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Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)   animation

publicity photo of beto villas small band circa late 1940sMusic is a form of cultural communication, and the most powerful forms of music are those which are intimately connected to a people's fundamental attitudes toward art and life. Such musical forms are said to be "organically" linked to a people's everyday thoughts and actions; they correspond in some way to the most profound cultural rhythms of social life. Moreover, culturally powerful musics are "homegrown," in the sense that performers involved in musical creation are a part of the immediate community. Thus, the community does not passively receive its music from some outside source, but is actively involved in the creation and evaluation of that music.

Among Texas-Mexicans, two homegrown, culturally powerful musics emerged simultaneously in the 1930s, in the form of rival ensembles and their styles. One of them, a folk accordion style strongly associated with the poorer, working-class Texas-Mexicans, or tejanos, came to be known as conjunto (known outside Texas as música norteña). The other, which forms the content of this CD/C, has been known by various names--orquesta tejana (or simply orquesta), Tex-Mex, and, ultimately, La Onda Chicana (The Chicano Wave).

Julia! Julia! (Ranchera) [by José Verduzco]

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Delia Gutiérrez and Laura Hernandez -- Vocals.
Recorded January 1952
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

Forged in the midst of a society undergoing rapid economic and ideological transformation, orquesta played a prominent role in shaping the musical and cultural tastes of a group of upwardly-mobile Texas-Mexicans who made their first impact on tejano life in the 1930s. This group desired to become more rapidly Americanized and to be accepted by the Anglos, while it tended to look down on the culture of their less assimilated working-class peers. During its formative years -- the '40s and '50s -- orquesta played a particularly strong role in communicating a middle-class alternative to the conjunto and working-class culture generally. It was at this historical moment that the performers featured on this CD burst upon the scene.

photo of early string bandOrquestas existed among Texas-Mexicans prior to the 1930s, but with few exceptions these were rudimentary ensembles, the most common consisting of a violin or two, along with guitar accompaniment. Exceptions to this norm were the few genteel orchestras and string bands which existed in larger cities like Laredo and El Paso; but for the most part the makeup of early Texas-Mexican orquestas, such as they were, depended on the availability of often-scarce instruments and musicians (note: The Tejano Orquesta Tipica: 1920s and 1930s AR/Folklyric CD/ C 7014). In short, early orquestas were improvised ensembles that reflected the basic poverty of most Texas-Mexicans. This poverty was at least partly attributable to the subordinate position that Texas-Mexicans occupied in the system imposed by the Anglo-Americans after 1848, when a defeated Mexico finally acknowledged that Texas and the rest of the American Southwest were no longer part of its territory.

After almost a hundred years of oppression, the Texas-Mexicans finally began to acquire some economic and political power in the 1930s, as a small but influential group of upwardly-mobile Texas-Mexicans -- lawyers, teachers, small business people, craftsmen, white-collar workers -- began to project a spirit of equality with Anglos, while espousing an assimilationist ideology. Historian Mario Garcia has aptly called this group the "Mexican American Generation." The members of the Generation wanted to be known as Americans, even if hyphenated, as in "Mexican-American." At the same time, they began to aspire toward American cultural forms while loosening their ties with more traditional Mexican culture. However, due to the unyielding prejudice of the Anglos, the new Mexican-Americans ultimately settled for partial assimilation and the adoption of an ideology of biculturalism.

It was at this historical juncture, when the upwardly-mobile, bicultural Mexican American Generation first emerged, that the Texas-Mexican orquesta made its appearance. Its organization, however, was largely influenced by musical developments in both Mexico and the United States, where the modern dance orchestra had recently come into its own. The Texas-Mexican version was merely following the trend.

But being situated at the border between two distinct cultures, the Texas-Mexican orquesta, like its bicultural creators, inevitably took on a dual (bimusical) character. By performing music associated with Mexico and Latin America (including that of the conjunto orquestas) kept alive the tejanos' ethnic roots; by performing music associated with American dance bands, they satisfied the middle class desire to assimilate American culture. Thus, from Mexico and Latin America came the bolero, guaracha, rumba, and other genres; from the United States came the boogie, swing, and foxtrot.

La Hiedra (Danzón)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Isidro López -- Saxophone/Clarinet.
Recorded February 1960
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

publicity photo of beto villaThe first person to exploit the bimusical inclinations of the new class of bicultural tejanos was the "father" of orquesta tejana itself, Beto Villa, from Falfurrias, Texas. The son of a prosperous tailor, and a man with an assimilationist outlook, Villa organized his first band in 1932, a group which specialized in American big band music and whose name symbolized his generation's desire for inclusion in Anglo-American life, "The Sonny Boys." But Villa was only a high school student at the time, and he had to wait until World War II was over before he got his commercial break.

photo of armando marroquin working in his recording studio in the mid 1950sIn 1946, Villa approached Armando Marroquín, from Alice, Texas, who had just formed Ideal Records with partner Paco Betancourt. By this time, however, Villa had adopted a different musical strategy. He had abandoned his pursuit of American big band music -- at least temporarily -- and was concentrating on what was (and is) known as música ranchera ("country" music) -- historically a type of music associated with the mariachi in Mexico and the conjunto in the Hispanic Southwest. Of simple melody, harmony and rhythm, and with deep agrarian (ranchero) roots, this music has, since the 1930s, been juxtaposed in the minds of Texas-Mexicans against urban, sophisticated musics such as that of the big bands.

