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Hispanic Heritage

Música Norteña: The Mexican-Texan Conjunto and Orquesta

In the first half of the twentieth century, two types of Latino musical ensembles originated among the Mexicans in Texas. These are música norteña, known among Mexican Texans as conjuntos, and orquesta tejana, or simply orquesta. Both conjuntos and orquesta had become major musical styles by the 1950s, and their influence had spread far beyond the Texas borders by the 1970s.


Música norteña had its beginnings along the Texas-Mexico border. The diatonic button accordion, which is the heart of música norteña, was evidently introduced either into northeastern Mexico or to south central Texas sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century — perhaps by German, Czech, or Polish immigrants who settled there. The exact identity of the donor culture may never be known.

What we do know is that by the late nineteenth century the accordion, coupled with one or two other instruments — the tambora de rancho (ranch drum) and the bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar) — had become the norm for music-and-dance celebrations in south Texas. The tambora was a primitive folk instrument fashioned out of native materials. It was usually played with wooden mallets, their tips covered with cotton wrapped in goatskin. The bajo sexto apparently originated in the Guanajuato-Michoacán area in Mexico; it is a 12-string guitar tuned in double courses. How it migrated to and established itself in the border area is a mystery. But in its new locale it became an indispensable companion to the accordion, especially after 1930, when it and the accordion emerged as the core of the evolving ensemble.

The conjunto thrived from early on as the preferred ensemble for rural working-class folk. In its early days it relied on the salon music that had been introduced from Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The principal genres were the polka, the redowa, and the schottishe, although the mazurka was also current. Rounding out the repertoire was the huapango, music native to the Gulf Coast region of Tamaulipas and northern Vera Cruz in Mexico. The huapango is more frequently associated with the music of the huasteca region of southern Tamaulipas, where it has a ternary pulse built around a 3/4 meter. As performed by norteños, however, the huapango early on acquired a binary pulse built around the triplets of 6/8 meter.

Back to the Roots

The history of the Mexican-Texan conjunto can be divided into three distinct stages. The first, to the late 1920s, is the formative, when the ensemble was strictly improvisational and the accordion was still played either solo, with guitar or bajo sexto, or with the tambora de rancho. The technique used to play the accordion itself owed much to the technique of the Germans who had originally introduced the instrument to the Mexicans. This included the heavy use of the left-hand bass-chord buttons, lending the instrument a distinctive sound and articulation.

The second stage emerged in the mid-1930s, when the Mexican Texan conjunto began to move across the border — gradually at first, radically after World War II. The sudden development of the conjunto during the second stage is undoubtedly linked to intervention of the large American recording labels, which began in earnest in the early 1930s. At this time RCA Victor (through its Bluebird subsidiary), Columbia, and Decca moved into the Southwest and began commercially exploiting the variety of music then flourishing in the region.

Thus, by the mid-1930s, when accordionist Narciso Martínez began his commercial recording career,the first steps had been taken toward cementing the core of the modern conjunto — the accordion-bajo sexto combination. These two instruments would become inseparable after this time. Meanwhile, Martínez, who is acknowledged as the "father" of the modern conjunto, devised a new technique for the instrument, one that differed radically from the old Germanic style. He stopped using the left-hand bass-chord buttons, leaving the accompaniment to the bajo sexto, which was very capably played by his partner Santiago Almeida.

The resulting sound was dramatically novel — a clean, spare treble, and a staccato effect that contrasted sharply with the Germanic sound of earlier norteño accordionists. The Martínez style quickly took hold and became the standard that younger accordionists emulated, particularly those who established themselves after World War II.

In fact, the years immediately following the war ushered in the third stage in the conjunto's development. A younger group of musicians began charting a new direction for the rapidly evolving style. Foremost among these was accordionist Valerio Longoria, who added two elements of the modern conjunto — the modern trap drums and the canción ranchera, the latter a working-class subtype of the Mexican ranchera, which dates from the 1930s. Obsessed with abandoned men and unfaithful women, the canción ranchera has always had special appeal for male patrons of conjunto music. Since it was often performed in the 2/4 meter of the traditional polka favored by Mexican Texans, the ranchera quickly replaced the polka itself as the mainstay of the modern conjunto.

Conjunto After World War II

In the 1950s, Tony de la Rosa revolutionized conjunto and shaped much of its post-World War II sound by adding drums and electrifying the bajo sexto (12-string bass guitar) in his group. This sparked a new dance, the tachuachito, and led to conjunto bands playing larger rooms with a now-amplified sound.

