Chicano Roots

Flaco Jiménez
Chicano Roots

By Alejandro Pérez

Tejano Conjunto Festival celebrates and preserves a cultural tradition

Like the couples leaning into each other, spinning and twirling, stepping back and forth in syncopation, the accordionist's fingers dance. They dance across the buttons of the Hohner, punctuating the air with a rapid-fire huapango one minute, the smooth melody of a vals or redova the next. These songs, of love lost and found, working conditions, eternal devotion, and political struggle, in commemoration of people and places not found in any history book, will bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye, sometimes both. This is conjunto music at its finest.

"We come out of conjunto," explains Maricela Espinoza-Garcia, interim director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, speaking of the relationship between Chicanos and conjunto, San Antonio and conjunto - and the Guadalupe's unprecedented 23 years of celebrating and preserving the sound of South Tejas through its annual Tejano Conjunto Festival. This year's festival promises a return to conjunto's roots: the accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and drum set which has comprised the basic ensemble since pioneers like the late Valerio Longoria and Tony de la Rosa went electric, effectively modernizing what artists like Narciso Martínez and Santiago Jiménez had popularized since the Great Depression. (Incidentally, this year's festival poster features a childhood photo of Jiménez - father to Flaco and Santiago, Jr. - in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his passing.)

Los Tremendos V
Consistent with this nod to tradition, Thursday night's kickoff features a tribute to Hall of Famers Eva Ybarra, Flaco Jiménez and Mingo Saldivar. Called "the queen of the Tex-Mex conjunto accordion," Ybarra is one of few mujeres to flourish in the male-dominated genre; her voice, both warm and haunting, is as distinctive as her accordion-playing and has commanding presence on stage. In contrast, Jiménez has garnered so much attention for his crossover work that his conjunto tends to get overshadowed by his jaunts into country, rock, and the Texas Tornados, although his traditional roots - passed from father to son - take the spotlight on his latest CD, Squeeze Box King. Mingo Saldivar, "the dancing cowboy," closes the opening night festivities with his blend of country and conjunto, including his rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," en español. Saldivar's earned his nickname playing his box with the energy and exuberance of an acrobat, dashing and darting across the stage like an Olympian competing for the gold.

Joining them on Friday and Saturday are established future Hall of Fame conjunto artists such as Los Fantasmas del Valle, Los Cuatro Vientos de Jimmy Bejarano, and Los Dos Gilbertos, as well as newer, up-and-coming groups like Invicto, Los Tremendos V, and Dos Generaciones, a duo comprised of 12-year-old acordeonista Robert Casillas and the middle-aged Rodolfo "Rudy" Lopez on bajo sexto.

Tejano Conjunto Festival
Mingo Saldivar, Flaco Jiménez, Los Dos Gilbertos, Los Fantasmas Del Valle, and many more

Thursday, May 6-Saturday, May 8
$7 (one day);
$10 (two days);
$15 (three days)
Rosedale Park
340 Dartmouth

"San Antonio is identified with the festival and conjunto music today," Juan Tejeda explains. He explains that outside of the conjunto circuit - South Texas bailes, Midwestern migrant camps, Tejano expatriates living in Califas - their music "was very much maligned, misunderstood as cantina music, and seen as low class." Prior to the creation of the festival, the climate was such that some even feared the music was in danger of dying out. ("You hardly saw it in the media," he quips, with a note of irony to this reporter.).

Tejeda was a co-founder of the Conjunto Festival and director of the Guadalupe's Xicano Music Program for the better part of two decades. Today he's an instructor of music at Palo Alto College where he has been developing the nation's first conjunto music program at the college level. Initially, as now, "the whole purpose of the festival was to bring about the respect for the music which it deserved," he says.

"Conjunto," he adds, "is a synthesis of who we are as a people." Chicanos adopted the accordion and polka from the Germans and other Europeans, paired it with the bajo sexto, a 12-string cousin of the guitar which combines both Spanish and Mexican influences, and added indigenous Mexican rhythms like the huapango, Cuban boleros, Colombian cumbias - now the most popular dance form, especially among the youth - and Dominican merengues, as well as a love of R&B and country, Cajun Zydeco and jazz. In the process has created a culturally-rooted art form which is far more than the sum of all its diverse parts.

Los Dos Gilbertos
"As you look at it, we've integrated those international influences into what people consider local, regional music," Tejeda says.

Conjunto is still the most popular art form we have as a whole, he argues, even if its popularity has waned since its heyday in the mid-1990s. "When the major labels left, it forced the music to come back to our people," where it is kept alive at the little clubs dotting the south and west sides, weekend flea markets, venues like Graham Central Station, KEDA, AM-1540 (the beloved "Radio Jalapeño"), special events like KEDA's Conjunto Stampedes and the Guadalupe's Conjunto Fest - and classes offered by the Guadalupe, PAC, and the Conjunto Heritage Taller.

"What does it mean for 30 students wanting to learn to play the accordion?" Espinoza-García asks. "We're going back to the tradition." By exposing youth to conjunto, she believes, the family-oriented Tejano Conjunto Festival insures that the music will stay alive.

As Tejeda says: "Anywhere there's Chicanos, there's going to be conjunto music." •

By Alejandro Pérez

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