Sunday, July 30, 2017


By Juan Montoya
Those of us who live along the border lands are spoiled.
We can go to any number of congales in town and listen to a live conjunto for a farthing.

If we were up in the Midwest, and perhaps even in some places in North or Central Texas, it wouldn't be that easy to listen to live conjunto music as it is here. At least not for $5 a song or less.

Just the other day I happened upon a show on television featuring the latest round of music awards.
Tejano stars featured prominently among the winners as did the Latin artists and their tropical sound from Florida and Latin America. Even the guys with their gang signs and and defiant gestures are doing Spanish.
The musical evolution of the genre which first surfaced in the delta of the Rio Grande and northern Mexico and took root among the cactus and mesquite of the border has pollinated its influence far and wide.

Miami, Lima, and Tegucigalpa all dance to the music of the South Texas Mexicanos and norteño conjuntos. The music industry – caught unaware by the music explosion – had to scurry under the weight of the market to please the ravenous demand for a music that was nurtured and kept alive by a people an indomitable optimism and vigor in the face of adversity.

I say this because the megastars of the Latino-Tejano constellation in the majority of cases sing the songs that were created in the cultural nursery formed by the confluence of rivers and coastlines between both countries.

Even the new banda music isn't really so new. Tony Aguilar and even Javier Solis sang with bandas in the days of our grandfathers.

Someone once said that South Texas is the type of place you pass through to go somewhere else.

Situated on the Rio Grande and along the Gulf of Mexico, the statement might have some merit. But it is also the place where Chelo Silva lived and launched her career and the city that Joe Lopez, and later after the split, where Jimmy Gonzalez and Mazz call home.
Not far from here, about 15 miles away upriver, is the ranch where Narciso Martinez lived and where he toyed with the idea of forming a group with three basic instruments – the bajo sexto, accordion and guitar. Carried away as we are with the explosive Tejano sound, it may humble us to remember that Martinez formed the first conjunto only 65 or so years ago.

This is not a yearning look back at the Arhoolie days. Frankly, some of that stuff sounds awful. It’s not that the music has no historical value. Rather, there was little discrimination at times by the anthropologists-cum-producers in selecting the material. This is also not to say that some of the stuff being served up to Tejano music fans is any better.

How many times do we have to hear about La Banda del Carro Rojo, El Suburban Negro, El Lincoln Continental Negro, or whatever drug dealers prefer as getaway vehicles these days? Or Pacas de a Kilo, La Caspa del Diablo, or Los Tres Animlaes, and El Papa de los Pollitos, etc.?

We won't even mention the cocaine-driven dirges by the likes of Beto Quintanilla or Luis y Julian.

And the banda stuff sometimes is more grating to the ear than a car with bad brake shoes.
Some major bands need to take a primer in the genre before aping the latest fad. There are several strips of blue-collar/perdido establishments in South Texas towns where two- and three-men (there are a few women, too) conjuntos sing of foundation and roots in this region. This tradition of troubadours and working musicians has existed forever in these parts of the llano.

The standard fare for these performers is the traditional corrido. Oh, they know some of the ones preferred by the new crowd, but their forté lies in the songs of acknowledgment and admiration for the bravery and character of their hero.

Listen, for example, to the song written for José Silva Sanchez, an agrarian reform leader assassinated by the government in northern Tamaulipas in 1926. The federal rural police (rurales), having captured him when he fell asleep and was turned in by someone named Garcia, parade him through a town called Garza-Valdez. Then they take him to the firing wall (paredon) and ask him for his last wish.
Cual es tu último deseo,
preguntan los asesinos,
Les contesta Silva Sanchez,

Tierra pa’ los campesinos
Y una escuela con mi nombre
para educar a los niños

Certainly, this outlook is not in the songs written for the latest narcotraficante in that underworld, not that that story doesn’t deserve airing in its own right as it does reflect a reality existing along the border and northern Mexico affecting Mexico-Tejanos there.

