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Conjunto music enjoys a resurgence, bridging a divide between old and new musicians

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With the soundtrack for your morning, which comes from the Rio Grande Valley. This is a geographically and culturally distinct part of Texas - in fact, it's much Mexican as Texan. And it does have its own soundtrack, music called conjunto. It's a century old. And it's a thumping backbeat and shimmering accordion. You know, why am I describing it? Let's listen. Here's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If you want the music to survive, teach it to the kids. That's what they're doing in high schools across the Rio Grande Valley.

JUAN LONGORIA JR: One, two...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Here in the band hall at Los Fresnos High School in the southernmost tip of Texas, the award-winning student ensemble, Conjunto Halcon, is polishing a song for an upcoming competition.

LONGORIA: Do it again harder.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Vocalizing).

LONGORIA: But you didn't do the filter, right? Yeah?

BURNETT: Looking sharp onstage in maroon coats, black cowboy hats and boots, Conjunto Halcon has been the winningest student ensemble in the Valley, which means it's the best in America.

LONGORIA: One, two...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The director is Juan Longoria Jr., 44, a renowned accordionist in his own right. He started the program here at Los Fresnos a decade ago with 13 students. Last semester, he had 100.

LONGORIA: We work with drums, bass, bajo quinto, bajo sexto, accordion, vocalist. We'll add sometimes a saxophone, the congas as well. For the most part, it's pretty much traditional conjunto, norteno, Tejano music.

BURNETT: Conjunto, norteno, Tejano - each one is a branch of the same musical tree. It's a danceable fusion of Mexican, European and American song styles that developed in South Texas and northern Mexico over the last 150 years. The accordion influence came from the polka bands of Czech, Polish and German immigrants. Today, conjunto is as familiar in the Rio Grande Valley as the spindly palm trees, flocks of green parakeets and orchards of ruby red grapefruit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Like the blues and bluegrass, conjunto is the music of working people, the music of everyday life.

LONGORIA: It's dance music. You have to feel that thump. You have to feel that want to get up and dance. And, you know, it's happy music.

BURNETT: Conjunto programs have popped up in at least a dozen schools in the Valley from Los Fresnos, up the Rio Grande to Roma and as far north as San Antonio. While students can earn fine arts credits, just like they do with marching band or mariachi, conjunto competitions are not yet sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League. Juan Longoria says conjunto is treated like a stepchild.

LONGORIA: To some people, conjunto music, it's not true music because it's not in paper. They don't see it as music because there's no sheet music involved.

BURNETT: Contemporary conjunto is getting mashed up with hip-hop and reggaeton, and its popularity is spreading to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods far and wide. Longoria has introduced some modern influences, but he tries to keep it traditional. And the students seem to like it that way.

ILIANA AGUILAR: It's like a variation of different styles. There's huapangos. There's cumbias. There's polkas. You know, it's all just, like, a Mexican - Tex-Mex type of style.

BURNETT: Iliana Aguilar is an 18-year-old bass player. Her dad played conjunto, as did her granddaddy. She plans to be a radiologist but keep performing this music that's in her heart.

AGUILAR: I feel like I'm taking part in my culture. And I feel like I can show, like, part of myself in the music. And so it's just a really nice kind of outlet to show my ethnicity.

BURNETT: A few miles from Los Fresnos is the town of San Benito that calls itself the birthplace of conjunto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The legendary Mexican acordeonista Narciso Martinez, regarded as the father of Tex-Mex conjunto, grew up nearby. This is one of the songs he recorded for Bluebird Records in a San Antonio hotel room in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: San Benito recently opened the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the only one of its kind. It's filled with artifacts collected by the late lifelong conjunto fanatic Ray Avila. For instance, there's a recreation of Ideal Records, the seminal recording studio in San Benito where early conjunto heroes cut their first records back in the '40s and '50s. Avila's daughter, Patty, runs the museum.

PATTY AVILA: This room here is the Hall of Fame room. The - most pioneers are in this room. We have Roberto G. Perez. We have Tony de la Rosa, Valerio Longoria.

BURNETT: The museum celebrates the music born a hundred years ago in the cantinas and dance halls across the valley, but it's anything but museum music. Conjunto has never been more popular. Avila says she hears it everywhere - on the radio and at quinceaneras and weddings.

AVILA: And it's just a lively kind of music, has a lot of emotions, you know, the sad stories, the happy stories. It just touches your heart. And I think that's why my dad, Ray Avila, just wanted to preserve that music and keep it alive for the young generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: That's 36-year-old Elisa de Hoyas on the squeezebox. She and her family band, The Texas Sweethearts, gave an impromptu concert at the Conjunto Museum. As an accordion teacher, she says the instrument has gained a sort of cult following among young people, propelled by the school conjunto programs, social media and competitions. De Hoyas, with her blue-streaked hair and incandescent smile, is a charismatic performer. She looks to the meaning of the Spanish word conjunto.

ELISA DE HOYAS: Conjunto, together. Conjunto, together - the kind of music you can do when you get together. That's what I want people to know, that it's a culture-rich, loving and storytelling music. We want to keep it going. I think that's what the beautiful part of it is.

BURNETT: As it happens, the recent grand champion of the 2023 Big Squeeze Contest, a statewide accordion competition, was 20-year-old Eligio Martinez. Where did he get his start? - the varsity conjunto band at Los Fresnos High School.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DE HOYAS: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: For NPR News, I'm John Burnett in San Benito, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DE HOYAS: (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.