What is Conjunto music? It is nothing like Norteño or Tejano music and has deep roots among the people of the Rio Grande Valley. Conjunto means ensemble. The music has been a witness to the joys and sorrows of the Valley’s Mexican working-class community since the 1930s. It is the music heard at quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, cantinas, and out in the fields.
Conjunto music started with the introduction of the accordion by German and Czech settlers of South Texas and Northern Mexico in the late 1800s. The 1930s brought the father of Conjunto music; Narciso “El Huracan del Valle” Martinez who conceived a regional sound that propagated throughout the Hispanic community of the Valley thanks to radio and recording studios of the time. After WWII, NEA National Heritage Fellow Valerio Longoria of Sarita modified the accordion by adding a fourth row of buttons. He produced new stylizations while still preserving original sound traditions.
Ruben Garza of Harlingen is a legend among Conjunto musicians of the Valley. He began playing the Bajo Sexto with local bands at the age of 15. For 56 years Garza promoted Conjunto music throughout the country with fellow Conjunto legends Ruben Vela and Los Dos Gilbertos. Garza is still going strong with his new group Los 2G’s playing with San Benito native accordionist Hector Gonzalez. They recently performed in California during the 3rd Annual Tejano Fest. Garza is a Tejano Music and Conjunto Music Hall of Famer. July 7 is Ruben Garza day in Harlingen, and he was recently honored by the Texas Music Office. Garza, like most Conjunto musicians, traces his love of Conjunto music to childhood memories of family, friends, and humble beginnings. “It is who we are,” said Garza.
Despite Garza’s success, Lupe Saenz – co-founder of the South Texas Conjunto Association – feared Conjunto music was dying due to a lack of interest from the younger generations of Mexican Americans. He sensed a disconnect that drove him to help form this organization in 1998. For 22 years, Saenz directed the STCA Conjunto of The Year Awards and currently hosts TV and radio Conjunto shows with hopes of reaching young Hispanics.
A promising young musician, John Cavazos of Harlingen, did not like Conjunto music, but it grew on him listening to his father sing the music of the Valley. “Conjunto music is awesome! I wanted to form a band but did not have the right people until now.” His Konjunto Kompaz came to be on July of 2018 raking in several nominations from the Tejano Music Awards for upcoming band, and Cavazos for upcoming singer. They won all categories at the STCA Conjunto of the Year Awards in 2019 and that same year performed during the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio and the Narciso Martinez Conjunto Festival in Los Fresnos. This March, they will be at the Fan Fair in San Antonio; a 4-day family-oriented event featuring over 200 bands. Cavazos wrote Ya Se Me Fue; a Spanish ballad and the title of the band’s latest CD that is generating positive reviews.
“We see a lot of young faces in the crowd,” said Cavazos. “We’ve even played for a fan who graduated from kindergarten! Conjunto, Norteño and Tejano music are not the same. Conjunto is all about el compás (rhythm); it has a slower tempo. You notice it when people sway their feet dancing. Conjunto music is also about our roots and our heritage,” said Cavazos.
Respect for family and country are ingrained in Conjunto music traditions. The new generation did listen. They preserve Conjunto’s legacy and honor the music of their ancestors by forming new groups and recording songs from the past along with their new material. Such musicians include Ricky Naranjo, Ruben de la Cruz, Ruben Vela Jr., Gilberto Perez Jr., and descendants of the De La Rosa brothers among several others.
Two talented Valley natives were Grand Prize winners last year during the Big Squeeze Statewide Youth Accordion Showcase organized by Texas Folklife. Perla Hernandez of Roma won the 17 and under Conjunto award, and Eduardo Garza of Mission won the 18-21 Conjunto Award. It was the first time in 13 years Texas Folklife programmed Conjunto category semi-finals. “We added a Conjunto semi-final round to the Big Squeeze because of an overwhelming number of Conjunto genre contestants. We have around 50 contestants each year and 90% of them are in the Conjunto category. We aim to further showcase these young musicians and give care in deciding the Finalists,” said Texas Folklife’s program and events manager Sarah Rucker.
Lupe Saenz announced his retirement from STCA last year with a happy heart. “I am happy because the goal of reaching our Hispanic youth was met. Conjunto is not only alive but going strong as the result of efforts that began back in 1998,” he said. A nostalgic Saenz hopes these young musicians continue to work together, respect one another, honor and live the traditions of family, dignity and pride Conjunto music bestows.
This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Texas Coop Power Magazine.