Tejano Music

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Tejano Music

During the 1930s and 1940s a music developed which mirrored the evolution of Hispanics in southwestern cities into Mexican Americans, a bicultural community emerging from Mexican roots within the United States. This was the first generation of Americans of Mexican descent to aspire for inclusion in Anglo-American life. Popular dance band ensembles catered to this generation's biculturalism by playing genres chosen from both the Latin and the American traditions: bolero, danzón, guaracha, and rumba alternating with boogie, swing, and fox-trot, among others. After World War II, a type of fusion of the traditions took place that developed into a distinctive sound, especially among the orquestas and conjuntos in Texas, where the largest Hispanic recording companies existed at that time. The result was a music that came to be known as Tejano.

As orchestras became more professional and ballroom dance circuits extended throughout the Southwest, the Texas recording artists became the greatest in demand and spread their new music throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico. Among the first prominent big bands were Beto Villa's from Falfurrias, Texas, whose leader is sometimes called the father of the Mexican American orquesta. Villa popularized a folksy, "country"-style polka; this polka, in particular, came to be known as "Tex-Mex," especially when compared with the more sophisticated urban sounds of danzones, guarachas, fox-trots, and swings. Villa's influence was so strong that many followers appeared throughout the Southwest, most noteworthy of them being singer-saxophonist Isidro López, also from Texas, who is known for adding the working-class canción ranchera to the Tex-Mex repertoire. Balde González of Victoria, Texas, and Pedro Bugarín of Phoenix, Arizona, smoothed out the musical deliveries and broadened the repertoire of genres included in Tex-Mex.

The peak years for the Mexican-American orquesta were the 1960s and 1970s, during which emerged Little Joe Hernández, one of the greatest all-time performers and popularizers of Tex-Mex. Little Joe led a band made up of family members and friends under a series of names and struggled to get studios to record his music and radio stations to play it in Texas. Finally, he had to form his own recording and distribution companies. Little Joe, in addition, fused the Tex-Mex ranchero sound with American jazz and rock within the same musical number to achieve a unique bi-musical sound which came to be called "La Onda Chicana" (The Chicano Wave). Little Joe's first experiment in this Chicano Wave occurred on his hugely successful 1972 LP Para La Gente (For the People). Backing Joe and his brother Johnny's harmonic duet were the usual instruments of a well-organized Mexican American band of those years: two trumpets, two saxophones, a trombone, and a rhythm section of bass, electric guitar, drums, and keyboards. On the album, many of the arrangements were augmented with strings from the Dallas symphony—a novelty for Tex-Mex music—and with the interlacing of jazz riffs. Even at the turn of the century, many of the numbers included on this historic LP are standard fare among dance bands in Mexican American communities.

Texas continues to be the center for Tejano music, from whence dance bands and recording artists tour to as far north as Chicago and New York City and as far south as Mexico City. The advent of the three Spanish-language television networks further popularized the music into the Caribbean and South America. Younger generations of Mexican Americans further infused the music with rock influences in the 1990s and took it far afield from its country roots, mirroring the overwhelming concentration of Hispanics in big cities today.

—Nicolás Kanellos

Further Reading:

Peña, Manuel. The Texas Mexican-Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985.

——. "From Ranchera to Jaitón: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-Mexican Music." Ethnomusicology. Vol. 29, No. 1, 1985, 29-55.