During the 1920s to 1940s, so-called “record men” toured the southern United States, recording Black American and, later, Mexican American folk musicians for distribution as “race records.” In Texas, accordionists such as Narciso Martínez and Santiago Jiménez Sr. made recordings of Texas-Mexican conjunto, a local accordion-based genre, for commercial dissemination by low-cost subsidiaries of major labels like RCA and Columbia. Although these labels distributed the recordings beyond the immediate region, they created a strict correlation between the music and the identity of the associated musicians and audiences. In the case of Texas-Mexican conjunto, these so-called “race records” effectively restricted the genre to homologous interpretations of music as identity; conjunto as fundamentally tied to race and thus external to mainstream considerations.
During the 1970s to 1990s, niche record labels such as Arhoolie and Arista Texas produced LPs of conjunto music by artists such as Flaco Jiménez, the son of Jiménez Sr. As with the “race records” of the early twentieth century, these recordings disseminated Texas-Mexican accordion music among a widespread population. Just as with previous practices, however, these albums also pigeonholed Flaco and artists like him as quintessentially “conjunto,” intrinsically tied to identity-based notions of genre, despite actual musical characteristics or intent. This essay traces the mainstream definition of “conjunto” to recording practices of the twentieth century, noting that later albums simply replicate homologous and exploitative practices of early “record men.” They effectively “other” musicians as cultural representatives, rather than independent artists, and thus limit consideration of the music outside of racial bounds.
As David Brackett discusses, early recording practices “could make people aware that they belonged to a group they never knew existed.”1 In the case of Texas-Mexican conjunto, major-label interest in regional practices served to consolidate the music into a standardized instrumentation, structure, and sound, but also to associate the music with an identity according to stereotypical notions of ethnic heritage, rurality, and socioeconomic status. In the minds of local artists, nascent audiences, and subsequent scholars, Texas-Mexican conjunto became inextricably linked with the working-class, Texas-Mexican community. Dissemination of recordings locked external understandings of the music to tightly-constrained interpretations of a standard repertory and sound– despite the presence of alternative musical styles– and understandings of the associated population to tightly-constrained stereotypes of class, ethnicity, language, and location—despite the range of human identity and experience across South Texas.
Starting in the 1970s, Chris Strachwitz of California-based Arhoolie Records released a deluge of conjunto recordings, recording new material by artists like Flaco and reissuing local recordings by smaller labels. In doing so, Strachwitz mirrored the fundamental practices of earlier “record men,” unwittingly tying the music to essentialist considerations of ethno-racial identity. Admittedly, over a decades-long career and some 400 album releases across a range of genres, Strachwitz has paid artists appropriately, including attention to royalties and copyright protections that were absent in earlier manifestations of “race records.” He has demonstrated respect for the artists and their associated communities, documenting cultural traditions that had previously received little attention outside of local performances. The Arhoolie catalog, acquired in 2016 by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, provides invaluable documentation of twentieth-century musics. It enables folkloric musicians across a range of sociocultural backgrounds to be heard among a mainstream population.
At its core, however, Arhoolie Records unintentionally replicates essentialist practices of earlier “race records” to permanently affix genre to identity for musicians outside of hegemonic (“white”) traditions. For example, after encouraging Flaco to incorporate a more “jazzy” style of conjunto performance, Arhoolie released the artist’s Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio in 1985. The album received a Grammy Award—the first for both the artist and the record company—for Best Mexican-American Performance. Arhoolie Records introduced Texas-Mexican conjunto music to a mainstream population, promoting a hybridized form of the music that was both familiar and unique to local audiences and an upper-class, “world music” fanbase. Yet, in doing so, the album fundamentally connected Flaco’s music to his sociocultural identity. The music was promoted as a “traditional” representation of Texas-Mexican culture; an interesting bit of exoticism to help congratulate upper-class audiences for their openness to diversity while listening to music that is fundamentally “American” and closely derived from more mainstream traditions of polka, rock, and country. Yet, produced by a niche recording company devoted to the preservation of minoritized traditions, Flaco’s music became enshrined as quintessentially representative of the Texas-Mexican community—stereotypically poor, rural, Spanish-speaking, and ethnically Mexican—and separated from consideration according to the mainstream music industry. Despite recognition from the Grammy awards committee and despite musical characteristics of jazz, rock, and country, the music is fundamentally “Mexican American”; intrinsically tied to race and thus external to popular success.