In the 1940s and '50s, musical sophistication was sometimes equated with "high-class" snobbery, an attribute working-class people usually ascribed to the upwardly mobile. A derisive cultural label, jaitón (from "hightone"), came into use to distinguish the latter from the simple, rustic lifestyle of the common people. It was out of this cultural distinction that two socioeconomically opposed musical symbols were born: ranchero vs. jaitón. The former was the music most Texas-Mexicans subscribed to, mainly in the form of the conjunto. By contrast, jaitón music, in the form of orquesta, became associated with the highpowered, assimilation-minded urbanites, who wished to downplay their own cultural heritage and join the American mainstream.

Sufriendo y Penando [Ranchera]

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Isidro López -- Saxophone/Clarinet.
Recorded March 18, 1960
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

Mindful that there was not enough of a purely jaitón audience to support the sophisticated, big band music he preferred, and having an astute sense for what would sell, Villa decided to invent a ranchero style for the new orquesta. Most likely, Villa knew that even jaitones still enjoyed ranchero music, as long as it was properly packaged (i.e., played by an orquesta). He thus begged Marroquín of Ideal Records to let him record a couple of polkas (the most traditional ranchero genre), convinced that he had a winning combination -- orquesta and ranchero. He even volunteered to bear the costs of production.

photo of paco betancourtBut partner Betancourt was skeptical: he didn't think Villa's orquesta was professional enough. In the end Betancourt finally agreed and [in October of 1947] Villa recorded his first two sides for Ideal. Side A was a polka, Las Delicias (RealAudio file | .au file) (the first selection on this recording), which showcased Villa's new ranchero style. The flip side featured a simple, also ranchero, waltz, Porque te Ríes. Marroquín then sent the first batch of records to Betancourt, who worked on the distributing end from San Benito, about 100 miles from Alice. Marroquín recalled in a personal interview that no sooner had he sent Villa's record to Betancourt than the latter called him back, saying, "Say, tell him to record some more." "Villa's record was selling in bunches," recalled Marroquín.

Las Delicias (Polka)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Beto Villa -- Saxophone.
Recorded November 1947
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

With the release of that first recording, Villa's position in Texas-Mexican music was assured, as a spate of hits followed, including such all-time favorites as Rosita Vals (RealAudio file | .au file) (with accordionist Narciso Martínez), Monterrey (RealAudio file | .au file) Las Gaviotas, La Picona, and Tamaulipas. Villa's folksy, ranchero style of polka had taken tejanos (jaitones and otherwise) and Mexican-Americans everywhere by storm, and his name and music quickly became legendary. In the late '40s and throughout the '50s, he drew packed houses wherever he performed, particularly in the public dance halls that became so popular throughout the Hispanic Southwest after 1948.

But Villa was not content with exploiting the ranchero sound that kept him locked in the traditional culture of working-class tejanos. As a member of the assimilationist, upwardly-mobile Mexican American Generation, he still yearned for a "high class" big band, of the type then in vogue among sophisticated urbanites both in Mexico and the United States. In 1949, he finally decided to take the inevitable step, according to Reymundo Treviño, a piano-accordionist who had been with Villa for years.

Monterrey (Polka)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Beto Villa -- Saxophone.
Recorded April 1949
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

"Beto made the orquesta real big," reminisced Treviño, "and those of us who couldn't read music, we were fired." Now leading a big-time touring orquesta that at times numbered as many as 12 musicians, Villa began to venture into more sophisticated musical realms, as he added an increasing number of boleros, marmhos, guarachas and other non-ranchero Latin American genres to his repertoire, not to mention a few American foxtrots and swings. All in all, by 1950 Villa had become much more bi-musically eclectic, mixing with great success what Marroquín described as the "ranchero and 'high class.'"

A good example of Villa's more sophisticated Latin American approach is Mambo #7 (RealAudio file | .au file) Villa realized, of course, that the polca ranchera was still his bread and butter, and he kept coming back to this tried-and-true genre, right up until his last recordings with Ideal. Even with the dependable polka, however, Villa at times deviated from his by-now folksy trademark, as is evidenced by the smoothly arranged polka Victoria.

