- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

SAN BENITO, Texas — The parking lot in otherwise deserted downtown San Benito is full, and the people crowded inside the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center press against the cement walls as they listen to the distinctive accordion music.

Santiago Jimenez Jr., a three-time Grammy Award winner, works the bellows of the instrument, and in a deep but faraway- sounding voice he sings a “corrida,” or story-song, to his father.

It is “El Second Weensdee,” the second Wednesday of the month — conjunto night. Like South Texas, the Mexican-style polka and waltz music is a blend of the cultural influences brought to the region by Czech, German and Mexican immigrants.

The music has been passed down through the generations, but Dr. Ramon de Leon feared that its oral history might die. The local dentist started the monthly concerts in this tiny border town so he could videotape the performances and interview the musicians.

“It’s such a deep part of our cultural fiber, when we think of who we were back 50, 60 years ago,” Dr. de Leon said. “I think most of us are going back to it. I guess because we’re looking for some kind of identity, to find something that’s cohesive for us.”

More than a century ago, Czech and German immigrants traveled to South Texas to start businesses and farms and brought with them their accordion-driven polkas and waltzes.

Narciso Martinez, known as the father of conjunto music, learned the accordion as a child. As a young man, he paired with Santiago Almeida, who played a type of bass guitar known as the bajo sexto, and Mr. Martinez stopped using the left-hand bass and chord buttons. The resulting sound became known as conjunto, a term that means “a group” but also has come to represent a musical subculture of the Mexican-American working class.

Mr. Martinez made the first known conjunto recording at a small studio in San Benito in the 1930s. Since then, the music has been played at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and as far away as Japan.

The music’s popularity waned as younger generations tuned in to rock ‘n’ roll and rap, but Dr. de Leon said he has noticed a renewed interest as Hispanics search out traditional music.

On this recent El Second Weensdee, the performer is a true conjunto legend.

Mr. Jimenez, the son and namesake of one of the pioneers of the genre, plays in a simple style that is built around a more melodic approach to playing polkas and waltzes. He has recorded more than 50 singles and 20 albums.

Between numbers, the 60-year-old musician gives a little background on each song. He talks about growing up in a poor San Antonio neighborhood near a rock quarry, and how his father, a man who couldn’t read or write, became San Antonio’s first “accordionista.”

Listening to Mr. Jimenez brings back happy memories, said Eliseo Villarreal, 57.

“I am from the neighborhood, from the barrio; it just brings me back,” he said. “I used to go to the dance hall when I was 8 or 9 years old.”

Rosa and Joe Perez, hosts of a National Public Radio program on border music, rarely miss the Weensdee nights. Although the couple have access to plenty of recorded conjunto music, they seldom get to talk to the performers, Mrs. Perez said.

“Some of the songs are heart-wrenching,” she said. “This is working-class music and a lot of the performers came from humble backgrounds. Music has kind of lifted them.”

Other musicians featured in Dr. de Leon’s videotape collection are Ramiro Cavazos, who was part of Los Donenos, a duo that was one of the first conjunto groups to add vocals; ChaCha Jimenez, a legendary vocalist who starred with Conjunto Bernal; and Linda Escobar, of Corpus Christi, one of the few women to play the music.

Dr. de Leon also taped interviews with Manuel Pena, a California music professor who grew up in Weslaco; Manuel Ayala, a disc jockey who gave conjunto musicians airtime and now has a traveling exhibit of records and news clippings; and Juan Tejeda, who organizes the San Antonio Tejano Conjunto Festival.

Dr. de Leon doesn’t have any firm plan for his dozen or more tapes, but he hopes researchers and music fans will find them helpful someday. “I’ll just keep taping until I run out of people to tape,” Dr. de Leon said.

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