It’s a word that immediately invokes the sound of an accordion and bajo sexto, the voices of ebullient children and just slightly tipsy tios giving thanks for the chance to revel and relax in the San Anto sun. Conjunto, stripped down simply means “a grouping, or integration,” but it means so much more to la gente of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s Tejano Conjunto Festival, going strong in its 35th year at Rosedale Park in San Antonio’s southwest side.
Fitting to its name, the festival brings together 31 unique groups from across the nation and continues Friday night starting at 5:30 p.m. through the grand finale on Sunday night with the ineffable Flaco Jiminez y su Conjunto.
“The music itself is a reflection of the struggles of a people who despite all the odds found a way to celebrate, a place to celebrate their cultural values,” said musician and artist Nicolás Valdez, who performed with his band Los Nahuatlatos.
Yet the die-hard lovers of the people’s music donned their Thursday’s best and sat down at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center last night to soak in Conjunto Blues, a dynamic and daring look into the world of conjunto sound.
Veladoras cascaded gently along the altar on the stage, a bar set up with a perch and shot glasses sprinkled about bottles of liquor, a set of boxes on stage where the bajo sexto plays is where Valdez shines his light.
“This is a one-man show written by our alumni, Nicolás, who started here when his mother and father moved from California,” said Tejano Conjunto Festival Curator and Co-Founder Juan Tejeda before Valdez triumphantly took the stage. “This is the next generation that the Guadalupe has produced, and they will be the ones running our festivals in the years to come.”
An emotional Tejeda promised the audience – composed of the same individuals who have danced and laughed with him and the pachucos of the conjunto scene – that even though he’s retiring from the festival, he’ll be training and mentoring those who will take over.
“I am so proud of these young men, I promise you, you’re in good hands,” Tejeda said.
Valdez embodies a masterful candor as a performer, seamlessly transitioning between characters and time periods, owning each spirit so naturally, reflecting his having lived alongside the legends he emulates. The hundreds of people filling the room are caught on the edge of his every word, woven in between flurries of Spanish storytelling bits of English emerge for emphasis and the spirit of San Antonio is captured poetically.
Valdez emerges from the stage in his third outfit of the night, “My name is Valerio Longoria and I have been dead for 15 years!” Audience members shout “Salud!” as he pours the tequila into a shot glass and raises it up, a poignant homage to the accordion legend who taught him, and more than 2,000 others, the art of the accordion.
“The accordion is a very emotional instrument,” he says. “But you’re not really going to learn until you have your heart broken.” And with that Valdez straps on the accordion, and he and accompaniment Robert Casillas break away into a moonlit night of lost lovers, the sentimental and somber side of an oft rambunctious instrument.
The stage played out with a mix of Valdez’s theatrical heroics and invigorating historical and personal anecdotes, as well as a documentary composed by Valdez featuring legends from the roots of conjunto, including Tejeda and the spirited personality of Rudolfo Lopez, Artistic Director of the Conjunto Heritage Taller.
“We grew up together musically, but they’ve bypassed me,” said Lopez, who is 30 years older than Valdez. “It’s gratifying to see these kids as young adults now, kickin’ ass. They were born with this.”
Gentlemen like Lopez were referenced by Valdez outside of the documentary as well, as he told stories of his first time playing at Rosedale Park as a child, the place that Lopez helped curate for young musicians to showcase their talents. “In those early days, all of Rosedale Park felt like ours,” Valdez said. “For the first time in my life I experienced that rush, gritos y appluasos. I think I’ve been chasing that high ever since.”
The greater dimension of Conjunto Blues was captured in its ability to simultaneously make you feel like you were at the festival itself, while remaining in the candlelight of your abuela’s wisdom in her backyard with a rocking chair. The familial nature that gives the music such depth and strength, came through in the myriad stories of Valdez, but not all of them so light.
A palpable silence fills the room as Valdez portrays el borracho de Conjunto, and owns it so powerfully that we feel the line between sadness and humor that drunkenness represents, the seriousness of “being Mexican, no school for me” what turns so many musicians into junkies and that lifestyle deteriorates the greater soul of a man. Valdez stumbles about after snorting a line of cocaine and performs a boisterous number for a crowd not sure whether to laugh or cry, and so is the fullness and humanity of this great art form embodied.
A dear friend of Valdez and a believer in the power of art to sway the masses, Texas Poet Laureate and Guadalupe Literary Arts Director Laurie Ann Guerrero claims that Valdez is a glue that helps keep this music alive.
“He tells his own personal story, beautifully holding on to his culture,” Guerrero said. “He’s bringing together the old and young to this place – this is a success because of that power.”
Guerrero expressed a sentiment that seemed to fill the room in Valdez’s closing moments on the stage. “His loyalty is felt by everybody,” Guerrero said.
Tias gave tender caresses to a gracious Valdez, as he blended in humbly and graciously with his audience, so one in the same and so representative of everything he spoke about. In a bright red dress, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) smiled and affirmed that she was a part of that “everybody.”
“There were so many elements of the performance I could relate to, from learning to dance to the feeling of family,” Viagran said. “He definitely captured all of the senses.”
In his last, perhaps most vivid moments on stage, Valdez cast a spell over all of the senses indeed, leaving a whisper for the music to flutter forth from into the weekend and into the hearts of the people of San Antonio.
“Tonight the beer is still cold, the bajo sextos are musing and the sweet mesquite breeze carries our stories all the way home.”
You can find more information about the Tejano Conjunto Festival, happening May 13-15 at Rosedale Park, including ticketing, schedules and more at www.guadalupeculturalarts.org.
Featured image: Nicolas Valdez and bajo sexto accompaniment Robert Casillas shine on in “Conjunto Blues”