by David Moras
In the middle of the nineteenth century, two diverse cultures met in San Antonio and helped form a unique new style of folk music. When Texas-born Tejanos adopted German dance and musical styles, they created a musical genre that reflects the cultural heritage of both communities. These inventors of Conjunto music began a sound that prevails in Mexican American music today.
During the late 18th and 19th century, the Mexican upper class of Texas admired European trends in culture and entertainment; consequently, they offered a welcoming reception to Europeans who immigrated to San Antonio. Germans brought new styles of music, such as the polka and the waltz, and dances such as the redowe schottische and the mazurka. San Antonio’s people grew to love these styles of music and dancing.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Germans brought diatonic button accordions to Texas, relatively new instruments that had two bass buttons and one row of treble buttons. Tejano musicians began playing these accordions, typically added to their ensemble of guitar, violin, contra-bass, and tambora de rancho, or ranch drum, a primitive instrument made out of native materials such as goatskin. At evening dances held in homes the townspeople called fandangos, at the plaza barrooms called exchanges, and on fiesta days, accordion players joined the ensemble and helped create a new and unique sound. Later, these musical pioneers formed the early characteristic sound of Conjunto when they replaced the guitar and tambora de rancho with the Bajo sexton, a bass guitar in double course, or twelve strings. Initially Conjunto fought for popularity with other mainstream, Mexican American music, but it quickly became the preferred music of rural and working-class Tejanos.
Three popular dances from Europe influenced the new musical style: the polka, with its fast dance beat of three steps and a hop; the redowe schottische, a round dance in 2/4 or 3/4 time; and the mazurka with a 3/4 or 3/8 time, the second beat heavily accented. With these dance rhythms, local musicians merged the Huapango, a 3/4 meter style of music native to the Tamaulipas and Veracruz regions of Mexico. . By changing the Huapango 3/4 meter to a 6/8 meter, the Conjunto pioneers gave the dance a decided triplet feel, which has evolved into an essential characteristic of Conjunto music. Further, Conjunto musicians adopted lyric style of the cancion ranchera, traditional folk songs that tell heartbreak stories of lonely men and unfaithful women. Conjunto musicians modified cancion ranchera by counting a 2/4 beat, the German polka fashion, and thus combined the feel of German music with the lyric and vocal traditions of Tejanos and Mexicans. Despite the changes in musical form, the instrumental core of the Conjunto genre, was still the Tejano/German fusion of the accordion and Bajo sexton.
With the German musical style joined to the Mexican vocals, Conjunto became a staple of the Tejano culture that demonstrates how two diverse South Texas cultural traditions can blend and form a unique and characteristic new art form.
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