Rain or shine, the 38th annual Tejano Conjunto Festival will go on this weekend, punctuated by thousands upon thousands of hoarse-voiced, beer-soaked gritos expressing overwhelming joy and deep sadness — sometimes at the same time.
Organizers are expecting the kind of audience it used to draw in the 1990s, in the heyday of the Tejano music era, when so many believed it would go mainstream. It never did.
The festival celebrates two Mexican American genres that have managed to survive in pockets around the country due to what Cristina Ballí, executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, calls “sustainable cultures.”
It’s an ethnomusicological term used to describe how musical styles, outside the mainstream, exist within their own ecologies. They’re small, local, or in our case, regional. Experts see them as “handcrafted,” Ballí says, with distinctive flavors born of the grass-roots.
Tejano and conjunto music has been preserved by record shops, in flea markets, on surviving radio stations and at weddings, family barbecues, beer joints, dance halls and our hearts and memories. The lyrics focus on family, lovers and ex-lovers, sworn enemies and historical moments. Some songs are so popular, their first few strains trigger applause and emotions.
For me, it’s in the first chords of Ramon Ayala’s (no relation) accordion in “Cruz de Madera,” a song that can bring me to tears no matter where I am. I’ve heard it at funerals at San Fernando Cemetery No. 2, where so many of my relatives are buried.
I’ve been on long stretches of highway when the song comes on the radio and have had to pull over. The lyrics, in the voice of a man leaving instructions for his funeral, says he needs no big send-off when his time comes. All he wants is an early-morning serenade and a light shower of Tequila to water his grave.
Gets. Me. Every. Time.
Ballí is hopeful about the future of both genres that will be celebrated at this weekend’s festival.
She says there’s evidence “of the sustainability of the music with the large numbers of young people that are playing it. Some school districts, particularly down in the Rio Grande Valley, offer conjunto as a fine art credit in the schools, and they have hundreds of students enrolled. This all helps keep South Texas a unique place with its traditional music forms.”
Fans from all over the state, the country and beyond will be in town. I especially love to see conjunto musicians from Scandinavian countries and Japan.
Rudy Gutierrez, son of the famed San Antonio composer, record producer and record shop owner Salome Gutierrez, fell in love at the festival. Years ago, he was volunteered to escort a fan who had come all the way from Japan. They’re now married.
He and his siblings run the Del Bravo Record Shop and San Antonio Music Publishers, and they’ll be at the festival. But he’s looking forward to another musical event on his calendar.
It will come June 1 at San Fernando No. 2, where a long-planned Texas Historical Marker will be placed at the grave of the legendary singer Lydia Mendoza, the first lady of Tejano music.
For Gutierrez, the four-year project is a tribute to his late father, who would have loved to see a historical marker for Mendoza, with whom he collaborated for over 50 years.
Gutierrez says the project began in 2015 when his wife forced him to go on vacation. They visited cemeteries and famous grave sites, some of which had historical markers. He came back with the determination to see one enacted for Mendoza, who died in 2007 and left a musical legacy not easily matched.
Best remembered for her hit song, “Mal Hombre,” about a domestic abuser, Mendoza began recording in 1928 at the age of 12. Part of a musical family, she went solo by 18 and played a haunting 12-string guitar.
Two books were written about her life. She performed at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and was honored by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of the Arts alongside the queen of soul Aretha Franklin and famed TV producer Norman Lear.
“Mal Hombre” remains popular and has been used in various movies and documentaries. Netflix recently acquired the rights from San Antonio Music Publishers for use in a new animation series, Gutierrez says.
Her marker will make note of her beloved nicknames. She was known as “la Alondra de la Frontera,” the meadowlark of the borderlands, and as “la Cancionera de los Pobres,” the songstress of the poor.