Unofficial Conjunto Primer for the Uninitiated Music Lover

The Unofficial Conjunto Primer
for the Uninitiated Music Lover

Written by: Carlos Guerra. From Puro Conjunto, An Album in Words and Pictures: Writings, Posters, and Photographs from the Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio, 1982-1998, edited by Juan Tejeda and Avelardo Valdez. Published 2001 by CMAS Books, Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, Texas.
Publication: This article first appeared in the Tonantzin program for the Seventh Annual Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio, 1988. The 1989 festival Tonantzin carried a revised version, under the title "The Unofficial Conjunto Primer for the Uninitiated Music Lover, Revised." It is the revised version that is reprinted here. -Editors
Date written: 1989

It is a music as original as any the United States has ever produced, and, not yet a century old, it has a following substantial enough to support hundreds of full-time musicians, a complete record industry, and a growing number of radio stations. Still, conjunto music, with an occasional exception, remains a secret to all but the people it emerged from, the same people who support it today.

Suddenly, though, conjunto music is being discovered by vast numbers of people. The better-known musicians are drawing big crowds in major European venues and Chicano record distributors are getting large orders from several countries in Europe and from Japan.
What's going on?

It's simple. Hollywood, Nashville, and even the Smithsonian have discovered it and spread the word. Many Americans are finding that "Lady of Spain" isn't the only melody accordions can produce. They've discovered that the squeeze box is the source of wondrous sounds, played in rhythms which-like the accordion itself-they always thought were corny. Furthermore, they are finding that unlike so much of the new music of today, which is digital and computer-generated, this is a music richly expressive and infectious.

This primer is the Tejano Conjunto Festival's welcome for new fans. We hope new conjunto lovers will find the beauty of this treasure.

It is a happy and boisterous music made primarily for dancing. Spanish lyrics revolve around German accordion sounds to pulsating rhythms provided by modern basses and drums. El conjunto emerged from the same meld of Mexicanos and German immigrants who coexisted in southern Texas in the early twentieth century.

It remains today largely the music of los mexicanos, but there is more than the mixing of cultural influences that makes it different. Conjunto music originated as the music of the lower class in a time and in a society that allowed for little upward mobility and even less mixing of its social classes. And it has remained just that, with no apologies.


Texas in the late nineteenth century was rough and inhospitable. Mexicans remained culturally separate, because, unlike with the non-Mexicanos, there existed well-developed social institutions that supported their mexicanismo. Contact with Mexico was frequent since Mexico was geographically closer and friendlier to them than was the United States.

Mexico, like most of the western world, was swept by a wave of popular music, essentially salon music, or música de baile, that included polkas from Germany and Poland, waltzes of the famous Austrian composers, redowas and schottisches, occasional quadrilles, and even minuets. These forms were easily absorbed by the already musically inclined Mexican culture and the process of Mexicanizing them began immediately. The huapango (Huasteca in origin) and the canción ranchera were modified into the hodgepodge of this música de baile.

The turn-of-the-century Mexican society had a rigid two-class system. Mexicanos were either gente decente or gente pobre (decent people or poor folk) and most were gente pobre. Mexico's popular music at the turn of the century was usually made by orquestas típicas, which were ensembles of strings, horns, and voices. There were many of these local groups in Mexico, and Texas too.

The accordion, introduced into Mexican culture by the Germans around the last half of the nineteenth century, had a significant and lasting impact. The poor rural Tejanos took to it quickly since it could mimic several instruments simultaneously and it was cheaper to pay one acordeonista than an orquesta. The diatonic accordion had the capacity to produce both melody and bass parts, and the tuning and button arrangements are such that when two adjacent buttons are played together, they usually produce a third interval, the basic harmony of Mexican vocals.

The accordion was first played solo or with a tambora de rancho, apparently some sort of homemade drum. Other instruments-violins, various woodwinds, and guitars-were occasionally teamed with the accordion, but the classic match was yet to come.

The conjunto was born when the bajo sexto was added for rhythmic bass-guitar accompaniment. This reed-and-string duet arrangement quickly became the popular music form for dances, a basic entertainment form of the lower class. Tejano orquestas típicas continued to be popular, but they remained the preferred music of the gente decente (or "los high society," as they were then called) and the conjunto became the choice of the poor folk.


The pairing of the solo acordeón and the bajo sexto at the turn of the century created a core sound of conjunto which still exists today. The bass fiddle was introduced soon after, and there were early experiments with saxophones. The invention of the gramophone created a group of consumers hungry for records of their own music. Conjunto filled that need.

The first conjunto recordings were made by the major record companies, and the recording and distribution continued until World War II, when shortages of needed materials brought the industry to a standstill. After the war, the majors dropped conjunto music and moved their recording operations to Mexico. This left a large market unserved.

Chicano entrepreneurs jumped into the business, recording in living rooms and garages and pressing their own records in small numbers. The Chicano record industry developed with limited resources and remains geared for small runs even today. Forced by economic factors to keep costs down, these recording companies developed low-cost methods of producing their products. Often, this meant one-take recording sessions and doing without the most sophisticated recording technology. Success was difficult for those indigenous record producers. They were selling to only a part of the market, Mexicanos, and they were among the poorest people of the country.

If on the one hand this resulted in recordings of relatively inferior technical quality, on the other hand it also encouraged the recording of music in great variety and production in small quantities. Now, few mainstream recording artists can claim more than a handful of albums. For the older conjuntos, however, twenty LPs is not an unusual number, and some have so many singles in their discographies that they have lost count. Several have over a hundred albums to their credit.

