For strangers to conjunto, or for those who want to take a nostalgic trip through Tex-Mex fashions and the music of yesteryear, Austin-based filmmaker and San Angelo native Hector Galán's Accordion Dreams offers up the goods on PBS on September 19. Narrated by Tish Hinojosa and scored by Joel Guzman, the one-hour film examines conjunto history, from its German and Slavic antecedents to the present. Consider it a Conjunto for Dummies for those of us who know the music only as an accompaniment to nachos and ritas.
Galán is eager to stress the present and future of the South Texas-bred music, and thus his film is bookended with shots focusing on youthful vitality. He opens with 23 year-old Jesse Turner ripping through "Coco Rayado" at his alma mater, Santa Rosa High School in the Valley. Turner's fast fingers and high-stepping dance moves have a gymnasium full of teenage girls in a Beatlemaniacal state of hysteria. Say what you will about a mob of shrieking teenage girls, but very few things on this earth are more alive. What's more, any music that can seize their fickle attentions cannot be called moribund. (One can little imagine a polka ace, no matter if he looked like a Backstreet Boy and danced like James Brown circa "I Feel Good," similarly enthralling an adolescent audience in, say, a former polka hotbed like Chicago.)
The film closes with a shot of 15-year-old Corpus Christi accordion ace Victoria Galvan sitting in with the band hired for her own quinceañera. Tiara-bedecked and clad in a frilly white ankle-length dress, Galvan looks like nothing so much as the Goddess of Eternal Conjunto Youth. The shot is so effective it almost appears cornily staged.
In between, we get archival photographs, concert footage both vintage and recent, and (rather too many) talking heads expounding on conjunto's birth just before World War II, its brief reign, its long drift through the doldrums, and its eventual resurgence. There is also a long and well-told section detailing why the diatonic button accordion is the only squeezebox any conjunto master would consider. For Tejanos, the piano accordion is solamente para sissies.
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Conjunto's starvation time was the "late '50s through the early '70s," says Galán. "The reason it slowly died out was the popularity of orquesta music, you know that Beto Villa [considered the Tex-Mex Lawrence Welk] started after the war. The lowly accordion was relegated to the working class, cantinas, lower-class country-bumpkin kind of stuff." Only the geeks and misfits played the squeezebox during that period, as Joel Guzman of Aztex laughingly remembers in an interview captured on the film.
Galán concurs with Guzman's assessment and remembers that in his own youth he shunned the music of his ancestors. "C'mon, that was what your parents listened to. I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf."
Accordion Dreams effectively demonstrates that a subculture's music has to adapt to survive. Tejanos should listen to the monsters of rock, the film suggests, and then toss that stuff back into their own stew. Parallels abound with the history of zydeco. Tejano and Creole musicians alike have trumped the overweening blandness that attempts to squish all American subcultures and folk musics into an amorphous, gooey blob. They have accomplished this feat by shunting the American mainstream into their own deep cultural well. When Tejanos and Creoles dip in, the bucket comes out full of revitalized versions of their own life-sustaining music.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Tejano and Creole baby boomers rejected their own music in favor of sounds that were from (or sounded as if they were from) elsewhere, to the near-complete exclusion of their heritage. In this analogy between the two cultures, Flaco Jimenez would be the Clifton Chenier, the man who took the ailing music to the wider world and also brought the wider world back to the music. Jaime y Los Chamacos, who arose at roughly the same time as Beau Jocque, can be seen as the latter's rough equivalent, with their rock-and-roll intros to conjunto classics corresponding with Beau's willingness to fold in new styles. There are even gender similarities -- Eva Ybarra paved the way for teenagers like Galvan and Cecilia Saenz, much as Queen Ida did for zydeco grrrl Rosie Ledet.
The analogy breaks down at one critical juncture: Conjunto still has only one ambassador. So far, only Flaco tours Anglo America, only Flaco graces European festival stages, only Flaco has imitators in places like France and Japan. This is through no inherent fault of the music; rather, the music lacks exposure in mainstream Anglo America. A few more Anglo bands like New Orleans' conjunto-loving Iguanas likely will spark a Tex-Mex music boom to rival that of the culture's cuisine.
German-American-flavored bands are as thin on the ground as German-American restaurants, and Accordion Dreams tells us why when Galán turns his cameras on a doddering German dance in New Braunfels. It was from just such a milieu -- albeit a livelier one -- that the Teutonic/Hispanic fusion that is conjunto first sprung. Today, there's nary a non-AARP card-toting soul in sight. Many of those filmed, we are told, are not Texas Germans, but German-American sunbirds wintering in New Braunfels. The music from the stage should be issued its own free subscription to Modern Maturity as well. Unlike conjunto, which seemingly reinvents itself every decade, Texan polkas sound as if they have not been altered a demiquaver since the glory days of the Hapsburg Empire.
The reasons for the death of German/ Slavic polka in Texas are simple, says a primary Accordion Dreams interviewee, ethnomusicologist Cathy Ragland. "There's loss of language, there's assimilation process," she says. "It's a matter of not having people interested or around. Whereas in the Mexican-American population, there's still a strong tie to Spanish, and the population has never been able to fully assimilate. So they formed their own parallel identity, and the music became a part of that."
While these parallel identities have resulted in the creation of some fine music, the societal conditions that have allowed conjunto to flourish are not cheery to everybody. Those who favor the melting-pot theory over that of the salad bowl will state that it is racism, poverty and the failure to stress English over Spanish that have kept Tejano music alive. It is a fact that out of the barren wastes of oppression beautiful music can break through, but no one is arguing that we should return to Jim Crow laws so we can again hear voices like those of Blind Lemon Jefferson or Son House.
But the film implies that there is a happy medium, and that Tejanos have found it. Tejano kids and young adults, it states, listen to rap, rock and country, but affirm themselves through conjunto, their music of rituals. The Valley has always been a stronghold, but even there, says Galán, "today you don't really have any venues that are strictly for conjunto music. It's in weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras. It's always there."
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