Mambo #7

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Beto Villa -- Saxophone.
Recorded May 1950
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

photo of isidro lopezThanks to his prolific and eclectic recording career -- Ideal released over one hundred 78s and a score of LPs -- Villa maintained his grip on Tex-Mex music until the late 1950s. At this time, however, a younger group of dynamic orquestas began to overtake him. Among the latter, one man towers over all others -- Isidro López. While acknowledging his debt to Beto Villa, Isidro López nevertheless began immediately to break new ground in the orquesta tejana tradition (increasingly known after 1960 as Tex-Mex). The moment he began to record commercially for the powerful Ideal label, in 1954, he struck out in new directions.

Like Villa and most orquesta musicians, Isidro López attended high school, where he learned to play saxophone and clarinet. In fact, López even attended college for a year. Thus, although he always professed a strong bond with the lesser educated working-class tejanos, and often proclaimed special preference for their conjunto brand of music, López was nonetheless strongly influenced by the middle-class, bicultural ideology of his orquesta peers. These twin influences are reflected in his music.

Thus, from his working-class roots he inherited the canción ranchera, popularized in Mexico by the mariachi, in Texas by the conjunto. A type of song that often dwells on abandoned lovers and treacherous women, the canción ranchera has always been the special possession of the Mexican working class. In López' case, he recognized the great potential the ranchera held for the orquesta, and he exploited it to maximum effect. Adapting the mariachi style to Tex-Mex, López created what he has dubbed Texachi, a unique ranchero style that brought him tremendous success, in Texas and beyond. But true to his bicultural nature -- and a great innovation for his time -- López also mixed in on occasion a few rock-and-roll licks for special effect (as in the tune Mala Cara (RealAudio file | .au file)). And, like Villa and most orquesta musicians, López was capable of stepping out of the ranchera mold altogether and moving into the sophisticated or jaitón style, as in La Hiedra. (RealAudio file | .au file) But the ranchera remained always López' bread and butter, and he recorded hit after hit in this genre: Desilución, Díganle, Sufriendo y Penando (RealAudio file | .au file) Emoción Pasojera, and many others. Altogether, Ideal released over 60 singles and 8 LPs by López.

Mala Cara [Rock-Ranchera] (by Oscar Martínez)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Isidro López -- Saxophone/Clarinet.
Recorded September 1958
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

Beto Villa and Isidro López were the indisputable kings during the formative stage of the orquesta tejana, or Tex-Mex, tradition that Villa launched, and as leaders, they naturally encouraged their share of imitators, in and out of Texas. But other figures made significant contributions of their own to this culturally important music during the pioneering years of the '40s and '50s.

In Texas, a major contributor to the jaitón side of orquesta is Balde González, the blind pianist-singer from Victoria, Texas. From the beginning, González charted his own independent course, refusing to follow Villa's and López' lead into the working-class, ranchera style that those two contemporaries had popularized. Instead, from his initial entry into the orquesta field, he came to represent the most jaitón elements of Texas-Mexican music and society. As such, González quickly became known for the smooth, crooner style that he used with considerable commercial success in the performance of his specialties, the romantic bolero and the foxtrot (which he usually sang in Spanish). Among González' most popular tunes are his boleros, some of which he composed.

No Te Preocupes por Mí (Bolero) (by José V. Franco)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Balde González -- Piano and Vocals.
Recorded January 1952
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

Many lesser figures dotted the musical landscape of the rapidly developing orquesta tejana during its formative years of the '40s and '50s. Most of these recorded for the dominant Ideal label at one time or another. Among the better known were Chris Sandoval, Mike Ornelas, Darío Pérez, Eugenio Gutiérrez and an Arizonan, Pedro Bugarín. Bugarín is an interesting figure because in certain aspects he represents the Mexican-American orquesta as it developed beyond the pale of Tex-Mex influence. Thus, some of his arrangements and style of delivery are more aligned with the orquestas from Mexico and Los Angeles, while in other respects he took his cue from Beto Villa's example (compare the Tex-Mex polka, Los Comentaristas, (RealAudio file | .au file) with the mambo, Doña Chona (RealAudio file | ). .au file) In fact, it was through his imitations of the latter's ranchera style that he gained popularity among Texas-Mexicans in the 1950s.

Los Comentaristas (Polka)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Pedro Bugarín -- Vocals.
Recorded January 1953
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)
Doña Chona (Mambo)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Pedro Bugarín -- Vocals.
Recorded June 1953
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

Eugenio Gutiérrez is an interesting historical figure because, along with Beto Villa, he recognized the importance of the conjunto in the musical activities of the Texas-Mexicans, and the opportunities that existed in grafting the two rival styles together. Thus, he and Villa both took steps early on to combine the two ensembles, Villa recording several tunes with the "father" of the modern conjunto, Narciso Martínez (e.g., Rosita Vals (RealAudio file | .au file)), and Gutiérrez teaming up with Pedro Ayala, another notable figure in the conjunto tradition.

