Conjunto Bernal was one of the most renowned groups to have worked in the tradition of the tejano conjunto, the accordion-dominated, dance-oriented style whose lively polkas and rancheras can still be heard anywhere Mexican Americans gather in south Texas. The group helped define the music's classic style, and in its later years set a tone of experimentation that was picked up by younger performers. Paulino Bernal, one of the two brothers who formed the group, is considered one of the greatest accordionists in the history of tejano music. One Mexican musician quoted by Manuel Peña in The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music called Conjunto Bernal "the greatest and only one of its kind."
At the center of Conjunto Bernal were two brothers, Eloy (born on March 11, 1937) and Paulino (born on June 22, 1939) Bernal; a great variety of other players passed through the group over its 25-year history, but the interplay of Paulino's accordion and Eloy's bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar that could play melody, chords, and a bass line) defined the group's sound. The two Bernal brothers were born in Texas's agricultural Rio Grande Valley, and they and their four younger siblings grew up in poverty. The family financial situation became even tougher after their parents separated and Bernal's mother moved with her children to the south Texas city of Kingsville. Paulino Bernal dropped out of school in seventh grade to work in the cotton and onion fields around Kingsville.
Soon, however, the brothers were in a position to contribute to the family finances in a different way. Paulino got started in music when his mother bought him a guitar from a door-to-door salesman. Inspired by the sounds of conjunto accordionists Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martínez, Paulino switched to the accordion instead and apprenticed himself to an elderly accordionist who played for nickels in Kingsville bars. On a trip to visit their father in the valley town of Reynosa they bought a bajo sexto, and Eloy Bernal mastered the difficult instrument. In 1952, dubbing themselves Los Hermanitos Bernal, they hired a drummer and began playing for dances. At one of their first gigs they charged a total of $18, all of which went to the rental of microphones and drums.
Their fortunes soon picked up as they attracted the attention of Texas musical entrepreneur Armando Marroquín and began to record for his Ideal label in 1954 as Conjunto Bernal. Their first record was a two-sided 45 rpm disc, "Mujer Paseada" (Woman Who's Been Around the Block), backed with "Desprecio" (Scorn). Those songs and other Conjunto Bernal releases, mixing sharp ranchera and bolero vocals with instrumental polkas (the polka, introduced to Texas and northern Mexico by central European immigrants, was as important to tejano music as it has been in Polish America), circulated around Texas, and the brothers landed bookings as far away as Dallas.
Conjunto Bernal did not rest on the laurels earned from its initial success. Paulino Bernal recalled to Peña, that a disc jockey had advised him to "distinguish yourself, even if it has to be as an idiot," and he began to practice accordion scales in different keys, even the ones that were never used in conjunto music at the time. Bernal developed into an accordion virtuoso, with few rivals in combining harmonic sophistication with clean execution of the runs and staccato effects that remain characteristic of conjunto music today. In 1958 Conjunto Bernal recorded an LP, rare for conjunto music at the time and for many years afterward; it was titled Mi Unico Camino (My Only Path), and its title track became one of Conjunto Bernal's enduring hits.
The brothers developed their musical sophistication further as they toured with the orquesta or orchestra of Arizona bandleader Pedro Bugarian and developed a fan base beyond the tough cantina crowds that favored conjunto music. In 1960 they began recording for Marroquín's new label, Nopal, and later in the 1960s they formed two labels of their own: first Bego, in partnership with Victor González, and later Bernal. "By 1960," noted Peña, "El Conjunto Bernal, six years after its entrance into the commercial market, had established itself as the foremost group in conjunto music."
With this combination of factors in place, Conjunto Bernal was in a position to make further refinements in its sound during the 1960s. Paulino Bernal began to use a five-row chromatic button accordion, and the band added a second accordionist, Óscar Hernández, in 1963 or 1964. The new density of Conjunto Bernal's accordion sound was matched by richer vocal textures; where earlier conjunto groups had featured a solo vocalist or perhaps a duet, Conjunto Bernal now began to borrow from the trio arrangements of Mexican popular styles. With top vocalists such as Rubén Pérez passing through the band at various times, Conjunto Bernal reached its peak in the mid-1960s with a polished, sophisticated sound. In a 1990 essay that later appeared in Puro Conjunto: An Album in Words and Pictures, Max Martínez wrote, "In fact, El Conjunto Bernal ended up so far in advance of their peers in conjunto music that, more than 20 years later, few have come close to matching their achievements. Musically, with the exception of Esteban Jordán, none has surpassed them."
The dominance of Conjunto Bernal was ended by Paulino Bernal's struggles with alcohol and drugs in the late 1960s. He performed rarely during this period, although he briefly hosted a regional television show and was active in the administration of the Bernal label. In 1972 he announced that he had become a born-again Christian, and cut his ties with the group for good, forming a new band and continuing to perform conjunto music with religious lyrics. Conjunto Bernal continued to perform under Eloy Bernal's leadership, but disbanded in 1977. Any hopes for a reunion vanished with Eloy's death in an auto accident near Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 22, 1998.
Esteban Jordán (also known as Steve Jordan and as the Jimi Hendrix of the tejano accordion) was just one of the musicians whose careers were touched by Conjunto Bernal. They accompanied the vocal duo of Carmen y Laura in their earlier years, and the final incarnation of Conjunto Bernal featured vocalist Laura Canales, tejano music's biggest female star until the emergence of Selena in the 1990s. Conjunto musicians were unanimous in testifying to the influence of Paulino Bernal's playing and in praising such Conjunto Bernal hits as "Por Amor al Dinero" (For the Love of Money), "Idalia," "Buena Suerte" (Good Luck), "Seis Años" (Six Years), "El Vino y Tú" (Wine and You), and "Me Regalo Contigo" (You're a Gift to Me). A systematic study and discography of the music of Conjunto Bernal could yield valuable insights into the music and culture of Mexican Americans in Texas in the second half of the twentieth century.
For the Record …
Members include: Eloy Bernal (born November 3, 1937; died April 22, 1998), bajo sexto; Paulino Bernal (born June 22, 1939), accordion; many other rotating members.
Formed in 1952 as Los Hermanitos Bernal in Kingsville, TX; played for dances around Texas, mid-1950s; signed to Ideal label; made first recordings, 1954; recorded debut LP album, Mi Unico Camino, 1958; recorded for Nopal label, early 1960s; formed own labels, Bego and later Bernal; founder Paulino Bernal left group, 1967; disbanded, 1977.
Mi Unico Camino, Ideal, 1958 (reissued Arhoolie, 2007).
Para Siempre, Freddie, 1996.
16 Early Hits, Arhoolie, 1997.
Mi Humilde Corazón, Arhoolie, 2001.
Grandes Exitos, Freddie, 2006.
Ya Somos Dos, P&G Music, 2006.
MusicHound World: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 2000.
Peña, Manuel, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Tejeda, Juan, and Avelardo Valdez, Puro Conjunto: An Album in Words and Pictures, CMAS Books, 2001.
Sing Out!, Spring 2002, p. 125.
Southern Cultures, Spring 1999, p. 103.
"El Conjunto Bernal," Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/EE/xge1.html (February 28, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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