Conjunto is an original form of American musical expression on par with the much-honored traditions of jazz and blues. This is the statement performer Nicolás Valdez hopes to make with his one-person theatrical performance Conjunto Blues, to be streamed online Dec. 4-6 through Teatro Vivo in Austin.
“This is American music. … But it’s never really been accepted into the pantheon of American music,” he said.
Conjunto Blues is the centerpiece of a weekend of celebration and exploration into the music and its history, with a live question-and-answer session with Valdez and board members of Teatro Vivo, a Latino theatrical group, after the 7 p.m. performance on Dec. 4, and a 2 p.m. workshop broadcast from Valdez’s Los Angeles home on Dec. 5.
The theatrical performance was filmed in advance and will be available for streaming throughout the weekend, while the Q&A and workshop will be presented live via the Zoom videoconference platform.
Through the one-hour Conjunto Blues set of classic songs and stories based on his personal experiences, Valdez explores the history of conjunto as a soundtrack for the Mexican American working class.
“This show is really about the evolution of the Mexican American community here in Texas,” he said, through its struggles for equality and recognition, and with all its strengths and faults.
The purpose of Conjunto Blues is “to reclaim our place in the American narrative,” he said. “We’ve been here for generations. We are completely integral into the fabric of this country, but we still get marginalized” and stereotyped, he said, “but this is an American story.”
Valdez’s grandfather Ramon was a conjunto aficionado who shared his enthusiasm with his grandson. But the 9-year-old Valdez was not so enthusiastic about being dragged to the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for accordion lessons, perhaps not yet appreciating the value of learning from Valerio Longoria, now considered a conjunto “genius” and legend.
Still, he stuck with it and eventually became a professional performer determined to share his knowledge. His research turns up in the show as mini-documentaries that highlight conjunto’s origins in the rural campesinos of his farming ancestors, how the machismo of its male performers limited the opportunities of women artists such as Eva Ybarra, and the problematic culture of vice and violence that sometimes outshone the music.
“It’s not the prettiest picture,” he said, “but we find ways to celebrate and to take our experiences and our stories and translate them into musical form in a way that reinforces us as a community.”
Like the Delta Blues of Mississippi and Louisiana, conjunto is “music that came from the struggles of working class people” to become “the people’s music,” Valdez said.
Valdez said a common occurrence is for audiences to compare their own musical experiences to those he presents in Conjunto Blues.
“It’s a very cross-generational and cross-ethnic experience … a very universal experience,” he said, attesting to his hope that conjunto will eventually be fully recognized as an important American musical form.
A short video trailer and free registration for Conjunto Blues weekend events are available on the Teatro Vivo website.