The Tex-Mex Sound

The Tex-Mex Sound

Written by: Instituto Cultural Mexicano
Publication: We are grateful to the Instituto Cultural Mexicano, 600 Hemisfair Plaza, San Antonio, Texas 78205, USA. conmxny@ for their kind permission to use this article.
Date written:

Believe it or not, it all began in the middle of the nineteenth century in Germany. Yes, the diatonic accordion, the main instrument of Tex-Mex music, was created by Friedrich Buschman, whose fellow country-men emigrated to the state of Texas, around 1890, to work the fields, and the construction of railroad lines in Northern Mexico. During lunch breaks, the recent arrivals played waltzes and polkas, while Mexican-Americans, better know as Chicanos, listened to the fantastic resonance. Little by little, locals began making the small-buttoned instrument their own, and in time, the mazurkas became «corridos» of love and despite, and began to be danced and tapped, real close together, from the Valley of Texas, to Nuevo Laredo.

Years later, during the first decades of this century, Chicano melodies crossed the borders to states and cities such as Laredo, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Monterrey, birthplaces of what is now known as northern music, including the European accordion, but accompanied by the redoba, a totally Mexican contribution, where the Germans had nothing to do, since the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans imprinted their own seal to the rhythms and instruments brought from overseas.

It was during the thirties when Narciso Martínez, the Huracán del Valle, not only began to write lyrics for the popular music danced at «jaripeos» or rodeos, «cantinas», saloons, and «polvaredas», but that also married the accordion with the deep bass, that type of fat guitar with a very wide arm that loads six pairs of chords. Rafael Molina, who was director and script writer for "La Canción Tras la Frontera" (The Song Behind the Border) a popular radio program, currently investigates the possibility that even American pop music took from Martínez the idea of the 12-cord acoustic guitar.

In 1935, Mr. Santiago Jiménez was the first to make recordings of polkas, northern «corridos», «rancheras», and «guapangos» in Spanish. The sound of what still today carries the name of «the sound of San Antonio», was heard everywhere.

As a child, Leonardo «Flaco» Jiménez used to go with his father to their «tocadas» (presentations). While in Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon groups such as the Tigres del Norte and the Alegres de Terán emerged, in the Valley of Texas, the "Flaco" became the «accordion king». It is not surprising that someone said that the three mentioned artists are like the Cadillac, the Mercedes-Benz and the BMW of Tex-Mex music.

The "Flaco´s" participation has been something else: it was he who was able to merge the Tex-Mex sound with different pop music trends in the United States-blues, country, rock, jazz- and by doing so, gained the never before obtained attention of Anglo-Americans and Europeans (who, without knowing of their original contribution, have fallen in love with songs such as "Ahi the dejo en San Antonio", and "Hey baby ¿que pasó?".

Leonardo Jiménez has been able to make the Tex-Mex family grow, singing and playing his «Tornados de Texas» (Texas Tornados) as well as with high caliber virtuosi such as Ry Cooder (Chicken skin music), Rolling Stones (Vodoo Lounge), Linda Rondstandt (El puente roto), Peter Rowen, Santana, Bob Dylan and Dwight Joakam, among many others

By the end of the seventies, los Lobos make their appearance, a group integrated by three Chicanos, a Mexican emigree and a Polish Jew. The band was born with a double personality: for one part, it plays heavy rock, and the other, on their free moments, just for the pleasure of it, they sing Mexican traditional music. By the end of that decade, its members travel through all México on a station wagon, and they get to know many important and popular musicians.

With their "Como sobrevivirá el lobo" (How Will the Wolf Survive), with a pronounced Northern counterpoint and Mexican music in English, los Lobos won a Grammy award, and became a real musical phenomenon. The rest is history: Paul Simon invited them to participate in his Graceland record, and they played at the Carnegie Hall (it is said that Mick Jagger attended all their concerts). Likewise, they made the music for films such as La Bamba and Mambo Kings, and influenced groups like Mano Negra -whose vocalist, Manu Chao, has declared that when they heard Los Lobos, they told themselves that it was possible to make rock music with their own music, that is, Spanish, French, Arab.

And speaking of hallucinating fusions, we cannot leave out the talented Steve Jordan. He so impressed the Japanese with his «electrical accordion», that he sponsored the creation of The Cats, a Japanese-Tex-Mex group.

With this type of masters and innovations, it is not suprising to see the appearance a few years ago of that bomb full of sensuality and hibridity called Selena. In addition to winning the most outstanding awards for Mexican-American music for seven consecutive years, the young 23 year old had started her career in the movies. Her murder, at the end of March, constitutes a severe blow for thousands of her followers, as well as for the presence of women in that colorful mosaic of the Tex-Mex music.
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