Paulino Bernal is a major figure in the development of the modern ensemble. His conjunto is hailed as the greatest in the history of the tradition, an honor based on the craftsmanship and the number of innovations attributable to El Conjunto Bernal. The latter include the introduction of three-part vocals and the addition of the larger chromatic accordion. El Conjunto Bernal's greatest distinction, however, lies in its ability to take the traditional elements of the conjunto and raise them to a level of virtuosity that has not been matched to this day. Bernal had accomplished all of this by the early 1960s.

Meanwhile, after about 1960 the conjunto and the older norteño ensemble across the Rio Grande began to converge, as the norteños came under the influence of their tejano counterparts. Especially responsible for this convergence was Los Relámpagos del Norte (The Northern Lightning Bolts), a group led by accordionist Ramón Ayala and bajo sexto player Cornelio Reyna. By 1967 the group had risen to unparalleled fame on both sides of the border. The group remained unchallenged until the mid-1970s, when Ayala and Reyna went their separate ways. Ayala shortly organized his own conjunto, Los Bravos del Norte (The Northern Brave Ones), and that group went on to dominate the norteño market for at least a decade.

Since the innovations of the 1960s, the conjunto has turned decidedly conservative, with both musicians and patrons choosing to preserve the elements of the style as these were worked out in the 1940s through the 1960s. Despite its conservatism the tradition has expanded phenomenally, spreading far beyond its original base along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1970s to 1990s. In the last few years, the music has taken root in such far-flung places as Washington, D.C., California, and the Midwest, as well as the entire tier of northern Mexican border states and even in such places as Michoacán and Sinaloa. In its seemingly unstoppable expansion, conjunto music has always articulated a strong Mexicanized, working-class life-style, thus helping to preserve Mexican culture wherever it has taken root on American (and Mexican) soil.

The Mexican American Orquesta

The orquesta has a fascinating history in the music of the Hispanic Southwest. Actually, three types of orquestas have been present in the Southwest at different periods in the last century. The earliest type is one that existed during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. This early ensemble, built primarily around the violin, was hardly an "orquesta." It was for the most part an improvised ensemble, one dependent on the availability of musicians and scarce instruments for composition.

The rudimentary nature of this early orquesta is linked to the marginalization of the Mexicans of the Southwest — their loss of political and economic stability when the Anglo-Americans invaded the territory and eventually annexed it to the United States. Opportunities for musical training all but disappeared, reducing an orquesta tradition inherited from Greater Mexico to its bare and often improvised essentials — a violin or two plus guitar accompaniment, with other instruments added on an ad hoc basis.

Despite its impoverished character, the early orquesta of the Hispanic Southwest nonetheless enjoyed great prominence in the musical affairs of the Mexican communities across the territory — even in Texas, where the emergent conjunto offered strong competition. Small orquestas were enlisted for all kinds of celebrations, which ran the gamut from private weddings and birthdays to public celebrations. These orquestas were of variable composition, although they seldom included more than a violin or two with guitar accompaniment.

Orquesta típica

The 1920s saw the emergence in the urban areas of better-organized orquestas, built around the violin. This was the so-called orquesta típica (typical orchestra). The first típica was organized in Mexico City in 1880, and it was supposedly modeled after an earlier folk orquesta common in Mexican rural areas throughout the nineteenth century (also known as típica) and apparently similar in instrumentation to the folk orquestas of the Hispanic Southwest. The self-styled orquestas típicas of urban origin were clearly expressions of what is known as costumbrismo — the orquesta members were given to wearing "typical" charro (cowboy) outfits similar to those worn by the Mexican mariachi, in an effort to capture some of the flavor of Mexican pastoral life.

In the United States, the first típica was probably organized in El Paso or Laredo sometime in the 1920s. These orquestas were strongly reminiscent of the modern mariachi, whose historical roots they may well share. The basic instrumentation of the orquesta típica consisted of violins, guitars, and psalteries, although in the Southwest other instruments were often. The size of the típica could vary from four or five musicians to as many as 20.

Típicas were enlisted for almost any occasion, although they were ideally suited for patriotic-type celebrations, such as cinco de mayo (fifth of May, when the Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza postponed the French invasion of Mexico by defeating General Laurencez at Puebla) and dieciseis de septiembre (sixteenth of September, Independence Day), two dates of special significance for Mexican people. The repertoire of orquestas típicas consisted of aires nacionales — tunes that over the years had acquired status as "national airs." Típicas seem to have fallen out of favor among Mexican Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They disappeared from the musical scene in the Southwest during World War II.

