Mexican Folk Music and the Accordion




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Mexican accordions

A brief history of the accordion in Mexico

Mexican folk music is unimaginable without the sounds of an accordion. Most music historians agree that the first accordions were introduced to Mexico by German settlers who settled in the regions north and south of the Rio Grande River.

These European settlements took place from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s when native Germans, attracted by the Gold Rush inhabited the region along the Mexican-American border known today as “The German Belt.” 

Many cities in that area nowadays bear recognizable German names like Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Muenster, Schulenberg, Walburg, etc. Along with German settlers who established their communities from South Texas to Northern Mexico, came their customs, cuisine, folk dances, and musical instruments.

Even today some older native Texans of German descent speak, what is known, as “Texas Deutsch.” It is quite fascinating to see Northern European settlers settle across the North Americas and settlers from the south of Europe (Spain, Portugal) inhabit the southern part of the continent. This mixture of folklore music such as Polka and Spanish sentimental lyrics produced various music genres peculiar to Texas and Mexico. Corrido, Tejano, Norteno, Conjunto, Grupera, and Ranchera are just some examples of popular Mexican styles of music that rely heavily on accordion sounds.

How Mexico Learned to Polka courtesy of NPR

Along with the German Immigrants that inhabited Southern Texas and the Northern parts of Mexico, there was a fair number of Polish, Austrian and Czech settlers who introduced folk dances such as Polka to the population of Mexico. We can certainly say that Norteno music and dance, for example, are a result of a Ranchera and Polka fusion.

Genres of Mexican accordion music

What is Conjunto music?

Conjunto (pronounced:kōn-ˈhün-tō) is a popular music genre in Mexico and the southwestern United States, particularly in Texas. It is characterized by the use of the accordion and bajo sexto (a twelve-string guitar) as the main instruments, and it often incorporates elements of polka, waltz, and other European dance music styles.

Conjunto music emerged as a way for Mexican Americans to express their cultural identity and preserve their traditions in the face of discrimination and assimilation. It became particularly popular in the 1940s and 1950s and has had a lasting influence on various other Mexican-American music genres, such as Tejano and Chicano rock.

Conjunto music is known for its upbeat and danceable sound, and it is often played at parties and celebrations.

When you listen to the classic sounds of Conjunto melodies played on bisonoric, diatonic accordions, you might notice similarities in rhythm, tempo, and sound to Slovenian accordion music which is also heavily influenced by German and Austrian accordion dance melodies.

In addition to the accordion, conjunto music also often features the use of the saxophone, which adds a distinctive sound to the genre. Other instruments that may be used in conjunto music include the bass, guitar, and piano. Conjunto music has remained popular among Mexican-American communities in the southwestern United States and has also gained some mainstream popularity over the years.

Video courtesy of Library of Congress

The popularity of Conjunto melodies is growing not only in Texas but also in Arizona, New Mexico, and California.

What is Tejano music?

Essentially, Tejano (Spanish for Texan) refers to melodies and music that has its roots in Norteño or Conjunto music but it is a bit more “westernized” and it’s got pop or even rock flavor to it.

It relies heavily on electronic keyboards, electric guitars, and synthesized music although accordions are making a comeback in recent years. Public interest in Tejano music peaked in the 1990s when Latino artists like Selena, Emilio Navaira, and La Mafia had their top hits on Tex-Mex radio stations.

This genre combines elements of norteño, cumbia, and rock and roll, and originated in the state of Texas (although it is also popular in Mexico). The accordion is a key instrument in Tejano music, which often has a more upbeat and energetic sound compared to traditional norteño.

Tejano music genre is considered to be the music of the working class that not only Texans of Latino heritage identify with but also their European ancestors who enjoy polka dances and the accordion sounds on the weekends or holidays. This type of traditional Tex-Mex music is experiencing a resurgence in recent years.

These songs are gaining popularity because of their often bilingual lyrics and modern renditions that appeal not only to Spanish-speaking but also to English-speaking audiences across the US and Internationally.

Best of Old School Tejano tunes

What is Norteño music?

