It’s 1974 on a humid Saturday night in Texas. After a week of hard work, Tejanos - Mexican-Americans in Texas – get ready for a night of dancing at the neighborhood baile. The conjunto and orquesta bands play music that blends northern Mexican traditions; rhythms and melodies from Czech and German immigrants; Anglo and African-American popular styles; and Latin-Caribbean rhythms. Since the 1930s these two types of bands built the foundation for what we now call “Tejano music.”
The early conjunto was based on two instruments: the diatonic accordion, which uses buttons rather than piano keys and a 12-string guitar called bajo sexto.
Accordionist Narsiso Martínez and guitarist Santiago Almeida recorded this polka in 1935 called “La Chicharronera.” Narciso plays the higher side of the accordion leaving the bass and chord part for the bajo sexto. The bass notes of the bajo hit the down beat while its higher strings strike chords in between to create that “oom-pah” rhythm of polka.
Don Santiago Jimenez nicknamed “El Flaco” – “The Skinny One” added the contra bass which Tejanos call the tololoche. Listen for it in Santiago’s recording, “Viva Seguin.” The tololoche strengthens the bass notes of the bajo creating a “thicker” sound.
In the mid 1950s, Accordionist Tony de la Rosa added the drum set and electrified the conjunto. Check out his polka “Atononilco.” The Bajo Sexto’s role changes because the electric bass and drums take over the polka rhythm. The bajo only plays chords between the notes of the electric bass.
By the 1960s, Conjunto Bernal pushed the limits of the conjunto. One of their first big hits, “Mi Unico Camino” introduced ¾ tempo and three part vocal harmony from Mexican trios.
The urban orquesta is comparable to American Big Bands. The orchesta played a mixture of popular styles including jazz… and Latin like mambo… and danzon…for a classy audience.
Beto Villa, considered the father of orquesta, added conjunto rhythms to make the orquesta more appealing to working-class tejanos. This polka, “Las Delicias” was recorded in 1947. The bass and guitar hold the polka rhythm while the accordion fills in the space between the horn melodies.
Isidro Lopez, nicknamed “El Indio” added the brighter tone and punchier sound of mariachi trumpets to the orquesta. This new creation was coined Texachi. Here’s one of Isidro’s most well known songs, “Sufriendo y Penando” from 1960.
Currently the sounds of the conjunto and orquesta have been synthesized into a multi-national music industry called “Tejano” that reaches Latinos all over the Americas.