As European immigrants settled in Texas and Mexico during the 19th century, their musical rhythms seeped into the changing local culture.
When Texas musicians, according to the Handbook of Texas Online, adopted the accordion — “the principal instrument in both Conjunto and the 19th century polka music that German settlers played” — Conjunto music began developing its primal roots.
Early Days of Conjunto Music
In Conjunto music’s early days, musician Narciso Martinez, of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, gave Conjunto music a new twist. He added another instrument — the bajo sexto (12-stringed bass guitar). Other musicians adopted this new sound during the 1920’s.
But a stigma began following Conjunto music. People thought of Conjunto music as migrant farm worker music, since the music traveled the migrant farm worker circuit all over Texas, California, the Midwest, Washington state, and Florida, according to Texas Folklife Program Director Cristina Balli who presented a lecture on Conjunto music in Austin, Texas.
Pay-per-dance events became popular during the Depression-era, and many Conjunto musicians played at these dances. Men paid a nickel to twirl a girl around the dance floor. Working-class families, Balli said, took the opportunity to take their daughters to Conjunto dances to raise money for their families.
Critics frowned upon these dances, and it probably didn’t help the looming stigma.
Conjunto Music in the 1950s & 1960s
The negative stigma continued throughout the years and during the 1950s and 1960s Conjunto music began evolving. It was a time when soldiers were returning from war and facing discrimination. Their American identity was on the line.
Meanwhile, big bands or orquestas began influencing Conjunto music. Conjunto music began blending jazz and blues with the early polka rhythms. Musician Tony De la Rosa from Sarita, Texas, is credited with creating a new Conjunto sound by adding an electric bass and drums. Musician Paulino Bernal from Raymondville,Texas, is credited with adding harmonies to the Conjunto sound.
Conjunto Music in the 1970s
As Conjunto music continued evolving, with a more modern sound, a new genre or subcategory of Conjunto music was born. Tejano music grew out of Conjunto music and still kept the same accordion roots, but according to Balli, added more American music styles like rock and roll.
Tejano music appealed to a new generation and included a brass section and electronic keyboards.
Tejano Music Boom in the
1980s and 1990s
Tejano music reached its peak during the 1980s and 1990s when major record labels began representing Tejano artists and radio stations switched their formats to Tejano music playing artists such as Selena, La Mafia, and David Lee Garza.
Meanwhile, Conjunto music in its traditional style, became less popular but never vanished from Texas dancehalls.
The Tejano music boom soon ended as Mexican regional music began rising and Tejano music received less promotion and produced fewer new artists.
New Era of Conjunto Music
Though it had been decades since Conjunto music had been in the forefront, it survived quietly throughout the Tejano music boom and remained an important part of the Latin music spectrum. Today, Conjunto music not only survives, but is slowly regaining popularity.
“In San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley there are more Conjunto dances now than Tejano,” Balli said during a lecture at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. “It’s become an underground movement.”