God and Bernal

Tejano Conjunto Festival
Thu, May 10-Sat, May 12
Rosedale Park
303 Dartmouth
Paulino Bernal is the Al Green of conjunto music. Both men established themselves at a young age as great musical innovators and left their respective genres at the peak of their powers to establish ministries. Understandably, both men watched their legends grow in absentia.

Green eventually answered the calls of diehard fans by returning to the world of secular soul music, but Bernal has staunchly dedicated himself to his McAllen-based radio-evangelism empire, generally performing only at Bernal family religious festivals.

So when Juan Tejeda approached Bernal about appearing at this year's Tejano Conjunto Festival, Tejeda knew he faced a challenge. But he says that his biggest obstacle was not persuading Bernal, but simply getting him on the phone.

"It was hard just to get a hold of him, Tejeda says. "He was in Mexico traveling around, so it took three or four weeks to contact him. Once I spoke to him, it wasn't hard to explain to him the situation. I'm even trying to get him to do some of his popular hits, and not just religious music. He said he was going to 'put it to prayer' and see if he could do something."

Tejeda created the festival in 1982 and spearheaded it for 17 years while serving as Xicano Music Director for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. This year, at the center's request, he is curating the festival for the first time since 1998. Given Tejeda's passion (as a musician, instructor at Palo Alto College, and recognized historian) for the roots of conjunto music, it's hardly surprising that this year's festival will be a return to the genre's acoustic tradition, which he's calling "Puro Conjunto Pesado (Pure Heavy Conjunto)."

"Regardless, my concept was that since I haven't been there in nine years, I wanted to return to the roots. I wanted to focus more on the traditional, instead of the progressive conjunto groups, like a David Lee Garza. The other thing that we did was revive the poster content and revive the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame. Neither of them had been done in about four years.

"I wanted to bring back those people who were very important and popular within the history of the genre, and also very important stylists. Because there are some very important styles that we've created in Texas."

Partly because the Guadalupe did not bring him on board until January, and partly because they provided what he calls a "bare-bones budget," Tejeda also returned to the festival's origins as a three-day festival, scaling it back from recent years, when it included an opening night at the Guadalupe Theater and four subsequent nights at Rosedale Park.

As big a coup as Bernal's performance will be, it only came about when Tejeda's original concept for Thursday night fell through.

"I had wanted to get Esteban Jordan, and that's the only one that failed me," Tejeda says of this year's booking efforts. "That opening night, I wanted to have three of the best accordionists in the history of conjunto music: Oscar Hernandez, Esteban Jordan, and Joel Guzman. I wanted to get them up there jamming together.

"When Esteban failed me, I went to Plan B, and focused on Paulino Bernal. So the opening night doesn't have a theme, but it's going to be sort of a tribute to Conjunto Bernal and their legacy."

That legacy continues to cast a mammoth shadow over the conjunto world, more than half a century after Paulino Bernal, a seminal force on the accordion and his brother Eloy, a bajo sexto virtuoso, made their first records together. Conjunto Bernal, widely considered the greatest of all conjuntos, stretched the genre's stylistic barriers and set the table for the pioneering likes of Esteban Jordan and Joel Guzman.

"They had so many different innovations," Tejeda raves. "Paulino Bernal was a very magnetic personality. And he put together some of the best musicians and vocalists at the time. Paulino was the one who introduced the chromatic accordion. They introduced three-part harmonies. Oscar Hernandez played with them at the age of 16, so they had two accordionists. They introduced new rhythms, like Latin-American, rock, and jazz, that hadn't been done in conjunto."

After the informal, opening-night tribute to Bernal, the festival will spotlight distinctive regional sounds of South Texas. Friday night focuses on the Valley, with showcases from Los Dos Gilbertos, Ruben Vela, and the currently ascendant Los Fantasmas del Valle. Saturday honors what Tejeda calls the "San Anto, Laredo, Corpitos connection," with local legend Flaco Jimenez, groundbreaking female artists Eva Ybarra and Linda Escobar, and Mingo Saldivar, among others.

While Tejeda gravitates toward the music's traditional approach, he's not someone who views contemporary Tejano as an enemy of that tradition. He emphasizes that conjunto, with all its restless sonic experimentation, was the original Tejano music, and remains a vital part of it.

 "It's a much more important artistic expression for the Chicano people than mariachi music, and there are mariachi programs all over in junior high, high school, and college," says Tejeda, who created the nation's first collegiate conjunto-music program at Palo Alto College. "Because this is an original cultural and artistic expression that we created. Mariachi is not that for us as Chicanos.

"Conjunto music is our roots music, our folk music, and it's very embedded in our cultural celebrations. It has always been a hybrid, a fusion. I don't think that it'll ever die." 


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