Slavic in origin, the accordion has found its way into the hearts of Mexican people across the North American continent. In this paper I will examine how Chicanos appropriated the accordion into their own musical lives. I will consider how the accordion was introduced and how it was assimilated into Mexican culture, specifically through traditional conjunto music. I will also track how the influence of the accordion has permanently influenced and changed Mexican music throughout the decades and how the accordion continues to be an influence into the twenty-first century.
There are differing opinions on how the accordion was introduced into Mexican culture. Unfortunately, there is no official documentation and little research has been done on the matter. However, there is no doubt that a German named Friedrich Buschmann, who called it a Ziehharmonika, invented the accordion itself in 1822. Seven years later, an Austrian by the name of Cyrill Damian mass produced the instrument and dubbed it “accordion” (Gillespie).
There are two popular opinions on how the accordion arrived on the North American continent. One opinion is that it was introduced by the Europeans (mostly German, Czech, and Polish) who settled around the San Antonio area in the nineteenth century. Lured by the opportunities working on the railroad lines offered, the German immigrants moved toward Southern Texas and Northern Mexico, bringing with them the accordion and their traditional dances, the waltz and polka.
The second idea states that the accordion actually came from Mexico, brought by German immigrants who settled around Monterrey in the 1860’s. While neither theory has been proven correct, it is certain that by the 1890’s, the accordion had become widely used by the rural Mexicans on both sides of the border (Castro 63).
The introduction of this musical phenomenon serves as a key component to understanding the social organization of Mexicans in the late nineteenth century.
“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” (Tejada and Valdez 4-5).
The accordion turned out to be the ideal instrument for poor, rural Mexicans. It was small, easy to transport from one place to another, easy to learn, and was a full orchestra in and of itself. It began to function as the main musical source for weddings and other festivities. By the early twentieth century, working-class Tejanos added a bajo sexto and a tambora de rancho, thus beginning the musical style now know as conjunto. It, along with the corridos and canciones, became the music of the common people (Tatum 240).
“By the late 1800’s…this music was being thoroughly adapted to the Tejano taste. At the turn of the century the locally performed polkas, waltzes and schottisches could truly be called Tejano or ‘Tex-Mex’ rather than European…Newspaper accounts show that by 1898 Tejanos in rural areas of South Texas were playing their Texas-Mexican polkas…on a one-row, one-key accordion” (Gillespie).
While the accordion was introduced into Mexican culture as early as the mid-nineteenth century, it took almost one hundred years (after World War II specifically) for it to become a distinctive, durable, and highly identifiable style of music (Tejada and Valdez 13). Although, by the late 1890’s the accordion had become so popular among the working class Tejanos that it began to replace more traditional Mexican sounds, it took the influence of Narciso Martinez, the father of conjunto music, to launch the accordion, and conjunto music, into the mainstream.
American recording companies know the 1920’s as the “watershed” years for Texas-Mexican music because of the emergence of widespread recording and distribution. Recording companies were set up in San Antonio and Dallas, as well as L.A. Along with the advent of Spanish-language broadcasting systems and electronically produced music, conjunto music slowly began to find its way into the American popular culture (Tatum 24). Martinez was the most celebrated musician of that genre throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Because he also came from a working class background, his music was that much more accessible to the Texas-Mexican population, and in time, he received a wider audience across the United States. “Known as El Hurrican del Valle (Hurricane of the Valley), he was a recipient of the National Heritage Award for his contributions to one of America’s important ethnic traditions” (Gillespie).
“Martinez’s first record, “La chicharronera” (flip side: “El tronconal”) was released in 1936. An instant success, it set the stage for the emergence of a definable and enduring conjunto musical style…Martinez’s technique is especially noteworthy with respect to the style’s subsequent development” (Tejada and Valdez 16).
Martinez worked hard to spread the influence of his accordion-based music throughout the Southwest United States. While other conjunto artists of the 1940’s remained relatively sequestered in the San Antonio area, Martinez toured extensively. His constant practice matured his style and set the standard for other young accordion artists of that time, such as Pedro Ayala. Because of Martinez’s tireless efforts, the polka became the quintessential expression of Mexican-American music in the 1950’s. The rural, working-class people identified so heavily, both socioculturally and economically, with the music and the musicians, that it can be said that the accordion integrated the entire class of people (Tejada and Valdez 18-19).
The accordion, as well as conjunto music, continued to be popular into the 1960’s. This was due, in part, to the continually rising population of working-class Mexican-Americans. The conjunto became especially popular among adults and working-class youth, particularly pachucos. There were many innovations made in the musical style, including adding more accordions to the mix.
