The 40th annual Tejano Conjunto Festival opened Monday with a question: what is the state and future of this musical form?
In competition with popular genres from Norteño to Bad Bunny’s style of reggaeton, traditional conjunto music, based on the combination of accordion and bajo sexto, has fought for recognition since its 1990s heyday.
But in San Antonio, at least, Tejano conjunto is alive and well.
So said a panel of experts convened at the Guadalupe Theater to kick off the weeklong 2022 event, a celebration of Texas-Mexican music that will include films, a free dance for seniors, a Conjunto Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and — of course — plenty of music and dancing Tuesday through Sunday.
The festival schedule, with events at the Guadalupe Theater and Rosedale Park, is available here, along with information on tickets and multi-day passes.
Speaking Monday night, scholar Dan Margolies, a professor of history at Virginia Wesleyan College who studies conjunto culture, said he makes frequent trips to San Antonio to take in his favorite music, and the necessary accompaniments that make it so much fun.
“I like to play music, I like dancing, I like to drink beer, which are all these conjunto things,” Margolies said.
He said conjunto music thrives in the daily lives of families who listen to recordings and radio, but that it also needs the support of culture workers including academics and authors, and festival organizers such as Cristina Ballí, the executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center who took over in 2018 from the festival’s originator Juan Tejeda, a musician and scholar.
Traditional conjunto music is considered folk or heritage music, a designation that recognizes its cultural importance. Longtime musicians, such as San Antonian Max Baca, record for the Smithsonian Folkways label, and conjunto stars including Eva Ybarra, Flaco Jimenez and Santiago Jimenez Jr. have been recognized with National Heritage Fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts.
But to remain popular, said Gerald Benavides, owner of the KEDA Jalapeño Radio station based in San Antonio, conjunto needs to be accessible to its fans.
While social media platforms let people share music and culture, broadband access costs money. In contrast, radio is free, Benavides said. “All you do is just turn it on.”
Tejeda pointed out that in the 1990s at least seven San Antonio stations regularly played conjunto, while today only two stations focus on the music.
Todo en la familia
José María De León Hernández, well-known to all conjunto fans as “Little Joe,” kicked off the festival talking about his new biography No Llore, Chingon! An American Story: The Life of Little Joe by author Emma Gonzalez.
Before he took the stage and in between selfies with fans, Little Joe said all the talent is there to secure a future for conjunto music, but the genre needs support from all facets of the industry.
“Our market for this genre needs so much more than just talent,” he said. “We need management, we need producers, writers, engineers, all the aspects that go into music.”
He and others repeated one word throughout the evening: family — appropriate given that Little Joe changed the name of his band from the original Latinaires to Little Joe y La Familia, in part to acknowledge the key influence of his parents and siblings on his musical development.
Each panelist in turn spoke of learning the conjunto tradition from their families, at weddings and quinceñeras, family gatherings, or simply dancing at home, and of the importance of passing it along.
In the DNA
Rudy Treviño, news anchor for KIII-TV in Corpus Christi who features the weekly Tejano Gold Countdown of top hits, said cultural assimilation also plays a role in keeping young people from learning the traditions.
When he plays conjunto for his daughter, who has not learned Spanish, he said, “[she] says, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand it.’ But I’ll tell you what, I play music from Linda [Escobar] or Max [Baca] or Flaco [Jimenez], and she’s the first one to stand up and dance.”
Treviño continued, “And so what does that tell you? It’s in our culture. But more importantly, it’s in our DNA. And if we pass that along, if we somehow find a way to market that to them, [we’ll] wake up that DNA.”
On the eve of multiple performances that draw upwards of 10,000 fans, Treviño spoke words of assurance for conjunto music.
“Tejano is never going to die. Tejano and conjunto will never die,” he said. “As long as there’s quinceñeras and bodas and festivales and in back of our houses, we’re going to have it.”