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Conjunto - Pure Tex-Mex Roots Music

Conjunto - Pure Tex-Mex Roots Music

What better way to celebrate Mexican Heritage Month than to highlight a truly unique blended cultural style of music - conjunto - born right here in Texas in the Mexican American community.  It's pretty addictive once you start listening to it - it's just about impossible to be in a bad mood with some good accordion music buzzing. 

The introduction to the book "Conjunto" by John Dyer is written by our good friend Joe Nick Patoski.  Joe Nick walks readers through his very personal and direct  experience with conjunto - from first curious introduction to deep appreciation and love for the genre and what it represents. 

You better watch it - just listen some and you might get just as hooked as Joe Nick and the many other conjunto fans out there. Try it - we think you will love it!

A very special thank you our good friend Joe Nick Patoski for allowing us to share this with you. Joe Nick is one of the undisputed experts in Texas music. He writes about Texas and Texans.

For more articles by Joe Nick Patoski, see his website:

Conjunto - A Book By John Dyer

Conjunto has been called Chicano roots music. Born when South Texas Tejanos adopted the buttonaccordion from German settlers in the 1800s, this vibrant folk music mixes the accordion, bajo sextoguitar, bass, and drums to play lively, danceable versions of German polkas, waltzes, and schottisches, as well as Mexican corridos, boleros, rancheras, huapangos, and cumbias. A living, still evolving art form, conjunto contains the history, stories, and poems in song of Texas Mexicans even as it spreads its influence around the world and into musical genres as diverse as blues, country, rock, rap, reggae, salsa, merengue, jazz, and more.

To celebrate and honor the musicians who keep conjunto alive and growing, this book presents an album of color photographs of the most important and influential performers, as well as the dance halls and other venues where people come to enjoy their music. John Dyer captures the dynamic spirit that animates conjunto musicians in his dramatic photographs, which are captioned with micro-biographies of the performers. Interspersed among the images are English and Spanish lyrics that exemplify the poetry and themes of conjunto music.

Introducing the photographs are personal essays by Joe Nick Patoski, who describes the origins of the music and its place in contemporary life, and Juan Tejeda, who pays tribute to the importance of conjunto and of musicians such as Valerio Longoria and Tony de la Rosa. Together, the photographs and essays clearly proclaim that conjunto is a true American roots music, as vital and significant as jazz, zydeco, and country bluegrass.

Introduction by Joe Nick Patoski

Agapito Zúñiga, from a publicity still taken in the late 1950
Conjunto - A Book By John Dyer​​

The Spanish word conjunto, translated into English, literally means “group”. In the Latin music world, the word is applied to an assembly of musicians smaller in number than an orquesta and larger than a duo. 

When defining a style of music, though, conjunto is very specific. It refers to the indigenous music of mostly rural, working-class Texas Mexicans, one and two generations removed from the other side of the U.S.-Mexican border. The interpretation of conjunto bears striking similarities to norteño music of northern Mexico and the grupo sound emanating from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Elements of conjunto are sometimes infused into contemporary Tejano music, the modern regional sound popular among assimilated Mexican Americans in Texas and the southwestern United States. But conjunto, the germinating seed of what the general population often refers to Tex-Mex, is clearly a sound unto itself.

Though little known outside the comfort zone where Texas Mexicans live, work, and dance, conjunto dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the earliest waves of European immigrants arriving in Texas. The mexicanos already here paid close attention to the music the arrivals played at dances. In the process the created a sound of their own.

Conjunto remains a vital cultural touchstone for a significant segment of the Mexican American community in Texas, no matter how urbane or Americanized they have become. It is heard throughout a region stretching from the Rio Grande to the Brazos River and beyond, emanating from restaurants, bars dance halls, icehouses, parks, flea markets, television commercials, radio programs, sound systems in slow moving cars, and back yards.

San Antonio is its spiritual capital and commercial center, though conjunto’s sphere of influence has become global. For while it may be a Tex-Mex thing, the sound and the compelling nature of its true-story songs and sad romances sung in the heartbreak key long ago transcended it traditional cultural, social, and linguistic limitations. Since the 1970s conjunto has managed to subtly insinuate itself into American country, American rock, Mexican regional, Latin international, and American and European folk music sounds. In fact, conjunto has become so trendy, teenagers in Tokyo have formed their own conjuntos to emulate the sound.