The music developed social institutions as well. The bailes, originally festive events, eventually spawned the commercial bailes grandes that charged admission at the gate. Other entertainment forms, especially nightclubs, remained underdeveloped in Texas until liquor by the drink was legalized. Like country and western, conjunto music developed a substantial culture around large dances and dance halls.

After World War II, conjunto music came into its own. Fortunately, many legal barriers of segregation were relaxed for Mexican Americans. Nevertheless, separate Anglo, Black, and Mexican societies continued to be a reality. The returning Mexican American soldiers set off an important population shift of Mexicanos to the cities. This urbanization crowded large numbers of rural people in strange and often hostile environments. Conjunto became a unifying force that provided familiarity in the new urban area. By the fifties the popularity of conjunto music was so great that even some orquestas began including accordionists in their lineups.

Now being played in large halls instead of intimate surroundings, conjunto adjusted accordingly. Drums and electric basses replaced the stand-up bass in the standard conjunto and P.A. systems replaced el puro pulmón (sheer lung power). And there were other developments, as well. The drums settled and slowed the tempo of the music, making it possible for accordionists to concentrate on the more complex finger work which today distinguishes conjunto music. Returning soldiers brought with them influences they'd absorbed from their contact with mainstream America. The new U.S. dance styles crept into the bailes.

Polkas, chotís, redovas, and huapangos continued to be played, but the polka began to evolve away from its Germanic origins and into the distinctly Chicano product we have today. The essentially European dance-floor stylings of the past were replaced by a smoother, gliding dance form, el tacuachito.

El tacuachito has now become very localized, and touring musicians play to local preferences of tempo (el compás), to suit the local dance styles. A purer form of el tacuachito is still found among many of the older dancers of the Rio Grande Valley. Smooth, gliding, and very stylized dancing is found in the areas around Alice, Robstown, and Corpus Christi, and rhythms other than polkas are quite popular. San Antonio styles often include stylized side movements sometimes called el serruchito (the saw). West Texas bailadores move more rigidly, with stiffer movements, or el tiezo (stiff). The Lubbock area prefers a fast, racing style with a quicker tempo, bien corridón (very rushed). Dancers are admired for their natural fluidity, and it is an expression which is often as entertaining for the spectator as for the participant.

The Basic Conjunto

The basic conjunto is now an ensemble of accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and drums. Perhaps in recognition of its diverse origins, the conjunto world seems to encourage diversity and growth. The basic quartets are traditional, but many conjuntos also include a wide variety of added elements, from saxes to synthesizers.


The accordion is the lead melody instrument. The accordion of today is a modified version of the first one, invented in 1822 in Germany. Of the three basic types of accordions, diatonic, piano, and chromatic, most acordeonistas prefer the diatonic, which, like a harmonica, produces one note when the bellows are pulled and another when they are closed. The treble or melody is on the right side, the bass is on the left, and the notes are produced by forcing air through multiple reeds.

Diatonic accordions vary widely, but conjunto players usually prefer the three-row Vienna-style accordions, usually German made, though some opt for the more expensive Italian brands of diatonic accordions, the piano accordions, or the full five-row chromatic accordions. Vienna-style accordions, also called Italian-style, have one to three rows of treble buttons on the right side, each row being a major scale, and four to ten bass buttons on the left. Since diatonic accordions are limited to major and minor scales with no chromatic variations, they come in various key combinations, the most popular being F-B-E and G-C-F.

Many players retune and occasionally rearrange the reeds, and some remove the bass reeds, which have been all but abandoned by conjunto players who concentrate on the intricate pasadas, or runs, on the treble side.

Bajo Sexto

The bajo sexto is the other key element of the conjunto sound. This often underrated twelve-string, guitar like instrument adds a bass-rhythm and melodic counterplay to the accordion. The bajo is tuned an octave below the standard guitar except for the last two strings, which are tuned up a half step. Many of the bajo sextos used nationally and in Mexico are made in San Antonio by the Macías family.

Originally acoustic, the bajo is now usually amplified. New developments include the bajo quinto, which is a ten-string version of the bajo sexto, and the replacement of the bajo sexto with a standard six-string guitar or, sometimes, the standard twelve-string guitar.


The electric bass was added to the conjunto in the fifties, giving the conjunto a solid bass line. Previously, some conjuntos used a contrabass, or stand-up bass, but the advent of amplification brought this logical progression. The electric bass is now considered a part of the standard ensemble.


The first accordionists, according to some accounts, often played with a tambora de rancho, though there is some question as to what exactly these drums were. But the drum disappeared when the accordion was teamed with the bajo sexto and didn't reappear in the conjunto until the late forties and early fifties.

When drums were added to conjuntos in the fifties, they were only used in performances. They were left off recordings because producers considered them too crude and noisy. At first people ridiculed their introduction, but eventually the standard trap set became another basic element.

The Music

People tend to generalize conjunto music as being música de acordeón, polka music, regional, ranchera, or the like. These generalizations often have just enough truth to make them credible, but each excludes far more than it includes.

Certainly, la polca is a big part of the rhythmic underpinnings of conjunto music, but it is far from all of it. Since the beginning, conjuntos have also played waltzes, schottisches, redovas, and huapangos. The canción ranchera, which is now a polka with vocals, has become part of the repertoire, along with the conjunto-ized boleros, tangos, chachachás, rock, blues, country, and cumbias. The list is still growing.

Creativity and originality are important in the conjunto tradition. A different sound, a different arrangement, a different rhythm, a different anything is expected of each conjunto.

Those who are attending the festival for the first time can expect the very same thing as those who have seen all the performers before. Expect to be surprised!

The Tonantzin Program, Eighth Annual Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio, 1989.
Distributed by University of Texas Press. See
© 2024 Accordions Worldwide • All rights reserved. To comment on these pages, e-mail the webmaster.