During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, conjunto music declined in popularity. One reason for this was the lack of youth-based conjunto groups. The younger generations lost interest in accordion-based music in favor of electric guitars. Most conjuntos didn’t play contemporary sounds, such as soul, funk or rock. Conjuntos are traditionally polkas, and young Mexican-Americans grew restless. Yet, there was one short-lived spark amidst the lackluster, traditional conjunto: Steve Jordan (San Miguel 62-64).
“Steve Jordan y El Rio Jordan was different from all other conjuntos in several distinct ways. First, he played a variety of English and Mexican dance tunes. His repertoire was grounded in traditional polkas, rancheras, and boleros, but he expanded it to include other styles, including cumbias, corridos, rock, country, and even zydeco. As the accordion player in his group, Jordan also incorporated jazz and rhythm and blues into many of these songs. Second, he wrote songs with political lyrics and transformed English-language songs into Tejano music. Third and most importantly, Jordan played the accordion in such a creative manner that no conjunto artist could match his virtuosity. Because of his energy and intensity, Jordan was often called ‘The Jimi Hendrix of the Accordion’ (San Miguel 64-65).
Despite Jordan’s innovations, the majority of conjunto groups failed to change, thus interest in this sort of music continued to decline. However, in the mid-1980’s, Chicano activists briefly renewed interest in the traditional accordion-based conjunto music by promoting it as “the best-known and most clearly identifiable expression of Texas Chicano culture” (San Miguel 66).
In the 1990’s, one artist in particular was responsible for renewed pride in the accordion: Emilio Navaira y el Grupo Rio. He added a synthesizer to the traditional conjunto sound. He also dressed in an updated country and western style, much like Clint Black or Garth Brooks. His decision to do this reminded young Tejanos that they were the original vaqueros of Texas. New pride in their Mexican heritage began to emerge in the Chicano youth. Emilio also added a rock and country flavor to the conjunto. The combination of his look, sound and style helped the traditional accordion-based conjunto music to once again become part of mainstream Mexican-American culture. He made the accordion an instrument of pride and respectability, overshadowing the long-standing associations of backwardness and low-class status that the accordion had in previous decades (San Miguel 93-98).
After examining the various origins of the accordion throughout Chicano history, one must wonder where it can go from here. The accordion is certainly not the hokey, laughably kitsch instrument that Anglo popular culture would lead one to believe.
“The accordion is the central element of conjunto music and important to Cajun and zydeco music, tangos of Argentina, cumbias of Colombia, and many other regional music forms throughout the world. But to the United States, the accordion was, until recently, a joke, a corny Old World anachronism. After years of Lawrence Welk jokes, comedy bits about buxom female accordionists, and even a Far Side cartoon showing Saint Peter giving arriving angels harps while Satan issues accordions to his new charges, it seemed that the accordion would be laughed out of existence” (Tejada and Valdez 115).
As Chicanos in general, and Chicano music in particular is more accepted into American society, so too are the symbols of the Mexican-American people. The accordion is a cross-cultural symbol. It has been an important part of the lives of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans nearly as long as it has held import for Germans, Poles and other people of Slavic origin. It is an instrument that has proven itself to be beyond cultural definitions. It is as much a part of the jolly Slavic world of knickers and beer as it is a part of the contented, darker skinned realm of frijoles and sombreros. If anything, the accordion and the widespread affection it has brought to people all around the globe, convinces us that humans really are a single race of people who share the same goals and desires, no matter what ocean they are connected to, which continent they live on, no matter which hemisphere they call home.
On page 354 of the book, Tejana Proud, Isamael Dovalina, came to this same conclusion in 2001 after taking an accordion class from accordion aficionado, Santiago Jiminez, Jr. In his class were other students from different age levels, ethnicities and walks of life. Dovalina not only learned how to play the accordion. He learned how music unites people in a common language.
“All of us have one thing in common: we love the music. We look forward to the classes; the accordion is becoming part of our lives. We don’t discuss politics or religion, or gossip much. However, we freely share melodies and playing tips with each other. Together, we are creating an accordion subculture. After studying the accordion for just a few months, I realize that music is very multi-cultural. Music is a global crossroads where cultures meet, intertwine, clash, and yes, sometimes even blend. The accordion is a very international instrument.”
Castro, Rafaela G. Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican-Americans. Oxford: University Press, 2001.
Gillespie, Lex. Honky Tonks, Hymns, and the Blues: Accordion on the Texas Border. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online
San Miguel, Guadalupe, Jr. Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century. Texas A&M University Press: College Station, 2002.
Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Popular Culture: Que Hable el Pueblo. The University of Arizona Press: Tucson, 2001.
Tejeda, Juan and Valdez, Avelardo. Puro Conjunto: An Album in Words and Pictures. Center for Mexican American Studies: University of Texas at Austin, 2001.