Modern Orquesta

On the other hand, the 1930s saw the emergence of the third and most important type of orquesta, this one a version of the modern dance bands that swept through the urban landscapes of both Mexico and the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The modern orquesta is tied to the fortunes of a new group of Mexican Americans during the 1930s and 1940s. This was the first generation of Americans of Mexican descent who in some ways tried to detach themselves from their Hispanic culture in order to participate (or assimilate) in the American way.

The orquesta catered to the generation's bicultural nature. By performing music traditionally associated with Mexico and Latin America, it kept alive the Mexican Americans' ethnic roots; by performing music associated with American big bands, it satisfied the desire to assimilate American culture. Thus, from Mexico and Latin America came the danzón, bolero, guaracha, rumba, and other dance genres; from the United States came the boogie, swing, fox-trot, and so on.

Texas assumed a leadership role in music developments in the Hispanic Southwest after World War II. There was, for example, Beto Villa, from Falfurrias, Texas, sometimes called the "father" of the Mexican American orquesta. Acclaimed for a folksy, ranchero polka that took the Southwest by storm, Villa deftly juxtaposed this "country" style polka, which came to be known as Tex-Mex, against more sophisticated genres drawn from Latin America and the United States — danzones, guarachas, fox-trots, and swings. A notable successor to the Tex-Mex tradition was Isidro López, also from Texas. A singer-saxophonist, López deliberately emphasized the ranchero mode of performance in an attempt to attract a larger share of the common workers, who were otherwise more faithful to the ever more powerful (and more ranchero) conjunto. López was the first orquesta leader to add the working-class canción ranchera to the orquesta repertoire. But he added his own touch to the ranchera, embellishing it with a blend of mariachi and Tex-Mex that López himself dubbed Texachi.

Two other orquestas of note during the 1940s and 1950s were Balde González's, from Victoria, Texas, and Pedro Bugarín's, from Phoenix, Arizona.

In the Los Angeles area, meanwhile, a number of orquestas operated during the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these took their cue from music developments in Latin America (including the Afro-Caribbean) and were less influenced by developments in the Tex-Mex field. One noteworthy exception was the orquesta that the legendary Lalo Guerrero fronted for a time. As Guerrero himself admitted, he "mixed it all up," combining Tex-Mex with boogie and Latin American, including salsa. But Guerrero was best known for his unique tunes, which fused music and linguistic elements from swing, rhumba, and caló. Most of these tunes were written by Guerrero himself. Some achieved immortality through the movie Zootsuit, produced in 1982 by the Chicano filmmaker and erstwhile activist >Luis Valdez (for example, the tune "Marihuana Boogie").

La Onda Chicana

But the most influential orquestas continued to originate in Texas. In the 1960s and 1970s, which may well have been the peak years for the Mexican American orquesta, several groups emerged from the active tradition established in the Lone Star State. Foremost among these was Little Joe and the Latinaires, renamed Little Joe y la Familia in 1970. La Familia exploited the Tex-Mex ranchero sound fashioned by Isidro López to its utmost, fusing it to American jazz and rock within the same musical piece. Little Joe and his brother Johnny combined their voices duet-fashion to create a style of ranchera. Backing them was two trumpets, two saxophones, a trombone, and a rhythm section of bass, electric guitar, drums, and keyboards. This unique sound came to be known as La Onda Chicana (The Chicano Wave).

As fashioned by Little Joe y la Familia, La Onda Chicana spread rapidly throughout the Southwest and beyond. Other orquestas followed La Familia's lead, as more and more efforts were directed at creating a synthesis of ranchera and jazz/rock. Many of these efforts were remarkable for their effect, with particularly successful results being achieved by the orquestas of Sunny and the Sunliners, Latin Breed, and Tortilla Factory, all from Texas.

By the mid-1980s, La Onda Chicana had receded from its watershed years, with the orquesta tradition generally suffering a noticeable decline. The most notable sign of decline was the substitution, beginning in the early 1980s, of the horn section for synthesized keyboards. At first, these tried to imitate, synthetically, the sound of the trumpets, saxes, and trombone, but eventually the keyboards developed their own synthesized sound, one closer in spirit to the conjunto, and this became the norm after about 1985. Except in Texas, where an entrenched tradition survived into the 1990s, Mexican Americans growing up in more recent years have been less attracted by the old-fashioned orquesta.

Source: Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997; DISCovering Multicultural America, Gale, 1999.

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