That meteoroid recently seen streaking across the Rio Grande Valley? It might have been an outer space object, but it might just as easily have been norteño musicians Grupo Frontera.
The group from McAllen has been on a meteoric rise since starting as a hobby band a year ago, currently charting 279 million views of the video for its single “No Se Va” since its April release.
Grupo Frontera is just one of a bevy of norteño bands growing in popularity in the U.S. and around the world, selling out concert halls and arenas and charting national hits. Grupo Frontera currently has three songs on the Billboard all-genre “Hot 100” chart, and Tijuana band Grupo Firme sold out seven nights at the 20,000-seat Crypto.com arena in Los Angeles in 2021 (and filled the Alamodome in November).
But for Tejano — long a dance hall and radio favorite in San Antonio and the region — to enjoy similar success, some say it will take a stylistic departure that traditionalists might not like.
Keeping it real
Accordionist Álvaro Del Norte started San Antonio band Piñata Protest in 2006, inspired by pioneering Chicago hardcore punk band Los Crudos. While Piñata Protest’s original music is derived from Tejano styles and features accordion as an essential element, Del Norte said it’s far too punk to be called Tejano — though punk fans tell him it’s too Tejano to be considered punk.
“We’re the black sheep of the family that just kind of went their own way,” he said, which includes frequent touring throughout the U.S.
When asked whether the recent rise of norteño is crowding out Tejano, Del Norte said it’s a “touchy subject.”
“It’s something near and dear to all of us, it’s the music that we all grew up listening to,” Del Norte said. “Seeing it kind of go by the wayside is upsetting.”
Del Norte’s bandmate and partner Keli Rosa Cabunoc Romero is a folk musician and conjunto enthusiast. She attributed norteño’s recent rise to the incorporation of ubiquitous reggaetón beats and other popular elements.
A video she appeared in won Video of the Year at the 2022 Tejano Music Awards last November, precisely because it holds true to traditional Tejano music, Rosa said. To her, the videos it was in competition with did not really belong at the Tejano Music Awards because they were reggaetón, salsa or pop, and not Tejano at all.
“I’m just like, why?” she said. “Why are you out there doing reggaetón? If we wanted to hear reggaetón we would f—ing put on that.”
Rosa said she has tremendous respect for the vaunted figures of San Antonio’s Tejano scene, such as Nick “Nicky Snick” Villareal, who died in 2017, and the still-active Santiago Jimenez Jr., who at age 78 has found purchase with a younger crowd.
But she understands that not everyone grew up with such a close relationship to conjunto music, which her father loved as a migrant worker traveling between California and Texas and shared with her, teaching her all the dance steps.
“I think about this all the time,” she said. “I’m really big on folk music and traditional music and working-class music. But then there comes a moment where it might die. And I worry about that.”
The more traditional, the better
In 2015, Del Norte started a side project called Los Callejeros de San Anto, partly as an accessible street party band, but also to pay respect to traditional Tejano music.
“Callejeros for sure carries that flag. We play those songs and we’re keeping the tradition alive,” he said.
To Del Norte, Tejano conjunto is best when it sticks to the strict tradition, which means the ensemble style originated by Reynosa native Narciso Martinez in the 1930s: two-row button accordion and bajo sexto.
Tejano and norteño are borderlands styles similar in instrumentation, both featuring accordion and bajo sexto, so the differences are largely regional: norteño refers to northern Mexico while Tejano refers mainly to music played by Mexican Americans in South Texas.
Regarding newer Tejano musicians incorporating other popular styles and instrumentation, Del Norte said, “The more traditional it sounds, the better it sounds. Once you start to mess with it,” it becomes something else.
“Maybe you don’t want it to evolve. Maybe it’s one of those music forms that just reached its peak. And now we’re here to honor that time and place and keep it as a historical kind of thing.”
Carrying on the culture
San Antonian Aaron Salinas was a nosy kid who found a box in the back of his grandparents’ closet. When he opened it, he found an accordion and fell in love with the instrument.
With his grandfather’s encouragement, Salinas studied with Conjunto Heritage Taller, a cultural organization that teaches traditional conjunto songs and culture. He went on to win the Texas Folklife Big Squeeze accordion competition in the conjunto category in 2014 when he was fresh out of high school.
Salinas had just arrived in Houston for a winners showcase performance, when he found out his conjunto mentor Jesus “Chucho” Perales died.
In that moment he told himself, “You need to do something to keep the music going.” Salinas realized “no one else is going to do this unless I do it, and I kind of found my calling.” He now teaches regularly at the Conjunto Heritage Taller, with students ranging in age from 7-year-olds to septuagenarian.
Salinas, now 28, grew up with the internet and studied computer science. He said that YouTube became an essential part of his learning, functioning much in the same way as the oral tradition passed songs down through generations.
