This weekend, hundreds of people from across the state, and from as far away as Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State will be coming to Northern California to get a little taste of Texas. That’s because this weekend is the seventh annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in Sacramento, a celebration of Latino music from Texas that made its way across the West. Julie Caine and Lisa Morehouse visited a band playing the festival and bring us this preview.
The Gloria family – cousins, aunts and uncles – sits around a kitchen table in Modesto, doing what they always do: playing music together.
Thirty-year-old accordionist Albert Gloria remembers being a kid and watching his Uncle Beto’s band practice in the garage across the street.
“Instead of running around playing tag I’d just watch them,” Gloria says.
This band is called Texas Funk and they play at clubs and parties around Modesto. It’s made up of three generations of musicians: the younger ones were born in California, the older ones in Texas. The music they play is called Tejano Conjunto.
Tejano is the Spanish word for Texan, conjunto means ensemble. The music is a blend of Mexican ballads and German polkas, first brought together in Texas in the late 1800’s. The accordion is the star instrument; and it’s joined by bass, drums and a 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto. The lyrics often tell sad tales of broken hearts and forbidden love, but the rhythm is made for dancing.
Like the older generation of the Gloria family, many early Tejano Conjunto musicians and their relatives were migrant farm workers.
Ramona Landeros is the organizer of the Tejano Conjunto Festival. She grew up in the 1960s without child labor protections.
“My first job was picking cotton at the age of five,” Landeros says. “I remember reaching into the bud of the cotton plant and my hand was so small that it would fit perfectly inside the cotton bud.”
Originally from Texas, her family traveled across the West working in fields and living in migrant labor camps under terrible conditions. She says their music made life bearable.
“Dad used to say, ‘la música que te trae de la muerte.’” In other words, music that would bring you back from the dead,” Landeros recalls. “After a long day’s work and you feel dead and then when they bust out the accordions, the guitars and the bajo sextos everybody would be outside, listening to the music and before you know it, people start kicking up dust dancing.”
These Tejano migrants brought their music with them as they traveled, which is how it came to to California. That’s what gave Landeros the idea of creating a festival celebrating the music.
“I just thought God, it would be nice to have something out here because I know so many Tejanos in Oregon and Washington and Idaho, all the places that I’ve been and that we’ve worked,” Landeros says. “I knew there was always Tejanos that ended up staying in those places and I thought well, if I was to organize a festival here in Sacramento, I bet people would come.”
And she was right. Now in its sixth year, the festival’s grown to three days. It attracts people from all across the West, keeping the music alive far from its roots. Songs get passed down from generation to generation, learned by ear rather than by sheet music. Younger players add their own touches to old standards, keeping the music vibrant.
But Tejano music isn’t just played around kitchen tables. It’s a major genre that shares a Grammy Category, and has its own pantheon of stars. One of them, Flaco Jimenez, is headlining this weekend’s Tejano Conjunto festival.
Texas Funk bass player Robert Gloria says the festival is like a home away from home for a lot of Tejanos. “This is probably as close as it gets to it being in Texas where they have these types of events all the time,” he says. “In Sacramento, they have this event every year, so people from other states that can’t make it to Texas they come to California.”
Janie Gloria Casucci, the singer for Texas Funk, says they come because the Tejano identity is so strong. She’s spent most of her life in California, but she still calls herself Tejana.
“Born Tejana, die Tejana,” she says, laughing. “It just doesn’t go away, just because you move to a different state,that doesn’t change anything, it’s in your heart.”
And you need heart to play this music, says her nephew Albert.
“We’re doing it for the love,” he says. “If we wanted to do it to be famous we wouldn’t be doing this kind of music. We do it, we keep the tradition going, for the love of the music we’ve been taught by our parents, uncles, aunts, everybody.”
The Tejano Conjunto Festival runs through Sunday in Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Plaza. Click here for a schedule of the event.