[Editor's note: this would be a good piece to hear rather than just read. Hit "Listen" above to hear it]
As the sun sets on a Southtown Friday night, A train lumbers loudly by the packed Gallista Gallery. Tonight, the art isn’t just on the walls. It fills the room with a blend of rhythms drawn from Eastern Europe and South Texas. It's the result of human migration and the musical traditions that came with it. A musical mashup borne of South Texas History.
A charming, dimple-smiled 8-year old boy holds an accordion half as big as he is. I asked him "So you getting excited?"
"Yeah. I am nervous. Really nervous!" he laughed.
Joaquin Linn is about to take the stage in front of a hundred plus friends, families and music lovers. All there to take in the magic of a music called Conjunto.
“Conjunto music is a melding of the European music--the redova, the waltz, the polka. And they were brought over by the Europeans when they brought over the accordion.”
Rodolfo Lopez is a friendly, grandfatherly type who says Conjunto came about this way: the Tejanos here got their hands on those accordions and began making their own style of music.
“I like to refer to it as European music with a chile pequin or jalapeno flavor to it. Don Santiago Jimenez, Flaco’s father, used to go to Seguin and listen to the oompah bands, and he’d come home and try to pick it out on accordion.”
In the borderlands in the late 1800s the twelve-stringed, guitar-like—but quite different--bajo sexto appeared, rounding out and becoming the rhythm section for Conjunto.
“And they started using the bajo sexto because of the base line. That’s what you dance to. It’s like the base drum and the snare drum (DONG chu, DONG-chu, DONG-chu).
Rodolfo plays bajo sexto, providing that backbeat for Joaquin as he leans the accordion.
“When Joaquin came in here he didn’t know anything about the accordion. [it was] One button at a time.”
The “here” is Conjunto Heritage Taller (pronounced tah-YARE)—that's the Spanish word for workshop. The non-profit organization keeps Conjunto music alive by providing young people accordion lessons. This is where Joaquin came to learn.
"It was a few months ago, like six months ago," said Joaquin.
His mother Andi Linn Garcia chimed in "As soon as he put the accordion on I could see a spark in his eyes. I could tell that he was in love with the instrument. Being his mom I could tell right away that it was something special to him. Nothing grabbed his attention like accordion."
Joaquin said "She thinks I’m really good at playing but I don’t think that yet." Then he laughed.
Neither Andi or husband Micah are musicians. But as Andi explained, they both have a curious link to the accordion.
“His grandfather, and that side of his family came from Czechoslovakia. And they settled in Shiner, Texas. And so that music, the polkas and the German/Czech music, is something he grew up with. And so he loves the accordion; he loves that music. And so do I, because I grew up with Conjunto music.”
It struck me that this family was, like Conjunto, born of a mashup of cultures. "So you and your husband are essentially the lineage of conjunto music."
“Yes, exactly!" she laughed. "Well, my son, he is. He embodies that.”
Joaquin’s teacher at Conjunto Heritage Taller spends a lot of time helping him get it down and Joaquin gives him much credit.
“His name is Lorenzo Martinez and I ‘probably wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t so nice. I practice all the time. Every time I wake up in the morning I just pick it up and play.”
He’s progressed fast. After just six months of playing, Joaquin signed up for that Gallista Gallery competition.
Rodolfo added “It’s being put on by Texas Folklife out of Austin.
Back to the crowded Gallista Gallery--it was time for Joaquin to play. Joaquin poured his heart out and a receptive audience embraced him. A dozen or so other young people also played. So how did Joaquin do? He didn’t win this contest, but placed first in the hearts of many.
For more on Conjunto Heritage Taller, go here.
For more on Texas Folklife's Big Squeeze, go here.