Music And Film

October 26, 2012

The Music of the Rio Grande Valley


Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz once wrote that the musical traditions of the Tejanos of South Texas were influenced by not only Mexico, but also by their Anglo- American, African-American and immigrant neighbors like the Czechs, Bohemians, and Moravians as well as Germans and Italians. German immigrants, who developed in part the brewing industry in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, were also the distributors of German-made accordions, which according to Strachwitz, were marketed in northern Mexico as far back as the late 1800’s. Corrido and Mariachi music eventually “melted” with the Polka creating a sound that was known as Norteño music because of its origin in Northern Mexico. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution prompted an exodus of people moving north to South Texas, and with them came Norteño music.

Narciso “El Huracán del Valle” Martinez is known as the father of Conjunto [kon’xunto] music. Conjunto literally means group. It is said Martinez traveled to central Texas where he transposed tunes from German and Czech brass bands to accordion. He later formed a group with his good friend Santiago Almeida who played the bajo sexton — a sixth-bass instrument with 12 strings in six double courses — and a new musical style was created. A Conjunto band traditionally consists of an accordion, a bajo sexto, bass and drum.

Lupe Saenz, Jr., of the South Texas Conjunto Association, is a dedicated promoter of the Conjunto music in South Texas. He is the host of the TV show “Acordiones de Texas” on KMBH public television. The show has been on the air since 2005 while his radio program, “Nuevo Tejano Conjunto Radio Show,” has aired for four years on KMBH public radio.

Lupe is a strong believer of supporting Public radio because, he says, “It is the only venue for Conjunto music here in the Rio Grande Valley. Thus, we want to continue supporting this public media for as long as we can.”  When asked why he was so dedicated to promoting this particular genre, he answered;” It is a culture that is disappearing, and with it the music of the people of South Texas. I also do this because I believe that our Tejano music is being bombarded by too much Norteño music while completely ignoring our South Texas music. Sometimes, it seems as if we are not even here,” he concluded.

There has always been confusion about the difference between Norteño and Conjunto music among locals, and even music lovers who do not live in the South Texas region. But Saenz Jr. knows the differences well as he stated when asked about them. “If you are referring in the difference between Norteño and Conjunto, the difference is in the rhythm, song themes and beat. Some people are confused with this. Let me give you an example: both rock and roll and country music use the same instruments, correct? But are they the same music? No! Just like Norteño and Conjunto.”

Saenz Jr. continues stating that there is also the Tejano music genre which is a style that began in the 1980’s with Selena, Laura Canales, El Grupo Mazz, La Mafia, Roberto Pulido, Little Joe and many others; according to Saenz Jr., both Conjunto and Tejano are the music of the people of South Texas. He firmly comments that this music is not the same as the music of the people from northern Mexico. “Even though we are considered the same race, our music and culture are different. This is why we need to educate the people about this music. It is important for its survival,” Saenz Jr. affirmed. He is concerned about the recent acquisitions of local radio stations by large national corporations who do not see the value of the Conjunto music. Saenz Jr. believes these radio stations are more inclined to support Norteño and Latin music because of all the recent relocation of people from northern Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley. Saenz Jr. is very adamant about the term “Latino” because he sees it as too commercial and too broad. “We are Hispanics, not Latinos. Latino is a commercial word used by the media to group us all together. Besides, did you know that there are five languages that derived from Latin? They are Spanish, French, Italian, Rumanian and Portuguese. All of the people of these countries are ‘Latinos,’ yet not all of them speak Spanish,” he stated.

Saenz Jr. is not known to hold back when defending what he considers to be our music, but he says he does not have any issues with his Mexican brothers and friends because they also love Conjunto music. Saenz Jr. believes that many people from northern Mexico also appreciate Tejano music, and said he has many loyal followers of his shows.  “I have lots of ‘amistades’ from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon who are devout Conjunto music lovers, and I know that many people in Reynosa and Matamoros who follow Conjunto music too.”

For most people, the only way to recognize the differences between these two popular sounds is to listen to them, so when asked to give some examples of today’s Conjunto musicians, Saenz Jr. named a few calling them the young representatives. He named  Rubén de la Cruz y Su Conjunto, Ricky Naranjo y Los Gamblers, Lázaro Pérez y Su Conjunto and Los Tejano Boys among many others. From “the older generation” he mentioned Gilberto Perez y sus Compadres, Los Dos Gilbertos, Mingo Saldivar, Los Fantasmas del Valle and Flaco Jiménez.

Norteño music originated in northern Mexico, hence the term Norteño which means someone or something from the north, because of radio waves in the 1940’s, this music accompanied Mexican migrant workers to the working fields of the Rio Grande Valley, and certainly this music had an influence in the development of Conjunto music. Saenz Jr. mentioned some of the best known Norteño bands such as Los Intocables, Michael Salgado, Los Palominos and Ramon Ayala as the most popular.

According to Saenz Jr. when it comes to Conjunto radio, San Antonio and Corpus Christi have at least one radio station devoted to Conjunto 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Here in the valley, only public television and radio feature this music genre, but only for very few hours a week. Saenz Jr. believes this music will never go away because it is cultural, unlike trends that come and go with most modern music today. Conjunto, he believes, is not the music of the past, “young people love the ‘Huapangos’ (a fast rhythmic dance), they all get up and dance when the band plays them,” said Saenz proudly.

The biggest challenge facing Conjunto music lovers today is that there are no radio stations playing this genre, and Saenz believes that if nobody supports it, this music will eventually die. He says it is a daily struggle to keep it alive because there are a very small number of people who actually work to produce this music. He said this includes producing radio and television shows, concerts and local dances. “We need more people to step up and help us.”

The same concern is expressed by Strachwitz in his article titled The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music where he writes; “I feel that these pioneer recordings of Tejano music deserve special attention. These recordings and the musicians and singers who created them are a part of our national heritage. The songs are part of the vernacular literature of the people of South Texas and like books, deserve to be in libraries, classrooms, and homes.”

The history of Conjunto music originated thanks to the diversity of Texas’ cultures; therefore it is also the history of the state’s pioneers and societies.  Conjunto music is happy, and like Polka, it invites people to dance and have a good time. Could it be time to take a second listen to the Conjunto music of South Texas? Preserving the music of the people of South Texas could prove to be a worthwhile endeavor.

A very special THANK YOU to the  Arhoolie Foundation and the Frontera Collection at UCLA for the photographs.

To learn more please visit

Narciso Martinez

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About the Author

Tapia - Gonzales
La Vida Valle is where I write about "la vida" living in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Life, art and culture, poetry, prayers, travel, and camping! yes, that's my new thing. I blame the heat and high humidity for the madness. Contributions and comments are always welcome .


Winner of the Conjunto 17 and Under Prize at the 2019 Big Squeeze Youth Accordion Competition.

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