Film Reviews

Tex-Mex Tunes

Austin filmmaker Hector Galan didn't have much to work with -- a meager selection of old recordings and still photos and a few feet of rare black-and-white footage of Rudy and the Renobops. That, and the history of Tejano music. But with his archival materials, and his conviction that the story of Tejano music is an important American story, Galan produced a no-frills, sincere and engrossing documentary about a lively chapter in South Texas history, Songs of the Homeland.

Everyone in southern Texas knows Tejano music, although perhaps not by name. Galan's documentary is his effort to roll back the tide of ignorance, to tell the story of the flourishing Tejano tradition both for longtime fans and for Texans who are acquainted with the Tejano sound only as background in Tex-Mex restaurants. Tejano is the unique music of Mexican-Americans in Texas, a synthesis of Mexican musical traditions and the sounds of European immigrants' instruments. But the story of Tejano is also a story of American music, because each new mainstream style influenced the Tejano bands.

Galan begins his documentary with modest photos of turn-of-the-century Mexican-Americans; Freddy Fender narrates, explaining that the homeland of the title is South Texas, and that the people of this land were caught between Mexico and the rest of the United States. Then, Galan cuts to San Antonio's rowdy Tejano Rose nightclub, where a traditional Tejano band, La Tropa F(F Troop), is on-stage.

Galan uses scenes from the Tejano Rose throughout his film. It may be that he uses images and music of contemporary Tejano in San Antonio so often simply because he had it available; whether or not that's the case, closing segments on past traditions by returning to the wild scenes at the Tejano Rose is a seductive narrative device. By doing this, Galan is saying that, despite the varied sounds that have marked Tejano's 100-year evolution, the tradition has one meaning for one people.

Songs of the Homeland's central theme is the cultural significance of Tejano music. Musician after musician talks about what they brought to people -- and in the Depression, the music was often the only entertainment, only expression of pride, for thousands of South Texans. Longtime conjunto musician Tony De La Rosa, filmed under mesquite trees with cicadas buzzing on the soundtrack, says that what matters is not "what you play, it's the people you play for." He says this with tears in his eyes, a portly old man who's been in a road band for decades but is still moved by a sense of purpose.

Conjunto is the purest form of Tejano music, almost the first Tejano music. Conjunto players borrowed the button accordion from European immigrants and then made a music all their own by using it to play traditional Mexican styles, with the accordion carrying melody and the 12-string guitar handling the bass line.

Conjunto is country music, and has both the negative and positive aspects of country music. It has the pride of a people, and also the stigma of bumpkins and low-class tastes. The Tejano styles that aimed to bring Mexican music in sync with mainstream tastes dumped the accordion. Musicians learned to play horns (in band class, of all places) and to read music. In short, to be slick. Galan shows this side of Tejano as well, and, after every segment of slick middle-class Mexicans playing their Tejano, we return to the Tejano Rose, where La Tropa F plays its Tejano loud and proud, and with that distinctive conjunto accordion.

In the film, old-time conjunto players tell how they were considered low-brow because they didn't belong to a union, didn't know how to read music and didn't wear current fashions. They talk about how everyone told them that conjunto was the lowest thing there was -- and during this narration, we see dozens of still photos of conjunto bands, the players all grinning from ear to ear, and, in the documentary soundtrack, we hear the sturdy, lively and thoroughly addictive sounds of conjunto. Hearing the music, it's easy to understand how these musicians were proud and happy to play "the lowest thing there was." And how proud and happy we should be that they did -- and do.

Songs of the Homeland will be shown at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 22, and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 23, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet.

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Edith Sorenson