Conjunto music enjoys a resurgence, bridging a divide between old and new musicians
SAN BENITO, Texas — The southern subtropics of Texas, known as the Rio Grande Valley, is a geographically and culturally distinct part of the Lone Star State — as much Mexican as Texan — with its own soundtrack. Conjunto has a thumping backbeat, plaintive vocals and shimmering accordion riffs. This century-old music has been growing among a new generation of young musicians.
Conjunto (pronounced con-HOON-toh) is now offered as a fine-arts band credit in at least a dozen schools in the Valley and as far north as San Antonio. As the adage goes: If you want to preserve the music, teach it to the kids.
Inside the band hall at Los Fresnos High School, near Brownsville, in the southernmost tip of Texas, the award-winning student group, Conjunto Halcón, is warming up. The drummer counts off "one, two, three..." with his sticks, the accordion breaks into a lilting, syncopated intro, and the handsome twin singers, Daniel and Samuel, kick off Tú Carcel, a broken-hearted song.
"We work with drums, bass, bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar), accordion, vocalist," says program director Juan Longoria Jr. The 44-year-old is a renowned acordeonista in his own right. "We'll add sometimes a saxophone, the congas as well. For the most part, it's pretty much traditional conjunto, Norteño, Tejano music."
Longoria started the program at Los Fresnos High School a decade ago with 13 students. Last semester he had a hundred students.
Conjunto, Norteno and Tejano are branches of the same musical tree. It's a danceable fusion of Mexican, European and American song styles that developed in South Texas and Northern Mexico over the last 150 years. The accordion influence came from the polka bands of Czech, Polish and German immigrants. Today, conjunto is as familiar in the Rio Grande Valley as the spindly palm trees, flocks of green parakeets and orchards of ruby red grapefruit.
Like the blues and bluegrass, conjunto is the music of working people, the music of everyday life.
"It's dance music and you have to feel that thump, you have to feel that want-to-get-up-and-dance," Longoria says. "It's happy music."
In the Valley, the cutthroat high school conjunto competition is staged by a nonprofit called La Cultura Vive en Brownsville. This year's winner was Palmview High School's Conjunto La Tradición. Year over year, however, Los Fresnos' Conjunto Halcón — in their maroon coats, black cowboy hats and boots — is the winningest student ensemble in the Valley. Which means it's the best in America.
Conjunto competition is not sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League. A Texas UIL spokesperson in Austin said no school has asked for conjunto to be a formal category, like mariachi or orchestra.
Longoria says conjunto is treated like a stepchild.
"To some people conjunto music is not true music because it's not on paper," he says. "They don't see it as music because there's no sheet music involved."
Contemporary conjunto is getting mashed up with hip-hop and reggaetón, and its popularity is spreading to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods far and wide. Longoria has introduced some modern influences, but he tries to keep it traditional. And the students seem to like it that way.
"It's like a variation of different styles," says 18-year-old bass player Iliana Aguilar. "There's huapangos, there's cumbias, there's polkas, you know, it's all just like a Mexican, Tex-Mex type of style."
She says her dad played conjunto, as did her grandfather. She plans to be a radiologist and keep performing this music that's in her heart.
"I feel like I'm taking part in my culture," Aguilar says. "And I feel like I can show part of myself in the music. It's just a really nice kind of outlet to show my ethnicity."
As it happens, the recent grand champion of the 2023 Big Squeeze Contest, a statewide accordion competition, was 20-year-old Eligio Martinez. He got his start in the varsity conjunto band at Los Fresnos High School.
"This is one of the more remarkable developments with the growth of these high-school programs in the Valley," said Charlie Lockwood, outgoing executive director of Texas Folklife, which sponsors the Big Squeeze. "These kids are not just learning how to play the accordion, but how to play with other instruments, how to do stage production and be a band leader. I think that's really incredible."
A few miles from Los Fresnos is the town of San Benito, which calls itself the birthplace of conjunto.
The legendary Mexican accordionist Narciso Martínez, considered the father of Tex-Mex conjunto, grew up nearby. He recorded La Chicharronera and El Troncanal, played on a two-row button accordion and accompanied by guitarist Santiago Almeida, for Bluebird Records in a San Antonio hotel room in the 1930s. They're believed to be the first conjunto recordings. Martínez came to be known as the Hurricane of the Valley.
San Benito recently opened the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the only one of its kind, with a special exhibit dedicated to Martínez. Located in the historic Aztec building, it's filled with artifacts collected by lifelong conjunto fanatic Rey Avila. For instance, there's a re-creation of the recording studio of Ideal Records, where early conjunto heroes cut their first records in San Benito back in the 1940s and 50s. The museum celebrates the music born a hundred years ago in cantinas and dance halls across the Valley.
"It's just a lively kind of music," says Avila's daughter, Patty, the museum director. "It has a lot of emotions — the sad stories, the happy stories. It just touches your heart, and I think that's why my dad wanted to preserve and keep it alive for the young generation."
Conjunto is not museum music. Avila says the genre has never been more popular. She hears it everywhere — on the radio and at weddings and quinceañeras.
As part of the museum tour, local squeezebox star Elisa De Hoyas and her family band, the Texas Sweethearts, set up to play a few songs. With her blue-streaked hair and incandescent smile, the 36-year-old De Hoyas is a charismatic performer. She says the accordion has garnered a cult following, propelled by the school conjunto programs, social media and competitions.
"Conjunto — together," she says, giving the literal translation of the word. "The kind of music you can do when you get together. It's a culture-rich, loving and storytelling music. We want to keep it going."
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