That crossover appeal is underscored by some of the material in the typical conjunto band’s repertoire. Even when sung in española and revved up considerably, what can be more American than “Beer Barrel Polka”, “Open Up Your Heart and Let My Love Come In”, “In Heaven, There is No Beer”, “Release Me”, or even “Fraulein”? 

Knowledge of Spanish and an understanding of the culture were missing when conjunto first entered the ears of a bored North Texas teenager aimlessly flipping around the radio dial forty years ago. I didn’t have clue what the vocalists were saying, but I could immediately recognize that whatever they were saying was being stated in such a compelling, passionate fashion and being sung in front of an ensemble that played so amazingly tight and solid and heavy on the beat, I couldn't help but get hooked.

The siren’s call of el acordeon working counterpoint against the thick chunks of backbeat strummed on the bajo sexto was irresistible. The sound floated and rose the same way thick air does during the long, hot Texas summer, informed by a sense of place I fully appreciated. Conjunto’s heat, though, was a spontaneous combustion caused by a wicked conspiracy between a diatonic button accordion, a bajo sexto twelve-string guitar, and two vocalists harmonizing in Spanish and occasionally English, pushed by a syncopated beat pounded out with military precision.

The melody was familiar enough; the music’s roots were firmly planted in the European polka. But this was like no polka I’d heard before. The rhythm pushing the song was too jaunty, too jumping, too Latino. It made me want to dance. I figured our right then and there why some old-timers called conjunto musica alegre – happy music. Joy permeated every note.

A better understanding came at Sunday bailes at el club Rockin’ M, a country dance hall between Austin and Lockhart during the early 1970’s. As I was sitting, listening, watching, drinking, and dancing among four generations of families, conjunto revealed itself as a community glue that held together people who were of Mexican in heritage, Texan in outlook, and wholly original. Nowhere but Texas. This was authentic folk music-one of the last places left in America where real folks were making real music, performing in front of folks just like themselves.

I was hardly the only white guy to notice. On several occasions, Flaco Jimenez’s band from San Antonio included a guest player from Los Angeles named Ry Cooder. He was a renowned guitarist and recording artist who recognized conjunto’s uniqueness and set about learning it by doing an extended apprenticeship to master one of conjunto’s essential ingredients, the bajo sexto.

Flaco Jimenez at home with his first Grammy.
Conjunto - A Book By John Dyer​​

Many dances at the Rockin’ M were highlighted by accordion shoutouts, most frequently between Flaco Jimenez, Agapito Zuniga, El Escorpion de Corpus (the Scorpion of Corpus Christi), and Mingo Saldivar aka the Conjunto Cowboy, also from San Antonio. Jimenez was and is one of the genre’s greatest stylists as well as the person most responsible for exporting the tradition beyond its traditional boundaries through his recording with Doug Sahm and, later, the Texas Tornadoes, Dwight Yoakum, Emmylou Harris, the Rolling Stones, and Buck Owens, among others. Zuniga was an elder, one of the old guard, well versed in the traditions of the music. Saldivar was the wild card, a middle-aged crazy who replaced Jimenez in Los Caporales, way back when, and who carved out a following among his Spanish language covers of country music chestnuts such as “Ring of Fire” (made famous by Johnny Cash), refashioned, naturally, into a polkita. The three would trade riffs back and forth with flourishes that became increasingly flamboyant and flashy until finally Mingo Pingo would start playing his instrument above his head and behind his back and shut down the competition.

I’d learned about Flaco Jimenez through Doug Sahm, the rock and roller from San Antonio who had pop hits in the 1960s as leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet with songs rooted in a conjunto backbeat. In the early 1970s Sahm recorded two comeback albums with a superstar lineup of guest musicians including folk troubadour Bob Dylan and New Orleans keyboardist and composer Dr. John. The guest who caught my ear was Jimenez, Sahm’s old compadre from El West Side.

Flaco turned me on to “Viva Seguin”, the peppy polka instrumental credited to Don Santiago Jimenez, his father, one of the pioneers of modern conjunto. That led to meeting Don Santiago and posing for a photo with him alongside Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Keith Ferguson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. They got it too.