Similarly in 1994 Arista Texas, a short-lived affiliate of Arista Nashville devoted to the “best examples of the state’s many indigenous forms of music” but focused primarily on Tejano musics (in reaction to the mainstream successes of Selena Quintanilla), released another Grammy-award-winning album by Flaco, titled Flaco Jiménez.2 This album clearly presents a hybridized representation of conjunto and popular practices; a balanced combination of polka and honky-tonk, as demonstrated by song choices, the participation of high-profile country artists such as Lee Roy Parnell and Radney Foster, and country-inflected musical elements. Flaco himself asserts that the album should have been marketed for country radio stations: “They started out promoting the album only for the Spanish-speaking audience. When they asked me if I was comfortable with that, I said no. I told ‘em it really belongs (on country radio) too.”3 But produced by a niche record label specializing in music performed by and intended for an ethno-racial minority, the album was instead marketed to a Mexican American audience, played on Spanish-language radio, and recognized as Best Mexican-American/Tejano Music Performance. As such, the record label effectively reproduced the “race records” of the early twentieth century, characterizing the artist as quintessentially “conjunto,” based not on actual musical elements, but on ethno-racial identity.
While the interest in conjunto by major labels might suggest inclusion of the music and associated community within mainstream (white) considerations, the restrictive association of genre with identity has instead marked the music as fundamentally external to hegemonic taste. As Theodor Adorno has theorized, audiences seek out a representation of their own (imagined) identities through their listening choices.4 Subsequent scholars, such as Georgina Born, have complicated this model through a spectrum of music-identity relations ranging from strictly one-to-one correspondences to purely fantasized identifications (exoticism).5 In between lie nostalgic and imagined relations. In this regard, audiences seek out music by artists who look like them, look like remembrances of who they once were, look like who they want to be, and/or look entirely different from who they are and what they know, thus triggering attractions to the stereotypical “other.” Over time, major-label recordings of conjunto music have attracted local audiences who relate to the ethnic and socioeconomic heritages of the musicians. They have also drawn external audiences who are attracted to the “exotic” elements promoted by connections between the genre and the identity of its artists and original community. These links between the music, the people who created it and those who marketed it effectively pigeonhole recordings as fundamentally representative of the Texas-Mexican community and thus intrinsically outside of popular consciousness.
Within the U.S. American recording industry, monetary success is tied to “popular” genres: rock, hip-hop, country, etc. As demonstrated by characterization as simply “Mexican American” or—more erroneously—“Regional Mexican” on radio playlists, Billboard charts, and Grammy-award categories, Texas-Mexican conjunto music is instead considered external to the mainstream music industry. As with earlier practices, it is classified according to identity (race), rather than actual musical characteristics. As such, artists like Flaco, who play music closely related to these popular genres, are characterized as “Mexican American,” rather than country or rock, and receive less money and recognition than artists tied to an alternative (white) heritage.
David Brackett, Categorizing Sound (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 22.
“Record label looking for Texas talent,” The Paris News (Paris, TX), 5 December 1993.
David Plotnikoff, “The Three Amigos Texas, Si,” San Jose Mercury News (CA), 30 December 1994.
Theodor Adorno, “The Curves of the Needle,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin, October 55 (1990): 48–55.
Georgina Born, “Music and the Representation/Articulation of Sociocultural Identities” and “Techniques of the Musical Imaginary,” in Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, ed. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 31–47.