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Guarded by posters of rock and pop legends like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Michael Jackson, a group of young men from Palmview High School worked on perfecting the sounds of their region that holds strong routes throughout South Texas and Mexico since the 19th century.
“It has a good beat to dance to, to listen to,” said 17-year-old Omar Garza, an accordion player with La Tradicion, PHS’s conjunto group.
After years of perfecting the mariachi scene for high schoolers, the La Joya school district struck another chord in creating classes and later individual conjunto groups for its three high schools, addressing the desire among students to get involved in another popular music genre celebrated in the area.
Conjunto music, as La Joya High School conjunto instructor Cecilio “Chilo” Garza explained, is a style that was born out of German influences in the 19th century.
“This region has its own style of conjunto,” Garza explained. “But a lot of it came from polka music and the exposure of the accordion. This is our folk music.”
The main elements of the conjunto (meaning being together) are the bajo sexto (a 12-string bass) or a bajo quinto (a 10-stringed bass), the accordion, an electric bass and drum kit. Over the years, the inclusion of a singer has been incorporated.
The genre melts into other styles, most popularly known as norteño music, which is often associated with musicians like Ramon Ayala and Flaco Jimenez.
Narciso Martínez, one of the most well-known conjunto artists who hailed from San Benito and is typically known as the father of conjunto music, began recording conjunto music in 1936 playing the accordion.
Mario Saenz Jr., who taught music in the La Joya school district since 1978, grew up listening to conjunto music with his father, Mario Saenz Sr. who’s known for his work with playing the bajo sexto.
The elder Saenz, now in his 80s, has been playing the bajo sexto since he was about 13 years old. He, along with Wally Gonzalez, an accordion legend, will join La Joya students on the stage this weekend at the district’s third annual Conjunto Festival at the Peforming Arts Center. The event, to be held tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m., will feature the two local legends as the grand finale alongside La Joya students.
The festival will also allow the established musicians to share stories of their history in music with the audience in between performances from each of the district’s three conjunto groups, PHS’s La Tradicion, Juarez-Lincoln High School’s Sol and La Joya High School’s Los Diamantes.
Previously, La Joya students have shared the stage with accordion players Paulino Bernal and Joel Guzman.
“It’s amazing that they like this stuff,” said instructor Garza in between a jam session with his students on Monday. “But sometimes it’s like they like this music more than I do.”
The conjunto program was born out of the mariachi program in 2000 and currently has about 75 students in the intermediate and varsity programs, said Emilio Cantu, LJHS’s mariachi director.
“It’s been giving other kids a chance that aren’t in mariachi or folkorico or football to do something,” said Saenz who has worked as a consultant for the La Joya school district since retiring a few years ago.
Garza, a graduate of LJHS, said the school had conjunto groups when he was a teenager, but were extracurricular activities outside of school. For students to get school credit for a hobby they enjoy is appealing to many students.
“Not everybody is this gifted,” Garza said. “This is good for them.”
The program here is growing, said PHS conjunto director Javier Loya.
“The younger students look up to them,” he said. “Twice a month, they play at lunchtime and I can see the faces of the younger students that want to be a part of the conjunto group. It’s growing immensely.”
And for these students, the music isn’t just a class assignment.
“It’s life,” said LJHS singer Obed Rodriguez. “This is a tradition we have.”
Erik Ozuna, 17, who has been playing the bajo quinto for nearly three years, will be performing in the grand finale with the evening’s special guests.
“It’s a great honor knowing how good they are and I hope that one day I can be like them,” he said.
To perform on the same stage as well-known conjunto musicians in front of peers and the community is something most students hadn’t ever thought would happen.
“It’s just the best,” said accordion player Andy Garcia. “They’re the best of that music era; you couldn’t be with anyone better.”
Throughout the district, conjunto students are trying to make a name for themselves. Saenz’s students at JLHS will be performing an original song, and at PHS, some of the students are recording their own records.
Senior Eliazar Garza, a singer and bajo quinto player, recently recorded his own album and hopes to pursue music after graduation.
“My uncles have been playing music for a long time, my parents and everyone,” he said. “It runs in the family, I guess.”
For La Tradicion, that’s mostly true. Eliazar’s cousins, Omar and Zack Garza, who are siblings, are in the group as an accordion player and singer.
Zack Garza, 15, has been performing since he was 8 across the country. He initially was a member of the junior varsity conjunto band, but was moved to the varsity program to assist in singing.
Omar Garza was the runner up in last year’s Texas Big Squeeze competition and hopes to win the contest this year. But while his ultimate goal is to play major league baseball, performing conjunto music is a good distraction.
“It’s cool because you get to hang out with your friends and play new music everyday,” he said. “I love music. It’s in my blood.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.