Juan Tejeda always keeps one eye on the distant past and one on the future.
That’s what happens when you devote your life to nurturing a musical and cultural form forged in the first half of the 20th century by giants who have passed away. Tejeda loves the historical dimension of conjunto, but he cherishes the music’s expressive power too much to willingly let it slip into history.
That’s why Tejeda created the nation’s first higher-education conjunto-music program at Palo Alto College, and it’s why he agreed last year to curate the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s annual Tejano Conjunto Festival — an event he created and ran for 17 years - for the first time since 1998.
Last year, the Guadalupe brought Tejeda on board with little time to spare, and simply booking the festival proved to be a major challenge. This year, with more time to plan, he decided to emphasize some non-performance elements that draw the community into the event.
Along those lines, Tejeda is just as eager to talk about the festival’s poster contest, the TCF program magazine, Conjunto Music Hall of Fame inductions, and workshops, as the actual
“My vision was to do all of that,” Tejeda says. “I got much more involved with bringing it back to doing an interesting, educational, exciting lineup for the people. I see these as revivial years and I’ve gone back to the roots, to the traditional music, to strengthen our music and hopefully to strengthen our festival.”
One of Tejeda’s big themes is that although individual conjunto artists pass away, their legacies stubbornly endure in performers who adapt their stylistic tricks for a new era. A key example comes with Valerio Longoria, a great conjunto innovator who transformed the music in several ways: altering the tonality of the accordion, bringing bolero rhythms into the mix, lending a new level of vocal expressiveness to the form, and adding drums to the spare conjunto lineup.
These days, Longoria’s style can be heard in the work of Los Conjunto Kings, an ensemble featuring his son, Flavio. Tejeda made a point of including them at this year’s festival.
Another major presence at TCF will be the spirit of Lydia Mendoza, the beloved Queen of Tejano, who passed away last December at the age of 91. Mendoza, the subject of a wonderful, elaborately packaged, new Arhoolie Records collection, The Best of Lydia Mendoza, broke down gender barriers in the mid-’30s with her plaintive vocals and assertive 12-string guitar work on anthems such as “Mal Hombre.”
For this year’s festival, Tejeda organized “Homenaje a Lydia Mendoza, a tribute set on Thursday, May 8, beginning at 8:35 p.m. The tribute will include charismatic button-accordion virtuoso Joel Guzman duetting with partner Sarah Fox on “Mal Hombre,” and one-song performances from the likes of Eva Ybarra, Linda Escobar, Rebecca Valadez and Max Baca, and Ann McKinney, Mendoza’s granddaughter.
“We lost one of the greats,” Tejeda says about Mendoza. “She was the first, and for many years the only, woman inducted into the Hall of Fame. As the lineup evolved, I was thinking of doing a Women in Conjunto Music night. I’d done a couple of those years ago. Lydia was a natural to think about in that regard, because she really paved the way for all the younger conjunto and Tejano artists that exist today. A lot of the women who are performing with their conjuntos are also going to play one song that Lydia popularized or recorded.”
The Friday, May 9, set of performances will be dedicated to the work of Tony de la Rosa, one of conjunto’s most prolific and popular artists. The evening will include showcases by Bernardo y sus Compadres and Cuatro Rosas.
When Tejeda launched the festival in 1982, he was consciously battling negative stereotypes about conjunto, and eager to prove that this music deserved to be regarded as art. “There were a lot of biases, and there still are,” he says. “A lot of negative connotations to conjunto music and cantina music, that it was low-class.”
He countered such stereotypes by bringing together some astounding talents. He recalls that at one of the early festivals, Flaco Jimenez, Esteban Jordan, and Valerio Longoria teamed up to conduct a workshop. (Longoria, at Tejeda’s urging, also taught classes at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for 20 years.)
By 1991, the festival had grown from a weekend event into a seven-day gathering that featured 45 bands. That size proved unwieldy, but the ambition behind it has never left Tejeda. He proudly notes that UT-Austin now follows Palo Alto’s example and offers instruction in the accordion and bajo sexto. Tejeda also touts the emergence of great young conjunto musicians who developed their skills at the Guadalupe or Palo Alto.
As always, this year’s Conjunto Music Hall of Fame inductions are designed to serve as a recognition of past accomplishments as well as an inspiration to the next generation. The Hall of Fame will induct Eloy Bernal, widely considered one of the greatest bajo-sexto players in conjunto history, as well as Emilio and Genaro Aguilar, from Los Aguilares, a San Antonio group that recently celebrated its 48th anniversary.
“One of the sub-themes last year and this year is the continuation of conjunto music into the new generation,” Tejeda says. “Tony de la Rosa is one of the all-time great accordionists, conjunto arrangers, recording artists, and most popular people in the history of conjunto music. Many people, since he first started out, have emulated his style.
“That’s what we’re trying to show here, that people like Lydia and Tony de la Rosa, while we’re remembering them, their music is never going to die, because it’s really recorded in the hearts and souls of the people. Not to mention the regular recordings that exist, that are classic recordings.” •
Tejano Conjunto Festival:
Featuring Joel Guzman, Flaco Jimenez, Bernardo y us Compadres, and more
Thu, May 8-Sat, May 10