The Family Roots of Conjunto: Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca
Flaco & Max. Legends & Legacies.
2014. Smithsonian Folkways.
Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca are two of the most famous artists in Texas Mexican (Tejano) conjunto music. But they’re also both the sons of legends as well. Flaco’s father, Don Santiago Jimenez, was a pioneering accordionist, singer, and songwriter in Tejano music, and Max’s father, Max Baca, Sr, was also a great accordionist and bandleader, though based out of his native New Mexico, rather than Texas. Both Max and Flaco are actually third-generation accordionists, as their grandfathers played as well. For both artists, this is a family business, so it’s a real pleasure to hear them both going back to their family repertoires on their new release on Smithsonian Folkways: Legends & Legacies. Together, Flaco and Max make up the classic duo that is at the heart of all conjunto music: the three-row button accordion and the bajo sexto (a large stringed instrument somewhat similar to the 12-string guitar). Both artists, Flaco on accordion and Max on bajo, are considered among the very best in the world and have become ambassadors both for their music and for the instruments. So what you hear on this album is the very best Tejano conjunto music there is. Here it’s gloriously simple, but also devilishly complex, tied to the family roots that sustain it, and freed from the glitz and glamor of modern conjunto music (not that there’s anything wrong with a little glam in your accordion music!). The songs are rustic and heartfelt, drawn from their fathers’ songs, but also from classics of the genre. The songs, like most country music, are about lost loves, unrequited loves, and the love of drink.
The album is also an ode to fathers and to families, with great stories about how both Flaco and Max grew up in the dancehalls of the American Southwest, surrounded by seminal music making. Growing up in San Antonio, Flaco remembers his father playing Friday through Sunday night at the Gaucho Garden and working as a janitor during the day to support his kids. “He always wanted me around,” says Flaco in the liner notes, “and I wanted to be around him, because I loved the accordion, I loved how he played. I used to check out everything. I took care of him in some ways, and I packed his accordion in his Model A car. Then afterward, I started growing up a little more, and he decided to take me to where he played because I think he knew that I was ready to perform. It was like him taking me to Disneyland or something, you know, for me to go with him to where we played! It was a spontaneous thing, because I was just sitting on the side of him because he was playing at the dances.” Eventually, Flaco got invited up onstage and cause quite the fervor in the joint with his accordion playing, though he was too small to reach the mic (they had to put a case of Lone Star Beer under him to get him to reach). He was only seven years old.
Max grew up in New Mexico, and his father was responsible for pioneering much of the New Mexican Hispanic music that still exists today, though there clearly have always been ties with the Tejano community in Texas. I interviewed Max Baca over the phone at his house in San Antonio a little while back, and he talked about the fascinating story of his father’s music and his father’s influence on “chicken scratch” music (the music of Southwest Native Americans). Here’s an excerpt from that interview with Max Baca:
“I remember as a kid growing up, playing at different festivals and events, especially the fiestas at the Indian reservations. My dad would play and I was just a kid, I was maybe 6, 7 years old. I was tagging along with my dad, he had me go with him to gigs and by the time that I was 8, I was already playing the bajo, I was already playing the bass. I was actually my dad’s bass player, and that’s how I got into the music. My dad would say, “Okay, here’s the bass guitar and learn it! I need a bass player. We need you. We’re not going to pay another musician, I’d rather pay you.” We all contributed: me and my brother were part of my dad’s band as well, plus my uncle. It was kind of a family band type thing. My uncle played the drums and my other uncle played the bajo. I was the bass player and my brother was the back-up accordion player for my dad. My brother would play accordion and my dad would grab the trumpet. It was pretty cool, a different sound, accordion and trumpet. They would sound beautiful together, harmonizing.”
Living in such a multi-cultural society, there were many ties to Southwest Native American culture. In blood, but also in music. Here’s Max on his father’s influence on chicken scratch music:
“I remember going to festivals, or fiestas rather, when I was playing in the afternoon and then we’d always play the “baile” or the dance at night. I remember there was a couple of [Native] accordionists, and they would go to my dad and my dad would actually teach them a few pointers here or a few songs and that’s how they got started in the “chicken scratch” scene. Now there’s a lot of Native Indian chicken scratch. In Tucson, there’s quite a bit. My dad was a big influence on that because he had his band. His band was really popular and he had a big band. He had 2 accordion players, he had 2 sax players, he would grab the trumpet and would play with the sax players and they would have a kind of orchestra with the conjunto, it’s cool. Some of these Native Indians would pick up on it and before you know it, when I was maybe 12 years old, and we’d go back to play these festivals and they would be getting a band together and, of course they would never sing the songs because it’s another language. So, I noticed they would just play instrumentals and they would play the same songs and they would play them but instrumentally without the words. It was interesting and it was really cool and I think that’s pretty much how they do it nowadays too.”
“My dad was New Mexican, Indian, he had a little bit of these different influences… My dad, for some reason, he was a polka freak. He came out with polkas that were off the wall. Flaco Jimenez loved my dad’s polkas. They were just different. They had this really cool twist to them. They’d sound hard. hey were simple but they sounded kind of hard. It was a technique that he would use. Really catchy polkas and really, really catchy music. It’s funny because the native Indians, when they would dance my dad’s polkas, they would dance like the Germans. They would jump up and down, instead of like the Texans. The Texans would dance really slow, in a circular motion, clockwise and shuffling their feet but the native Indians would dance. They would actually jump; they would hop to my dad’s polka music! It was different. I have seen some of the German polka dancers. They hop like that. They jump and have little hops with it.”
Native Indian dancers, accordion riffs with no words, polkas you can’t stop thinking about, songs you can’t stop drinking to, and Germans lurking at the edges of the music, this was the roots of Tex-Mex accordion and bajo sexton, and these glory days live on in Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca. Long may they reign as the kings of conjunto!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of KITHFOLK, a digital roots music magazine based in the US. For more information and to read additional articles: www.kithfolk.com