The attempts by Villa and Eugenio Gutiérrez to combine orquesta and conjunto were commercially motivated, of course. But they also signaled a recognition, however unspoken, that orquesta and conjunto represented two sides of the same cultural coin. Thus, while at one level they may have symbolized two distinct (and opposed) class lifestyles, at another level they signified a common ethnic heritage. And the link that tied them together was the ranchera style that both shared.

In summary, during its formative years orquesta essentially reflected the ambivalence of the Mexican-American Generation. This ambivalence was perfectly mirrored in the many stylistic faces of orquesta. In its ranchero aspects, for example, it reconnected the upwardly mobile tejanos with their ethnic, working-class roots, which they found difficult to cast aside. In its efforts at sophistication, orquesta satisfied tejanos' desire to assimilate middle-class culture. At yet another level, Latin American music, generally, reinforced their Hispanic identity, while American music strengthened their push toward Americanization. Finally, all of these disparate styles, amalgamated within one single orquesta tejana tradition, symbolized the conflicting currents that swirled around the Mexican-American Generation.

Events during the 1960s changed the political and cultural equation, and, again, orquesta responded accordingly. In the process, it entered into a second stage of development as a new generation of performers charted a new musical course. This second stage of orquesta tejana saw the consolidation of the ranchero and sophisticated, as well as Latin and American, into one seamless bi-musical sound that came to be known as La Onda Chicana.

In many ways, the successful consolidation of so many distinct styles reflected the nationalistic spirit of the Chicano Power Movement that swept through the Southwest in the late '60s. Imbued with this spirit, Chicanos tried to sweep aside internal class and regional differences and to present a unified Chicano cultural front. This powerfully unifying impulse affected musical culture, and orquesta responded with vigor. It moved rapidly toward a synthesis of all the disparate elements that had been wanting to coalesce during the formative years -- ranchero vs. jaitón, Mexican/Latin vs. American, conjunto vs. orquesta and simple vs. sophisticated. In the new orquestas all of these were apt to be combined -- within the same piece!

photo of little joe of little joe y la familia Leading figures in the second stage of development include Sunny and the Sunliners, Freddie Martínez, Agustín Ramirez, Latin Breed, Jimmy Edward, Tortilla Factory, and the most important of the new generation orquestas -- Little Joe and the Latinaires, known after 1970 as Little Joe y la Familia. The latter group was particularly successful in simultaneously synthesizing the ranchero/jaitón and Latin/American horizons, and it earned the enthusiastic support of Chicanos from Texas to California.

The dramatic developments that took place during orquesta's Onda Chicana phase deserve their own in-depth presentation. However, that is beyond our present intent, and we must leave such a labor for another occasion.

Meanwhile, this CD/C introduces to a general audience outstanding performances from the formative years of this influential Texas-Mexican tradition. The listener will note the wild variety of genres and styles, which range from orquesta-conjunto combinations (Beto Villa, Narciso Martínez, and Rosita Vals (RealAudio file | .au file)) to the suave sounds of Balde González' No Te Preocupes por Mí (RealAudio file | .au file) and Pedro Bugarín's forward-looking, jazzy mambo, Doña Chona (RealAudio file | .au file) Orquesta tejana has received little notice from students of American ethnic cultures. Hopefully, this introduction can bridge the gap by bringing one of America's most dynamic ethnic music traditions to the attention of a wider public.

Rosita vals

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Narciso Martínez -- Accordion; with Beto Villa -- Saxophone.
Recorded April 1949
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Ideal/Arhoolie CD 368
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years (1947-1960)

(Manuel Peña, California State University, Fresno, California - January, 1992)

Original recordings produced by Armando Marroquín between 1947 and 1960 for IDEAL Records.

Re-issue produced by Chris Strachwitz
Edited by Manuel Peña and Chris Strachwitz
Notes by Manuel Peña
Cover painting by Jesse Almazan
Cover design by Wayne Pope

Liner notes courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Orquesta Tejana: The Formative Years. Ideal/Arhoolie CD-368

Materials copyrighted by Arhoolie Records.
Presentation of these materials on UT Library Online by the General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin was made possible under a limited license grant from the creator who has retained all copyrights to the works.


Return to  Border Cultures: Conjunto Music - Index Page

Arhoolie Records: Tejano Roots
The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music / Orquesta Tejana: the Formative Years / San Antonio's Conjuntos in the 1950s / Narciso Martínez / The Women

Arhoolie Records Exhibit: Part 2
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings / Narciso Martínez "El Huracan del Valle": His first recordings 1936-1937


Last updated: March 5, 2004.
Created by: Craig Schroer - Electronic Services Librarian
Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin
Please send comments to: schroer@mail.utexas.edu

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