Flaco Jiménez And The Legacy Of Conjunto

Feb 20, 2014
Originally published on February 20, 2014 7:38 am

Flaco Jiménez is in his seventh decade as a performer. He's played with Ry Cooder, Dwight Yoakam, and even The Rolling Stones. Jiménez's newest album, Legends & Legacies, is a collection of songs that illustrate the legacy of the Latin music style for which he is so well known: conjunto.

Felix Contreras, the co-host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino, recently guided NPR's Renee Montagne through the history of conjunto, which starts and ends with the accordion.

"The accordion player is like a jazz musician: He improvises in between verses and during the song. And Flaco Jiménez is a master," Contreras says.

Hear more of their conversation, including how collaborator Max Baca matches Jimenez' playing with touches of bluegrass guitar, at the audio link.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's take a musical break, now, to learn about a Latin music style that actually originated in Texas. It's known as conjunto and it's become popular and Mexican-American dance halls throughout the Southwest, and across the border into Northern Mexico.

Our guide is Felix Contreras. He is the co-host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino, a show about Latino arts and culture. He says he used to play in a conjunto band.

Good morning.

(LAUGHTER)

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are we going to start with?

CONTRERAS: We're going to start with an accordion.

FLACO JIMÉNEZ AND MAX BACA: One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: The album I brought in is called "Legends and Legacies" by Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca. And it will be released next week. It's a collection of songs that illustrate the large part of the history of conjunto music or the legacy of the music.

MONTAGNE: And the legends in the title, "Legends and Legacies," what does that refer to?

CONTRERAS: Flaco Jiménez from San Antonio.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: The man himself.

CONTRERAS: Exactly, he's now in his seventh decade as a performer. He's played with Ry Cooder, he's played with Dwight Yoakam, even The Rolling Stones. On this album is accompanied by Max Baca was almost 30 years younger than Flaco.

For me, listening to Flaco is like going back in time because his father, Santiago Jiménez, Sr., he was a pioneer of conjunto, going back to the late 1930s. And before that, his grandfather, the Patricio Jiménez, he played in the late 19th century with German and Polish folks who settled in South Texas and played strictly polka music.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MARGARITA, MARGARITA")

MONTAGNE: And what are we listening to now?

CONTRERAS: This song is called "Margarita, Margarita" from the album. It's a conjunto standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MARGARITA, MARGARITA")

CONTRERAS: What you hear is the guitar-like instrument called the Bajo Sexto. It's a 12-string guitar. It's playing the polka on the upbeat. There's two parts vocal harmonies that's part of the tradition. But the principal part is the accordion.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MARGARITA, MARGARITA")

CONTRERAS: The accordion player is like a jazz musician in that he improvises in between versus and during the song. And Flaco Jiménez is a master.

MONTAGNE: Now, getting back to Max Baca, he is decades younger than Flaco. How is he part of this tradition of conjunto?

CONTRERAS: Max Baca comes from a musical family in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And that reflects how conjunto moved from Texas throughout the Southwest in the '30s and '40s. But he's making his own stamp on the music. When you listen to this example, you'll hear him drop in a little bluegrass riff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: It's almost like a blues bluegrass riff that he throws in there underneath, as support for a Flaco soloing.

MONTAGNE: Here in Southern California, conjunto is still quite popular to get up on several radio stations. But what about generally speaking?

CONTRERAS: It's still very popular in its purest, rawest form. It's so popular that the recording industry has a separate category for it in the Latin Grammys, that they call it Mexican Regional. So it's very popular. It's been here and it shows no sign of ever going away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Felix Contreras is the host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino, an online show of Latino arts and culture. And he's our occasional Latin music expert. You can hear Alt.Latino at NPR.org/altlatino.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.