Santiago Jimenez spoke of the German, Czech, and Polish bands he eavesdropped on at dances around New Braunfels and San Antonio when he was growing up. They were only influences, he said. But Don Santiago couldn’t have copied them even if he’d wanted to. Blood and culture turned the same song into something completely different.

Don Santiago Jimenez and Lorenzo Caballero
Conjunto - A Book By John Dyer​​

As my command of the language improved, so did my appreciation of conjunto’s depth and resonance. I realized those mesmerizing melodies that sucked me in were mere embellishments decorating the dramatic songs being performed. That rand especially true for corridos, historical accounts of totable people and events told with a take that’s usually different from the official history, and boleros, the eloquent ballads of romance that underscore why Spanish is the loving tongue.

Further exposure made it obvious that conjunto was a thriving subculture that extended far beyond the musicians and their audience. Venues are essential. If not for bars like Lerma’s on Zarzamora Street on San Antonio’s west side and institutions such as Juan Tejeda’s Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where preservation is a conscious part of the presentation, and rural dance halls hewn of sheet metal that seem to have been around forever, conjunto would have gone extinct by now. A similar vital role is played by small Mom-and-Pop record shops such as Janie’s and Del Bravo, which is owned by the great corridista Salome Gutierrez. Mom-and-Pops not only carry a far more extensive selection of CDs and tapes that the chains and supercenters do; they function as community centers and cool places to hangout. If not for them, there would be no scene.

Recording facilities such as ZAZ Studios, Joey Lopez’s hit factory where bands can record one day and walk out with finished product the next, bar code and all, are the real star-making maquina of conjunto. And if not for stations like Ricardo Davila’s KEDA-AM, Radio Jalapeño, the best all-conjunto radio station in the whole world, how would the word get out? Fortunately, Ricky not only owns the station, but pulls the morning shift under the guise of Guero Polkas, the screaming, shouting bilingual disc jockey who is a major force promoting conjunto.

Somewhere down the line, the music’s ties to the language and the culture, and how both have infused the music with a sense of pride and honor, as well as pleasure, soaked in. My curiosity eventually led to the living room of Narciso Martinez, El Huracan del Valle, the father of modern conjunto who articulated the melody that blended accordion and bajo sexto. Martinez lived with his wife in a colonia west of Brownsville, a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and Latin America. Don Narciso cut a string of tracks for Bluebird beginning in the 1930s and was a pioneering crossover by virtue of recording some polkas under the pseudonyms of Louisiana Pete and Polish Joe to better sell to the Cajun and traditional polka public.

Narcisco Martinez
Conjunto - ​​A Book By John Dyer

Bruno Villareal, the blind accordionist credited with making the first conjunto recordings in the 1920s,had departed this earth before I could find him. That missed opportunity has been compensated by
being able to witness on numerous occasions the genius of Esteban Jordan, El Parche, the pirate/hippie/jazz cat with an eyepatch who originated a 1960s style described on one recording as acordeon psicodelico. He is hardly the only character in the realm. With band names like Los Test TubeBabes and Los Tall Boys, acts like Cuatitos Cantu, accordion-playing dwarf twins each with six-fingered hands, and people like Wally Gonzales, whose hilarious imitation of an Anglo highway patrolman speaking English made his 1970s hit “El Ticketito” a classic, and Snicky Nick Villareal, who built a career on the phrase “not to worry”, there’s plenty of color to go around.

One key reason conjunto didn’t completely assimilate and disappear as mexicano-tejanos morphed into americanos is Valerio Longoria, another accordion maestro who introduced vocals and romance bolerosto the genre. In the early 1990s, Longoria started teaching conjunto accordion to children and adults, sponsored by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. The classes effectively assured the passage of knowledge and tradition to a new generation of conjunto players that includes women, kids, and people with no Mexican blood whatsoever.

Blind Bruno Villarreal credited with making the first conjunto recording.
Conjunto - A Book By John Dyer​​

This is as good as music gets: a sound that’s underground, out of the purview of the mainstream, made for pleasure, not for profit; and a window to a culture that is rich, colorful, exotic yet strangely familiar. On the surface, conjunto music may appear to be a simple pleasure that serves as an excuse for a people of a certain place and culture to get together and have a good time. But look deep into the eyes of the people in these pictures. They all tell you conjunto is more than that. For them, conjunto is life.

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Don Santiago Jiménez, Sr. Y Sus Valedores* - "Viva Seguin"