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What is Tejano Music?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tejano music is a musical sound born in Texas among the Hispanic populations of that region. Also called Tex-Mex, it is often thought of as Texan or Spanish-Texan and represents the musical sound of the area. It runs the gauntlet of Mexican and Spanish inspired sounds, from mariachis and bandas, to accordions and string bands.

This music recalls the regional and class variations of traditional Spanish music, with modern orchestras, fiddlers and falsetto singers. It combines the folk, country, rock and blues of Texas to make a sound distinctively “Tex-Mex.” The music got its name and sound from the mixing of cultures as Mexicans settled north of the Rio Grande in Texas.

Tejano music, like most music around the world, mixes many different styles. It offers different compositions of bands, instruments, singers and sounds, and relies on the flute, guitar, drums and accordion. One popular instrument especially important in the rise of this genre is the bajo sexto, a Spanish 12-string bass guitar. Tejano began with a Spanish folk sound, emerged with polkas and waltzes, soon incorporated orchestras, and since the 1980s, it has involved the keyboard and the pop and rock influences of American popular sounds.

Of the three main types of Tejano music, Conjunto is the most popular. Conjunto music was created and defined by Narcisco Martinez in the 1930s when he brought the accordion into a prominent position in the Tejano sound, and combined it with a bajo sexto and a drum to form Conjunto. The second type, orchestra, introduces a brass section, along with an electric guitar and synthesizer. The third type, modern Tejano, mixes the other two forms, and introduces a more modern sound with heavy emphasis on the synthesizer.

This genre has its roots in 1745, when Spanish pioneers settled the Rio Grande valley. After incorporating European sounds in the 1850s, it began incorporating original songs into an array of folk and traditional music. The songs were often of a folk lyric vein, of hard times, love and class struggles. Starting in the 1920s, major record labels, such as Columbia, began selling recordings. Through promotion, distribution and the establishment of Tex-Mex record labels, Tejano music grew in popularity from the 1920s to the 1970s, when it because established as a major musical sound that gained “rock style” fans.

In the late 20th century, English was increasingly incorporated into the songs, and the music began assimilating an American country and rock sound. It grew in popularity through such acts as Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, La Mafia, La Sombra, Patsy Torres, and Selena. Tejano music can be heard across the world, and since the 1920s, it has been a vital sound in the area that gave its birth.

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Discussion Comments
By evafuentes — On May 28, 2012

Tejano music is from the Mexican origin population of Texas and is sung in Spanish. While Tex-Mex is not Tejano because Tex-Mex is bilingual, as in the Texas Tornados song, “Hey Baby, Que Paso.” Regional Mexican and Musica Tejana, not Tejano, are all-inclusive of the sounds of the different ensembles such as orquesta, conjunto, norteño, grupo, banda, mariachi, trio, tropical/cumbia, vallenato and includes Tejano. (Burr, 1999, Peña, 1999) Tejano music incorporates many standard evergreen Mexican music compositions in the ranchero style such as “Tu, Solo, Tu,” and “El Rey” by Jose Alfredo Jimenez. The name Tejano refers more so to a geographic area than a blending or mixing of cultures, since Mexican music created in Texas or the sounds of Mexican popular music as developed in Texas are now heard around the world.

Only a few Tejano bands play polkas or waltzes and they definitely do not have flutes. They predominately perform rancheras and cumbias with occasional baladas. The bajo sexto (no “n”) is a 12-string guitar developed in Mexico and is used as the traditional accompaniment to the button accordion in conjunto and norteño ensembles. According to Ramon Hernandez, recently uncovered photographs show that Valerio Longoria may have been the first accordion player to include the drums. Narciso Martinez is credited with the staccato style use of the melody buttons and the elimination of the bass buttons, with the substitution of the bajo sexto for rhythm accompaniment.

Los Lobos are from California, not Texas, and mostly sing in English as a review of their discography will indicate. Los Lonely Boys sing mostly in English and do not have rancheras or cumbias in their repertoire. La Mafia and La Sombra (with an “o”) do not sing country style songs. By the 1990s, some Tejano music performers did began to include English songs on their albums and artists like Joe Lopez, Ram Herrera, Emilio Navaira and Selena do receive airplay of their English songs on Tejano radio stations.

Conjunto is not necessarily the most popular, although it does seem to receive more attention due to the media’s focus on the accordion. Conjunto and orquesta are like two sides of the same coin and parallel the musical phenomena of country and western as two distinct ensembles with a similar fan base. Richard Spottswood documents the first sound recordings of Spanish language music by Mexican origin musicians on this side of the border. Academic research regarding Musica Tejana sound recording labels continues to expand with inclusion of additional labels such as Corona, El Zarape, and Valmon.

Here are some references if you want to learn more: “Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music” (1999) by Ramiro Burr; “Musica Tejana” (1999) by Manuel H. Peña; “Tejano Proud” (2002) by Guadalupe San Miguel; “Puro Conjunto” (2001) by Juan Tejeda and Avelardo Valdez; “Ethnic Music on Records: a Discography of Ethnic Recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 / 4 Spanish, Portuguese, Philippine, Basque” (1990) by Richard K Spottswood; “The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music” – Arhoolie Foundation.

By anon241145 — On Jan 17, 2012

Great article! It really helped me learn a lot about Tejano music. Thank you, wisegeek.com!

By musicshaman — On Sep 12, 2010

Does anybody know a good site to watch free tejano music videos online?

It doesn't have to be the top tejano music singles or anything, I just want some videos to show to my class so they can get a feel for it.

Any tips?

By LittleMan — On Sep 12, 2010

I recently ran across a showing of the Tejano Music Awards Fan Fair 2009, and I was really fascinated to learn about this genre of music.

I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, but I had never really come across tejano or conjunto music before.

It's really interesting though -- and I think that "Tex-Mex" is a perfect way to describe it.

By closerfan12 — On Sep 12, 2010

Cool article -- I had never heard of the term "tejano music". I'm from Seattle, so it's not like there are many tejano music radio stations around here.

It's cool how old this is though -- I wonder how the sound of the old tejano music compares to some of the newer songs?

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