Smuggling, an institution thrust upon the region by the creation of an international border with the formation of the state of Texas and the United States, has been an inspiration for many corridos. Only the contraband has changed. During Prohibition, it was tequila and other spirits that were desired by customers north of the border. And with the rationing during the World Wars, staples like sugar, flour, and anything that was in short supply was marketable. That was the Carga Blanca, not cocaine.

Nowadays, of course, the contraband of choice, besides cocaine and marijuana, may be mano de obra, or labor.
Buffeted by an invading and aggressive culture to the north and a defeated nation on the south, Mexico-Tejanos developed a culture and music that shielded them from the abuses on their heritage and on their persons.

Characters in corridos like Mariano Resendez, also known as El Contrabandista, paid homage not only to the main character, but also to his brother, Don José María, who when asked for the whereabouts of his brother by the police responded with the classic:

Señores, yo no se nada

Yo vengo de Santa Elena

This instinct to protect your home and others like yourself goes back a long way. It was Cuauhtémoc, while Spaniards burned his feet so he could tell them where the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s treasure was, who turned to his complaining co-prisoner and asked, "Am I perhaps lying on a bed of roses?"

At one time, any evidence of such resistance in music was frowned upon by the newly-arrived Texans. They made it against the law to sing El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, the song about the hero bearing that name that shot a sheriff in defending his brother from an illegal arrest in Kearnes
The words in the corrido praise the courage of the young Mexico-Tejano as he pits himself against an array of hundreds of Texas lawmen and Texas Rangers on his flight south of the border.

Another corrido frowned upon by authorities is the quintessential resistance corrido Jacinto Treviño, who walks into town brandishing his 30-30-caliber rifle and his pistol daring the Rangers to rumble. The song establishes a location in the first stanza by saying:

Ya con esta son tres veces
que se ha visto lo bonito

La primera fue en McAllen
En Brownsville,
y en San Benito

Entrenle rinches cobardes
que el pleito no es con un niño
Querian conocer su padre
yo soy Jacinto Treviño

Just as the resistance has left an imprint on Tejano music, so have the whimsical tunes of the traditional Mexican balladeers from right across the border. Rigo Tovar, who writes songs about his childhood in Matamoros, is a major name in the Mexican music industry. And Mojado, a modernistic group that has recorded songs penned by and produced by Marco Antonio Solis, of the Bukis, are themselves being interpreted as in their "Te Felicito" by the up-and-coming Mexican star Laura Flores.

South Texas (Zapata) also is home to the group Intocable, which has been a guiding star for conjunto music on both sides of the border.

To stray just a bit more, Brownsville is claimed as the birthplace by Kris Kristofferson and some say, by Tina Turner, though that may be just an urban myth because there was a black family here named Turner.

Selena was from Corpus Christi up the road a bit from La Kineña. She performed widely in the delta of the Rio Grande as a youngster and was here the February before she was shot. Throw in the Cajun influence through its Louisiana shrimper population and the region’s impact and influence on the musical current is evident.

Tejano-Mexicano’s influence on the national Latino sound forms the backbone of its development and evolution. Today, it coexists and collaborates with everything from rap to Polish polkas. Doubtless, more variations will follow.

But every once in a while, when the melody of the sound gets somewhat distorted by today’s electronics wizardry and technological sleight-of-hand, we along this border feel lucky to be able to plunk down $5 to pay a wandering conjunto for a classic canción in some small cantina where they turn the jukebox off when the patrons want the músicos to play.

We think it’s much nicer to hear the original before a new star comes along with a hip-hopped version in a sanitized CD recording that doesn’t quite convey the feeling of the people who created it.


Jim Barton said...

I was well acquainted with the Turners, especially Gloria and her older sister. Their brother was a cop. I don't remember a Tina. . Lol!

Anonymous said...

You forgot to include the new J.T. Canales Conjunto that does so well. Which reminds me that most of the new Mariachi groups include many of the young
BISD students who were in their school's estudiantina. The music dept at
BISD is doing wonders in exposing our kids to the fine arts.