Songs of the country

Clockwise from top left: Daniel Garces, Flaco Jimenez, Mingo Saldivar, and Juan Viesca are all part of John Dyer’s Conjunto exhibit.
As soon as you reach the second floor of the Museo Alameda del Smithsonian, you’re greeted by a striking image. It is a large, black-and-white John Dyer photo of Tejano icon David Lee Garza’s weathered hands holding an accordion.

It is the opening salvo in a conjunto exhibit that would be impossible to imagine without Dyer’s artistic presence. In fact, the exhibit could easily be labeled the “John Dyer Exhibit” without much danger of false advertising.

Through Sep 2
Museo Alameda del Smithsonian
101 S. Santa Rosa

Dyer and exhibit curator Juan Tejeda are the perfect masterminds of this show, because they are impassioned, obsessive ambassadors for the conjunto tradition: Dyer as a visual documentarian, and Tejeda as a musician, academic, and festival

While much of Museo Alameda suffers from a lack of cohesion and conceptual randomness (e.g., “Let’s stick that NASA space suit here, and we’ll put the Cantinflas video reel around the corner”), no such complaints can be made about the conjunto exhibit. This is a  lean, focused celebration of a South Texas form that demonstrates an understanding of who the major players are and how the music evolved over the course of the last century.

Dyer’s style, showcased in his 2005 photo book, Conjunto, published by the University of Texas Press, is intimate and marked by a tendency to capture musical greats in solitary mode, framed by a setting familiar to them. Many of the images in this exhibit come from Dyer’s book, and they benefit greatly from their expansion to something approaching life-size. The great Esteban Jordan is seen in typically dramatic pose, in a 1992 color photo. Jordan stands in front of a hand-painted bar sign, rocking a red eyepatch and working his customized Hohner squeeze-box, with a Budweiser beer can at his feet.

“My approach is to not draw attention to myself as a photographer,” says Dyer, who began photographing conjunto stars in the early ’90s. “I was very aware going into this project that I was an outsider inviting myself into a world that I didn’t have any roots in. So I was very careful to be respectful and honest and polite and do everything I could do initially to put these individuals at their ease.

“A lot of these musicians, the older ones particularly, have been taken advantage of over the years by unscrupulous record producers and agents, and they’ve written songs that they recorded and they ended up not having ownership of them. So they have a built-in hesitance to trust one more person to take some of their time and promise to send them a print.”

Dyer prefers to capture musicians when they’re not performing for an audience, partly because he finds the visual jumble of microphones, cords, and amplifiers to be distracting, but primarily because he wants to see performers unmasked, unable to hide behind a stage persona.

A prime example of that strategy can be seen in an evocative shot of the late Laura Canales, the celebrated Queen of Tejano, pensively sitting at a table in an empty bar. It’s a slightly melancholy shot that hints at the solitude and boredom that accomanies the excitement of a a performer’s life.

Other highlights include Joel Guzman jamming in front of the Alamo, a wheelchair-bound Lydia Mendoza holding a miniature guitar, and a wildly exuberant image of Mingo Saldivar with his head tilted back and mouth wide open, a photo that Dyer says has been singled out as a favorite among conjunto fans.

Dyer’s images are ably supplemented by glass-encased pieces of conjunto history, including a vintage Valerio Longoria accordion; Tony de la Rosa’s accordion and trademark straw hat; and a pink-and-cream satin dress, ornamented with sequins and rhinestones, worn by Lydia Mendoza.  

By the time you’ve completed this authentic musicology tour, you’re ready for something a bit more impressionistic, and that comes with a series of paintings by Vincent Valdez for past Tejano Conjunto Festival poster competitions, and Juan Ramos’s distinctive digital prints on paper.

These pieces offer a reminder that conjunto continues to shape the culture of this region, in the same way that this region spurs changes in the music. And that’s the way it’s always been. 

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