This genre originated in the northern regions of Mexico and is characterized by its lively, upbeat rhythms and the use of the accordion, bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar), and drums. Norteño music is often associated with working-class culture and themes of love, loss, and social justice.

The accordion is a key instrument in norteño music, and its distinctive sound is an integral part of the genre. The bajo sexto provides a strong rhythmic foundation, while the drums add energy and drive to the music.

Norteño music has a long history in Mexico and has evolved over time to incorporate elements of other musical styles, such as cumbia, ranchera, and even rock and roll. It is a popular genre throughout Mexico and in Mexican-American communities in the United States and is often played at celebrations and special occasions.

What is a Mexican Accordion?

Mexican accordions are typically diatonic, which means that they have a limited range of notes and are designed to play in a specific key. They are also often made with a smaller keyboard than chromatic accordions, which have a full range of notes and can play in any key.

Accordions used in Mexico and the United States to play any genre of Mexican or TexMex music styles are button style, and two or three-row diatonic (bisonoric) accordions. Each button on these accordions plays two different notes depending on the direction of the bellows.

Demand for Mexican-style accordions is growing in Texas, New Mexico, and particularly in California where the Latino population is on the rise.

Video courtesy of Boton

Influential Mexican-American accordionists

Flaco Jimenez (1939-present)

Flaco Jimenez is probably the most famous, contemporary American accordionist of Mexican heritage. This Texas native is known for playing TexMex, Norteno, and Tejano music. His father and grandfather were also musicians so his inclination toward accordions started at an early age.

He is one of the most popular “conjunto” style musicians. His ability to blend conjunto with rock and country-western styles of music earned him worldwide fame. His nickname “Flaco” which translates to “skinny” was originally his father’s (who was also an accordionist) stage name that Leonardo inherited.

Over the course of his seven decades career as an accordionist, Flaco Jimenez performed with rock legends like the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakam, and Emmylou Harris. He also earned numerous achievement awards including AMA, several Grammys, Tejano Music Awards, and others.

Tex-Mex accordion by Flaco Jimenez

Narciso Martinez (1911-1992)

Considered the father of Conjunto music, Martinez was known for the fast recording of songs which earned him the nickname “El Huracán del Valle.” He could play a variety of genres ranging from polkas, valses bajitos, redowas, and huapangos.

Although he was born in Mexico, Martinez immigrated to the US with his parents and started playing the accordion as a teenager in Texas.

He was growing up in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s when many German and Eastern European immigrants were populating the so-called “German Belt” region of TX. This gave young Narciso an opportunity to pick up all the rhythms, dances, and sounds of the folk accordion music and incorporate them into his repertoire.

Narciso Martinez learned to play the accordion on a one-row button accordion by Hohner and quickly progressed to a two-row button accordion which he mastered. Martinez played in a duet with bass guitar player Santiago Almeida.

This led to the development of a unique system of accordion playing where he’d emphasize the right side or the “melody side” of the accordion and let the bass guitar player take care of the bass sounds.

Biographical story of Narciso Martinez. Video courtesy of Los Del Vale

Tony (Antonio) De La Rosa

Tony (Antonio) De La Rosa was also an influential Texas native accordionist who helped shape the Tejano music genre and revolutionize “Conjunto” by introducing drums and electric Bajo Sexto (12-string guitar) in the 1950s, creating a new style known as “Tacuachito”.

Tony De La Rosa En Vivo – Atotonilco Polka – No Me Culpes – Acoustic Sound. Video courtesy of Lukzter

Some final words

In conclusion, the accordion is a vital and beloved instrument in Mexican music, with a rich history and a diverse range of genres that showcase its versatility and cultural significance.

From the lively rhythms of norteño and banda to the modern electronic beats of duranguense, to the emotional melodies of mariachi, the accordion plays a key role in the cultural identity of Mexico.

Whether played by professional musicians or hobbyists, the accordion continues to be an important part of Mexican music and is a source of pride and enjoyment for many people. Its unique sound and versatility make it an enduring and influential part of Mexican culture and a beloved instrument around the world.

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