Scott Ball / Rivard Report
First cousins Juan and Armando Tejeda had been thinking about recording their accordion and bajo sexto duets for years, but kept putting it off. Finally, when they began a dedicated recording project in 2016, a bigger issue threatened to prevent them from finally committing to tape the songs they had known, loved, and mastered over decades.
“I had a craniotomy,” said Armando, who survived an aneurysm and subsequent brain surgery. After his year-long recuperation, the cousins, who consider themselves to be as close as brothers, finally finished recording.
With Armando healthy again, the duo is set to release the result of their efforts, a 17-song concept CD titled Raíz Xicanx, at the Guadalupe Theater on Saturday, Nov. 17. The release is a tardeada, or afternoon party, free and open to the public, in keeping with Mexican tradition.
Extensive liner notes by Juan and a song cycle that traces the many traditions and influences of distinctive South Texas music makes Raíz Xicanx a virtual Conjunto music compendium.
The songs range from indigenous guitar-and-drum music to corridos written by Juan’s father Frank during his World War II military service. Two original songs by Juan were penned as tributes to his daughters Maya Quetzalli and Zitlalli.
Juan calls the latter song, Zitlalli Aztlan Libre, an example of “Indigenous/Conjunto” fusion, which could serve as a description of the entire album. Raíz Xicanx traverses the range of local and European-derived musical styles that contributed to Conjunto music, a blend – or mestizaje – of accordion-based Polish polkas and mazurkas, German waltzes and schottisches, with Mexican traditional music based on the bajo sexto, a six- (or 12-) stringed guitar.
The Chicano identity is based on a similar blend of ethnicities, Juan said, and an acceptance of ethnic complexity despite origins in the troubled era of colonialism.
“We had to resist, but adapt, in order to survive,” Juan explained. “In the process, we created these new forms of cultural and artistic expression.”
The title of the CD can be literally translated as “Chicano Root,” which Juan said is intentionally singular, rather than the usual plural form of “roots music.”
“Though we have our native roots, we can’t deny that the Spanish came over and that we’re mixed,” he said. As a result of the union of the Old World and the New World, he said, the Chicano people united the blood of “white and black, red and yellow” peoples, and their music reflects this global mixture.
“I wanted to show that also, from this one root, this Native American root, it grew into having many different roots from cultures all over the world that form part of who we are,” he said.
Juan and Armando also explained the use of the modernized term “Xicanx,” for its sense of inclusiveness to all communities, including the LGBTQIA community and those who prefer to avoid specific gender identities. Such acceptance and inclusion is a hallmark of the Chicano community, Juan repeated.
“Within our forms of cultural and artistic expressions, we unite all of the so-called races within the world with our blood, and all of our culture and arts reflect that mestizaje, that mixture,” Juan said.
A True American Music
Juan describes Conjunto music as “Americana,” a term usually reserved for indie rock and folk that recalls music of the southern United States and the “Countrypolitan” era of the 1970s.
But redefining notions of traditional music is nothing new for Juan, who has made a career of educating audiences while performing, and “speaking of the music as an expression representing our culture, and the heritage of our people,” as he describes it.
Pride evident in the 65-year-old Juan’s approach is due in part to his coming of age in the Chicano movement of the 1970s, said Cristina Ballí, executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
“Obviously that’s a big part of his influence and outlook,” Ballí said. “That shapes his work” both as a musician and as an academic, the combination of which has helped Tejeda establish Conjunto music as an important form of American musical expression, and a subject worthy of study and deeper appreciation.
“He is a musician, but an academic also, and an activist, so he has a lot of skills that came together,” she said.
Juan has been “a tremendous influence on the folk and traditional arts field on the national level, and he’s been THE – and I put that in capital letters – ambassador for Conjunto music,” Ballí said.
Ballí has inherited Tejeda’s creation, the Tejano Conjunto Festival, which will run for its 38th straight year in May at Rosedale Park. “By creating the Tejano Conjunto Festival, he brought a level of recognition and respect to our south Texas roots music and its people,” she said. “And that’s quite a legacy.”
And now, “Juan really is a cultural treasure here in San Antonio,” she said.
Speaking Through Generations
Juan recently retired from Palo Alto College, where he taught music for 14 years. He also established the college’s Center for Mexican American Studies and still lectures widely on the subject at festivals and conferences throughout the United States. Armando teaches education at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and is currently working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of the Incarnate Word.
Their careers in education fulfill their desire to give back to the community that helped form them, both said.
When he was 7 years old, Armando’s mother Alicia bought him a Sears guitar, which he’d use to play along with LPs of Conjunto bands his musician father Rogelio liked. At age 9, Juan took accordion lessons from none other than San Antonio music legend Santiago Jiménez Jr.
Both put down their instruments, due to racism they experienced as youngsters in school. “They made me feel ashamed,” Juan said of his fellow students and teachers. “Traditional Conjunto music was looked down upon as ethnic cantina music,” he explained, and said he stopped playing it outside of family gatherings, until college reawakened his musical desires.
Their duo act began in earnest in 1987, when they collaborated on a musical play at the Guadalupe Theater. Having the CD release at the same venue closes the circle on their decades-long effort.
Armando now plays a 1971 bajo sexto made by legendary San Antonio luthier Martin Macias. He considers his instrument akin to famous Stradivarius violins because of its superior sound quality and craftsmanship.
The instrument’s design holds yet another key to the inclusiveness inherent in their traditional music. During a recent practice session, Armando pointed out that the purfling – the inlay around the perimeter of the figure eight-shaped guitar body – has its origins in the Middle East.
Juan added, “All the string instruments are from the Middle East, they say,” emphasizing the fundamental interrelatedness of far-flung world cultures.
Armando agreed, “Our brothers are everywhere, not just a localized community. If we’ve taken on influences and been inspired by music all over the world, that means we love them, too.”
The record is “based philosophically, if you will, on love,” he said. “We love the music, we love our people, we love our family. Our music’s going to transcend many, many boundaries. We hope to share it all over.”
Juan’s lasting message, beyond “speaking to the generations through this recording,” is an ambitious goal: hope for a new and better world for his children, “based on love, justicia, respect, harmonía, y paz.”