The Borders of Tejano, Conjunto and Norteño

Conjunto music at one time in the Southwest was king. It was the next phase after Mariachi and dominated the airwaves, especially in Texas. Then from Conjunto, Tejano music broke out and Conjunto was pushed to the side as Tejano, with its exciting horns and, later, synthesizers, ruled the airwaves. And all was good. But then, Norteño came into the picture, pretty much burying Tejano, as Tejano did Conjunto. It didn’t kill Tejano, but at the very least, it dominates the airwaves now.

Everyone knows this story, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

What I’m here to talk about is what I call the “borders” of this music. For example, The Hometown Boys, Jaime y Los Chamacos, Los Garcia Brothers, Albert Zamora, are all grassroots Conjunto artists. But because of their success, and being signed to big record companies, they were elevated to Tejano. This is nothing new. As the Relampagos del Norte, Ramon Ayala and Cornelio Reyna were discovered by Conjunto legends Gilberto Perez and Paulino Bernal who were scouting Conjunto talent for Bego Records. Yet as the Relampagos took off, they were consumed by the much bigger Norteño market.

So my question is, is an artist’s ability to have success and make real money the key to being consumed by a genre of music? So, who makes these decisions, and why do we, as fans, allow it to happen?

It would be one thing if the Hometown Boys naturally and voluntarily changed their sound from straight-up Conjunto when they began to be classified as Tejano. For instance, Eric Clapton was a blues guitarist from the very beginning, and as he gained more fame and became considered a rock artist, his sound changed. It still had his same bluesy signature, but it was undeniably rock. This is not what happened with Conjuntos that became Tejano. Their sound did not change. They still played the same way- no horns, no synthesizers, just the same Conjunto they had always played.

I believe that if a band is Conjunto, it should stay Conjunto, even though it has the success. Just because a large record company’s promotional machine gets behind them, I believe they should not have to be pushed into another genre. I believe Ramon Ayala would be Ramon Ayala, regardless of whether he was classified as Norteño, Tejano or Conjunto. Now, if they choose to branch out musically on their own, yet remain true to their roots, that’s completely different.

So I guess the point of this blog is, do success and money decide what genre you are? My advice to fans, if you’re a Conjunto fan, be proud of it. If you are a Tejano fan, be proud of it. If you are a Norteño fan, be proud of it. And this same advice extends to up and coming bands as well. Be who you are. Don’t let the industry change you. It’s all music, it’s all good.

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