“Conjunto” music of the Mexican-American communities of Southern Texas is a not just form of entertainment and a conjunto gathering not just a lighthearted excuse to dance. The term conjunto, which in Spanish means “set” or “group,” refers both to the coming-together of a diversity of musical influences from Mexico and Southern Texas to form a musically distinct and culturally unique Mexican-American genre, but also to the group of musicians that band together to create that music. Conjuntos are community events that allow Texan Mexicans the ability to celebrate their history and culture. Conjuntos are also bands that play all the good old dances–Mexican, German, and more–to playfully, yet powerfully, channel the past.
“Conjunto” is a mix of influences and styles, all present in South Texas in the late 1800s, that fused to form a genre that is at the same time uniquely Mexican and also a unique product of the American southwest. Though Texas had left Mexican control to become part of the U.S. in the mid-1840, Mexican music, culture and the Spanish language still dominated the region. There may have been a drawn border between Mexico and the States, but people and their culture still flowed freely between the two.
In the 1860s there was turmoil on both sides of the border. During the U.S. Civil War (1860 to 1865), Texas succeeded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, despite the staunch objection and the eventual resignation of its then-governor, Sam Houston. At the same time, below the border, Mexican Conservatives (a coalition of Mexican nobles, the military and the Catholic Church), with the support of French Emperor Napoleon III, who himself was playing a game of international power politics by trying to gain New World influence while the warring U.S. was distracted, ousted liberal President Benito Juarez and replaced the republic with the Second Mexican Empire. Napoleon helped install Austrian Archduke Maximillian as king. Mexican King Maximillian I invited European immigrants to settle in Mexico, inspiring working class Germans to move cross the ocean, but his reign was short-lived. And, so was he. (In 1867, Juarez and his liberals restored the Republic and ordered Maximilian’s beheading.)
At the time of such political and social unrest few could have imagined the cultural effect German immigration would have on northern Mexico. When Germans arrived they brought with them the “button accordion,” as well as popular dances like the polka, mazurka and waltz. After the U.S. Civil War ended, thousands of Germans also immigrated to Texas, joining some German immigrants who had arrived in the 1830s. Mexican and Mexican-American musicians used German immigrants’ accordions to add a European flair to a genre that was already coming together as a mix of a dozen traditional forms and styles.
Texan/Mexican musicians quickly recognized the accordion as an instruments with enough of a presence to become the focal point of a raucous dance band. [Check out a demonstration of the button accordion and see if you agree.] By the turn of the century other instruments had joined the accordion, such as the tololche, or Mexican bass (you can see one in action as part of this ensemble), and more specifically, the “bajo sexto,” which is a Mexican twelve string guitar. Today most conjunto bands use electric bass instead of the tololche, but the bajo sexto and the accordion are a must. [Watch the bajo sexto and accordion work their magic here, here and here]
Using the dynamic combination of the bajo sexto and the accordion as a launch pad, conjunto bands on both sides of the border confidently combined Mexican ranchera-style vocals and the lyrics of corrido ballads with the music for German dances such as the redova, the schottishe, the mazurka, the waltz and the polka. Later in the 19th and early 20th centuries waves of Polish immigrants moving into the Mexican state of Sinaloa and Czechs immigrating into Southern Texas solidified the Mexican/Central European dance connection.
South of the border, this Northern Mexican music with Texan influences is often referred to as “norteño.” Norther of the border, this Southern Texas music became “conjunto.”
Despite the excitement of decades of cultural cross-pollination, conjunto only truly came into its own in the 1930 when Narciso Martinez stepped up with his accordion. In the ’20s American record companies, trying to replicate the success they’d found marketing African-American music, had begun to support Mexican-American recording artists, pushing songs by their chosen musicians into jukeboxes, onto the radio and into public dance performances. Musicians like Martinez, who became known s “El Huracan del Valle” (“The Hurricane of the Valley”), took this support as a license to experiment. Mexican-Americans had been attending dances by Texan bands such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. They were also submerging themselves in blossoming genres like country, blues, European fiddle music and swing. All this musical exploration helped inspire Martinez to depart from traditional German accordion techniques and develop a prancing style that allowed him to focus on creating melodies while his musical partner Santiago Almeida played the bass notes on the bajo sexto. Martinez’s style became a staple of the genre; the cascading accordion defines conjunto music today.
After World War II accordionist Valerio Longoriaa led a rising new generation of Mexican-American musicians. Longoria introduced the modern drum kit into the conjunto to join the contrabass (and eventually the electric bass) which accordionist Santiago Jimenez had added in the ’30s. This rounded out the ensemble. Longoria’s band put an unprecedented emphasis on ranchera-style vocals and also dropped most German dances to focus on the polka. [Watch Valerio Longoria and his son performing in 1990.]
One of the greatest conjuntos of the 1950s was the Kingsville, Texas, ensemble, El Conjunto Bernal. Anchored by accordionist Paulino Bernal and his bajo sexto-playing player Eloy, El Conjunto Bernal helped conjunto music become popular all around the American Southwest. [Watch Eloy’s “El Conjunto Bernal” performing Christian music in a conjunto style]