South Texas has its own native music, and a non-profit here in Southtown is working to preserve it.
The music is Conjunto. The non-profit is Conjunto Heritage Taller.
And right now, the Taller is in the process of accomplishing the most important task of all — ensuring its own preservation and growth. More than twenty years after they started the Taller, its founding generation is passing the torch to a new generation of musicians that grew up in the organization.
We spoke with representatives of both generations: one of the Taller’s original founders, Rudy Lopez, and one of its first students and now a young leader of the organization, Aaron Salinas.
First, a bit about Conjunto music itself.
Conjunto music, and its popular-music cousin, Tejano music, originated in South Texas during the 1800s. It was a working class music, centered around the button accordion — imported from Germany and Eastern Europe — and the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar-like instrument that developed in Mexico. Along with the accordion, conjunto music also imported — and adapted — some of the rhythms and sounds of European accordion music, like the polka, waltz, and schottische.
The result was a unique sound, one that reflected the soul of working class Mexican-Americans.
If you’re unfamiliar with the sound, check out the playlist on this page from The Smithsonian’s website. It will give you a flavor.
Conjunto music reached its peak in popularity and innovation in the twentieth century. Some of the leading Conjunto artists and innovators of the twentieth century include San Antonio greats Santiago Jiménez, his sons Flaco and Santiago, Jr, and Valerio Longoria.
Valerio Longoria had a big impact both worldwide and locally. He did his first recordings while living in San Antonio in the 1940s, and then, after spending time living and recording in Chicago and Los Angeles, he returned to San Antonio and taught accordion for about twenty years at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Over the years, he taught hundreds of students.
NEW PEOPLE AND DIRECTIONS
One of those new leaders is Aaron Salinas.
Aaron started taking lessons at the Taller when it was just a year or so old — when Aaron himself was just eight years old (‘almost nine’ he says). He was introduced to the accordion by his grandfather, who, impressed by how quickly Aaron took to the instrument, sought out lessons for him and discovered the Taller.
Aaron was quickly hooked on both the accordion and music generally. In college, he got his degree in computer science (he now works as a data engineer at USAA), but he kept up the accordion. Today he plays multiple instruments in addition to the accordion; he’s part of a band, Volcan; and he teaches at the Taller.
Rudy credits Aaron as much more than a teacher at the Taller, referring to him as a de facto program director.
“He's a mover and a shaker,” Rudy says. “He’s got ideas, he’s dynamic, and he gets things done. He’s fearless. He thinks of something, and he goes for it.”
Aaron has been instrumental in expanding the offerings of the Taller. Most significantly, he defined a new class in Music Theory and brought in an old Taller classmate, Joey Villanueva, to teach it. Joey has a music degree from Texas A&M and studied the accordion alongside Aaron at the Taller.
“Music theory is the conceptual part of music,” Aaron explains. “It’s basic music concepts, like notes, chords, and scales; what they are, how they work, and why we use them. Part of our program is to develop a complete musician, from the ground up.”
Aaron says that, when he got older and began to work with other musicians, he discovered that there were gaps in his knowledge. He had learned to play, but he lacked some of the knowledge that enables musicians to communicate. He wants to make that knowledge part of the training offered by the Taller.
But he also considers music theory to be important for achieving the Taller’s goal of preserving Conjunto music.
“The traditional way of teaching this music is that it’s always been done orally. I play this. You copy what I do.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But what happens with that approach is that nothing is written down. And differences develop, because I explain things one way and someone else explains it differently. So you lose a lot of the history because it changes.”
“But with music theory, by writing it down, we’re trying to keep the music alive, to immortalize it and truly preserve it.”
Sheet music is also more scalable, Aaron points out. “If we teach students how to read music, and then we provide the sheet music for a certain song, then it’s always available.”
“We're just trying to give our musicians and students more tools to use,” he explains. “We still teach the traditional oral way. But now they understand, whenever I say a technical term, like you're playing this pattern, and this pattern happens to be an arpeggio, they understand those terms. So we're just giving them more tools in their basket.”
Conjunto Heritage Taller co-founder, Rudy Lopez, with the Taller's accordion instructor and next-generation leader, Aaron Salinas. Rudy is playing the bajo sexto. Aaron is playing a button accordion. The photograph was taken by Al Rendon.
It was Longoria’s death in December of 2000 that led to the founding of Conjunto Heritage Taller, according to the Taller’s co-founder, Rudy Lopez.
“When Valerio Longoria died, we were afraid that traditional Conjunto music was going to disappear,” Rudy says. So the Taller was put together in 2002 with the aim of providing low-cost music instruction to ‘youth of all ages,’ as Rudy puts it, trying to fill the hole left by Longoria’s death.
The Taller began offering classes in both accordion and bajo sexto. The classes were one-on-one, in-person classes, where students learned to play by mimicking their instructors.
“They start out with really simple tunes,” Rudy says. “It’s actually easy to learn. And then, as you learn, you go to more complex things.”
The secret, he says, is practice. “Talent is useful, but practice is what makes it gel.”
Over the years, the Taller has had many homes. It’s currently in the Mennonite Church at 1443 South St Mary’s, near Brackenridge High School, but it will be moving soon into new space on South Flores.
Along with the move to new space, there are also some changes in how the Taller teaches and how it connects to the community. Those changes are driven, at least in part, by the new generation that’s taking up leadership roles in the organization.
As one of the founders, Rudy is particularly happy about that new generation. And he’s doubly happy that the new generation includes young people who were among the Taller’s earliest students.
Prior to the pandemic, the Taller’s classes were taught in person. The pandemic forced the classes online.
While that changeover was difficult, it also had some positive benefits.
“I’m really proud of the work we did during COVID,” Aaron says, “because we grew. We didn’t go under. We didn’t go belly up. We grew as an organization. I now have students who are in California, who are in D.C., who are in New Mexico — they are all over.”
“It's a great feeling to see that, wow, a lot of these people are really interested, but they didn't even know our program existed until we started putting it out there.”
Bringing the music to the community
Aaron also wants the Taller to do more to bring Conjunto music to the community.
“We want to develop more programs that are not just aimed at musicians, because this music is not just about the musician; it’s a community culture.”
The Taller has always accepted invitations to perform, but Aaron wants to do more to create events.
He says that they’ve done some events in the past twelve months at the Dakota East Side Ice House, featuring both Taller musicians and professional bands from outside San Antonio.
“It’s all with the goal of preserving the music and bringing it to the community,” he says.
Conjunto Heritage Taller is a non-profit, supported by donations. Its seed money back in 2002, Rudy says, came from two Lavaca sources. Neighborhood activists Bob and Joan Carabin provided a substantial personal donation, and artist Penny Boyer was able to transfer funding from a project of hers, working with kids in Victoria Courts, because the Courts were closing and her project was winding down.
Today, the organization gets funding from a variety of sources, including the City of San Antonio, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and the King William Association. Individual donors are critical, too, according to Rudy. To donate, visit the Taller’s PayPal donation page.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
When Valerio Longoria died, we were afraid that traditional Conjunto music was going to disappear.
With music theory, by writing it down, we’re trying to keep the music alive, to immortalize it and truly preserve it.