Accordion-heavy conjunto music is focus of 3-day fest
When you strip Tejano music to its core, you'll find the rhythmic pulsations of conjunto music. They're the same soulful beats that once regularly filled Austin ballrooms and brought even the most uncoordinated dancers to their feet.
Conjunto's squeezebox melodies and strong narrative lyrics, though not on the forefront of Austin's live music scene, have quietly been gaining the hearts and minds of music lovers. And for longtime fan Baldomero "Frank" Cuellar, this meant that the moment was perfect to launch the type of festival he dreamed of for years — a conjunto music festival in his native East Austin that would bring up-and-coming conjunto bands together with the genre's legends.
On Friday, the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival becomes a reality for Cuellar and the music's loyal fan base. This marks the first time in Austin's recent history that conjunto music will have its own three-day festival, which event organizers hope will bring the roots music to a wider audience as well as encourage more conjunto groups to play in the Live Music Capital.
"When people think of conjunto music they think of Flaco Jimenez," said Cuellar, festival organizer and owner of Rancho Alegre Entertainment, a DJ service specializing in the preservation of hard-to-find conjunto and Tejano music. "That's great, but sometimes we only get half the story. There are so many more artists out there, from the Rio Grande Valley to Alice, Texas."
Austin-area conjunto bands scheduled to perform include Austin Music Award winners Los Texas Wranglers, veteran musicians Los Pinkys and Conjunto Romo, a Kyle-based family band featuring a father and his trio of sons. Fans will also have a chance to see a final, farewell performance for Jesse y Beto Duran y Los Aguilillas, whom the Austin Latino Music Association has recognized for their lifetime achievement in music.
As part of the conjunto festival's efforts to break down barriers and bring the music to new audiences, some of the festival's artists, such as veteran musician Chano Cadena and some members of Los Pinkys, will have in-store appearances Friday at Waterloo Records and Saturday at Antone's Records.
The strong lineup of legendary artists reads like a who's who of performers from all over South Texas: Linda Escobar, Bene Medina, Chano Cadena, Oscar Hernandez, Los Aguilares and Rene Joslin.
Many of these legendary artists came aboard after Cuellar began recording their oral histories for his online radio show on Rancho
AlegreTexas.com. Cuellar went on the road, to their homes and ranches and learned about the stories that tell of conjunto music's history as well as their own.
"I asked them if they'd be willing to come to Austin," Cuellar said. "They said 'Yeah, but no one books us.' Don't count some of these guys out. Chano Cadena, who's like the B.B. King of conjunto music — he's 78 years old, and he's still on the road. They still have a lot to share with us."
Though Tejano music has struggled over the years to appeal to a new generation of listeners and musicians, conjunto music may be having an easier time with this.
While he was on the road interviewing veteran conjunto musicians, Cuellar also noticed the amount of new conjunto artists bringing a new energy to the genre, such as Sweetwater-based band Thoze Guyz, who describe their sound as "crunkjunto."
"There's a lot of youth in conjunto right now," he said, noting that the sons in the family band Conjunto Romo are all younger than 20.
"It's almost like a renaissance is happening," said festival spokeswoman Piper LeMoine .
She describes the phenomenon like this: "If you think about it, it's almost like you have two age (groups). The legends are getting up to their 60s and 70s and then it wanes a little bit, almost like a trough as far as age distribution. Then you have the young guns. It's like grandfathers and grandkids playing together."
Perhaps, it's a back-to-basics move for new generations who are starting to make the music their own.
"I've been told that when you start playing guitar, you should start with your gospel and blues before you move to rock, you know what I mean," Cuellar said.
Cuellar has a particular soft spot for conjunto music. He remembers accompanying his parents to a conjunto dance as a kid and falling in love with the accordion and the atmosphere. And as an adult, it was conjunto music that helped Cuellar cope with the temporary blindness he experienced after a stroke.
"That was my escape," he said. "At my sickest, I felt a lot better listening to the music."
Cuellar had launched the Rancho Alegre online radio project to help keep conjunto music alive, but when he was bedridden for three months he thought about how if he recovered he wanted to do more to not only preserve the music but bring it live to the masses.
"I thought, I'm not going to stay with my arms crossed," he said. " I'm going to promote it to whoever wants to listen. I'm no longer taking a back seat."
Serving as a nostalgic backdrop and nod to those popular ballroom dance days is the festival's location at the Moose Lodge 1735, where a conjunto photo exhibit by San Antonio photographer Rolando Medina will also be featured as well as a canned food drive for the Capital Area Food Bank.
"I don't care what color you are, what your background is, when a cumbia plays you can't sit still," LeMoine said. "You can't beat it."
The Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival