise of independent, local ethnic labels, Martínez made a move to Ideal Records, based in San Benito, Texas, which was to become a force in the Tex-Mex market. In 1946, the new label’s recording director, Armando Marroquín, hired Martínez for its very first release, now available on the Arhoolie Records compilation Tejano Roots (CD/C 341). As Ideal’s house accordionist, Martínez accompanied some of its most popular artists, notably the duet Carmen y Laura, Las Hermanas Mendoza, María and Juanita, as well as their celebrity sister, Lydia Mendoza, one of the genre’s most popular and respected vocalists. The sound of the duet singers, accompanied by guitars, was long a favorite in the region. Now, with the addition of Martínez’s superb accordion accompaniment, the modern sound of norteño music was born, changing from mainly instrumental dance music to an ensemble featuring singers as the star attractions.

          “Narciso Martínez once told me that he felt his lack of singing ability held him back,” wrote Chris Strachwitz in the liner notes to the compilation album Narciso Martínez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto (Ideal/Arhoolie CD-361). “Perhaps this perceived handicap was actually a blessing since it no doubt contributed to Narciso developing his remarkable talent of mastering a huge repertoire of virtually all regionally popular dance tunes and styles, including polkas, redovas, schottisches, waltzes, mazurkas, boleros, danzones, and huapangos. Narciso learned many of the tunes by having a friend whistle the melody and arrangement which they had recently heard played by a local orchestra or brass band. While his friend – who had a good ear to pick up tunes – whistled, Narciso would pick out the notes on the accordion, thereby transposing the tune to the accordion.”

          Almeida, his longtime partner and “left-hand man,” so to speak, stayed with Martínez until 1950 as demand for the touring conjunto was falling off. With increased competition from both sides of the border, older musicians were soon pushed aside. By the late 1950s Martínez had been replaced on the song charts by Conjunto Bernal, Los Alegres de Terán, Los Donneños, Los Relampagos, and other artists who became popular for both their singing and musicianship.  

          Martínez, like many other conjunto pioneers, never earned much money as a musician. He continued to play on weekends, sometimes at so-called “bailes de negocio” (business dances), where men paid to dance with women. On occasion, he’d be hired by old friends or nostalgic fans to play at special occasions such as anniversaries, quinceañeras, birthday parties, or receptions for baptisms and weddings. But increasingly he felt forced to turn to jobs outside of music to earn a living. In the 1960s and ’70s, he worked as a truck driver, a field hand and a caretaker at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

          In 1976, Martínez was featured in Chulas Fronteras, the Strachwitz-produced documentary film by Les Blank about Texas-Mexican music. In the 1980s, Martínez continued to receive accolades and recognition for his music and cultural contributions, from both within and outside his own community. He was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and was honored the following year with a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to the nation's cultural heritage. In 1991, the Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center was named in his honor in San Benito, Texas, near his life-long home of La Paloma. In January of the following year, his last album was released, 16 Éxitos de Narciso Martínez (16 Hits of Narciso Martínez), on the R y R label of Monterrey, Nuevo León.

           In May of 1992, Martínez was scheduled to appear at the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. Instead, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with leukemia. Narciso Martínez, El Huracán del Valle, died in San Benito on June 5, 1992.

          Posthumous honors continued after his death. Martínez was an inaugural inductee into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2000. Two years later he was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame. He is also an inductee in the Houston Institute for Culture Texas Music Hall of Fame. And each year since 1992, a hurricane blows through San Benito once again at the annual Narciso Martínez Conjunto Festival, which showcases old and new forms of the genre and celebrates its pioneer.

– Agustín Gurza


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