Music News


"Do you have Flaco Jimenez's new solo recording?" The clerk at the west-side record shop responds with a blank stare that says he's never heard of it, then rifles through the section marked "Norteno."
After 30 years of recording jukebox 45s for fly-by-night south Texas labels, Flaco, undisputed "El Rey of the Accordion," has finally landed a deal with a major American label. His first album, Partners, is a collection of duets with gringo guests such as Dwight Yoakam and John Hiatt.

"I know we've had it," the clerk says. "But we don't have any now."
What the store does have is every cheesy cassette Flaco ever made. At $6 a whack, they're a bargain. When I ask about a well-known series of tejano-roots compilations, only one is in stock.

Surveying the flashy covers of tejano big-band and Mexican-pop tapes in the store, it occurs to me that Latinos, particularly those of Mexican descent living in the Southwestern U.S., are losing touch with their heritage.

They're not the first. Ignorance, even denial, of a musical past is a widespread conundrum. Whites who love empty heads in black hats like Garth, Clint and George wouldn't cross the street to hear bluegrass. Legions of blacks no longer buy--or in some cases even admit to a connection to--the blues and early forms of jazz.

But many times, as one race or culture forgets its past, another embraces it. The biggest audience for blues today is white. And the biggest blues fanatics live in France and Germany.

Now, Tex-Mex music is seeping across ethnic boundaries. Led by the Anglo-Latino group the Texas Tornados, Tex-Mex seems poised to break into the mainstream. It is today where Cajun music and zydeco were ten years ago. Significantly, Tex-Mex is spreading to rock acts. Three new albums by Chris Gaffney, the Forbidden Pigs and the Iguanas all have a pronounced Tex-Mex flavor.

While a connection between rock and Tex-Mex is not new--Sam the Sham, the Champs and Joe "King" Carrasco pioneered it--it has never flirted so with the mainstream. The Tornados are pitching breakfast burritos for McDonald's. Who knows? In a few years, Rhode Islanders may say they've seen a bajo sexto or danced to a ranchera.

Tex-Mex music, which has always included a strong Anglo influence, is related to conjunto (a countrified traditional form), norteno (the Mexico-based progenitor of all border music) and tejano (pop/big bands). It first emerged in the 1950s. Unlike mariachi music, which has its roots in Mexico, Tex-Mex was born in the U.S. Like all border music, it is the product of a head-on collision between the traditional Mexican-American culture of Texas and the wave of German immigrants that settled there after the Civil War. The two sides of Tex-Mex's heritage can most clearly be seen in its two main instruments: the 12-stringed Mexican guitar, bajo sexto, and the German button accordion. Tex-Mex lyrics are in Spanish, but the genre's musical structures come directly from European forms like the polka and American rock n' roll.

Like all popular music, Tex-Mex has split into many different stylistic branches--some closer to Mexican pop, others more traditional. In general, it's a loose, dance-floor-oriented music that can include anything from "La Bamba" to "Boogie Nights." Tex-Mex has always been played almost exclusively from head arrangements, meaning neither the songs nor the arrangements were written down. This means live shows inevitably are ragged affairs. It has also made it difficult to record, which explains why singles have proliferated.

What holds most Tex-Mex bands together is a strong accordion leader. Accordion players have always been the stars of border music. Accordionist Bruno Villarreal made the first conjunto accordion recordings in 1928. But it was Santiago Jimenez who, in the 1930s, made traditional conjunto the reigning popular music among Latinos in Texas. His sons Santiago and particularly Leonardo, who like his father acquired the nickname Flaco ("skinny"), would make conjunto's modern offspring, Tex-Mex, world famous.

The greatest force in the Tex-Mex renaissance is the Texas Tornados. The Tornados were once the pipe dream of Nashville-based managers Stuart Dill and Cameron Randle, who at the time had Freddy Fender as a client. According to Paige Levy, the VP of A&R for Warner Bros. in Nashville and the person responsible for signing the band, Dill and Randle had approached Warner about the idea of a Tex-Mex supergroup years before the Tornados became a reality.

The problem was the pair couldn't settle on a combination. Their dilemma was solved by chance one night in December 1989 when Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez jammed together at Slim's in San Francisco. All four were Texans who knew each other, and in some cases had worked together. Dubbing themselves the "Tex-Mex Revue," the quartet went on without a single rehearsal and brought down the house. A month later, the Tornados were signed to Warner/Reprise.

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Robert Baird