“I consider myself a folklorist,” he said, “carrying on the tradition, carrying on the culture … and ensuring that it doesn’t fade out.”
However, Salinas said that to avoid becoming like a ‘‘dead language,” traditional conjunto must adapt to the times.
Music scholar Dan Margolies spoke as a panelist for the May 2022 Tejano Conjunto Festival symposium on the state and future of Tejano conjunto music, and produces the annual festival for the Guadalupe Center. The discussion became lively when the subject of whether conjunto can or should adapt to the times.
“The first conjunto [band] that figures out a way to make a conjunto reggaetón, they’re gonna have a big hit,” Margolies said. “Because anywhere you go in San Antonio now, reggaetón is blasting out of cars and kitchens. It’s the music you hear everywhere.”
Though he’s a self-described conjunto traditionalist, he said evolution is part of folk traditions, and today’s conjunto sounds different from the conjunto of 30 years ago. “It’s a living tradition, so there’s always kind of a push and pull. But the living part is that it’s evolving and changing and incorporating new sounds, ditching ones that seem old or cycling back.”
Salinas agrees wholeheartedly. He said he respects what conjunto was, “but if you don’t keep changing it, modernizing it and reinventing it, it’s eventually going to die out. The flame is going to die out.”
Salinas’ band Volcán melds traditional Tejano with influences including prog-rock and modern Latin styles. Their ideal is to achieve the right balance: “This sounds old, but it sounds now.”
He said that like norteño, conjunto needs to modernize “to really pick up and grow.”
Suffering from stagnation
Rio Grande Valley native and lifelong conjunto music fan Cristina Ballí said in the 1990s she’d go dancing every weekend at any of several Tejano venues around San Antonio, including dedicated clubs such as Tejano Rodeo and Tejano Texas, and the music enjoyed a significant presence on commercial radio stations driven in part by the prominence of Selena.
Now, Ballí figures she might catch a local Tejano show every six or eight weeks at venues such as Far West, Cowboys, or Midnight Rodeo, and mourns the demise of local commercial radio stations devoted to the music.
Salinas sees Tejano suffering from stagnation. During its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “all over the nation, it was really, really big.” But nowadays, “if you put on a Tejano [radio] station, it’s the same 20 songs on rotation. There is nothing really new. And if it is, it’s all just covers. … That formula could be disastrous, because there’s no new music, and there’s not a push for people to start writing their own music.”
But as executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival, Ballí has recognized a resurgence of the music. In particular, the vitality of the annual Tejano Music Awards Fan Fair, when more than 100 bands take over Market Square over four days to play for an audience of 20,000, has really bowled her over.
“I used to think Tejano music was dead until I saw what goes on at that event,” Ballí said in an email, referring primarily to the Internet Tejano Radio Stations Gala, a key part of the Fan Fair.
Rise of internet radio
For a decade, music enthusiast and Vic G’s TC Radio producer Vic Gonzalez has organized the gala to help these grassroots stations — run by fellow enthusiasts, often out of their own homes or garages — raise money and awareness.
Plenty of chances to dance
- The Tejano Music Awards Fan Fair runs March 16-19 at Market Square.
- The Tejano Conjunto Festival will take place May 17-21 in various locations including Rosedale Park.
- Piñata Protest embarked on a multi-state tour Feb. 28 that includes a free March 18 concert at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts for the Pachanga De San Patricio.
- Also, Look for upcoming events in Del Norte’s ongoing Conjunto Underground concert series.
The March 16 gala will be his last event as organizer, Gonzalez said, in part because the internet stations have achieved sustained success.
“Now the stations are so strong that terrestrial radio went internet,” he said of commercial radio adopting the grassroots approach.
And Ballí marveled at the youth of the bands who attend the gala. “These are 20-year-olds that are playing Tejano music. … This is their parents’ music.” Ballí added, “and these bands are from everywhere.”
Gonzalez concurred, saying bands come in from California, New Mexico, Florida, Michigan and other parts of the country. This year a delegation will visit from Milwaukee, in search of bands for the city’s annual Mexican Fiesta music and food festival.
He said Tejano internet radio stations have been drawing listeners from across the globe, from such far-flung locales as Germany, Japan and China. Judging from the crowds at the annual Fan Fairs and Tejano Conjunto Festivals and the preponderance of Tejano bands at Fiesta, the Stock Show and Rodeo, King William Fair and other events, Gonzalez said he isn’t worried about the future of Tejano music, in all its forms.
“It brings in the crowds,” he said. “And it’s not just Mexicans, it’s all a mix of race and color. I’m looking at the people and they just get into the rhythms and they’re having a good time.”