16 Early Tejano Classics
Arhoolie Folklyric CD 9010
It truly was a red (and every other colour of the spectrum) letter day for lovers of post-war Tejano music when Chris Strachwitz acquired the extensive archive of the Ideal label out of Alice (and latterly San Benito), Texas. Much of this has already been restored to print, while endless hours of choice material awaits in the vaults. Eldorado indeed. Long before this acquisition, though, he was producing an ongoing vinyl series documenting the history of this hybrid music which developed along the Texas-Mexican border.
My first acquaintance with the stunning Conjunto Bernal came, as I'm sure it did for many others, via that Folklyric series already alluded to above. Arguably, perhaps one of the most significant releases was Folklyric 9049, the vinyl adjunct to Manuel H Pena's excellent volume The Texas-Mexican Conjunto (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Chris Strachwitz had already by that date set our feet a-racing and hearts a-pounding with a vast quantity of issued material by older accordion stylists such as Narciso Martinez and Flaco's father Santiago Jinenez. For, believe it or not, Folklyric 9049 was Volume 24 (yes!) in the series. It showcased two outstanding polkas which really made me sit up and lean forward. The first was a reprise (it had been on Volume 13 also) of Atotonilco by Tony de la Rosa, featuring a degree of staccato almost unrivalled since the balmy recording days of John J Kimmel. The other was Conjunto Bernal's Choo Choo Train, a brassy, sassy, way over-the-top imitation of a steam train chugging along full of harmonic discord and fluidly imaginative fill-in runs that sounded impossible to finger. No black harp blower ever evoked a locomotive any better.
But that's old personal history; this Conjunto Bernal CD is now. Had you never before heard of Paulino Bernal, from the very first sixteen bar instrumental introduction you would immediately recognise that here, indeed, was an accordion player extraordinaire. (sound clip). With his trills, diminished chords that would sound more at home in the Middle East, rapid fire chromatic triplets, incredible mastery of keyboard, and complete bellows control, Bernal wordlessly proclaims himself a musical genius. He told Manuel Pena:
I always liked to dig deeper and deeper into the accordion. I found out that all the keys are there, in the accordion. I set out to play in keys that were not used. I began to play in those and to make them my principal keys ... (page 91)His incredible technique is ubiquitous: in the weird series of chords which terminate Castigame; in the co-ordination of bass buttons with melody hand as heard on La Margarina; in the lush, expansive chords behind the vocals on La Ultima Palabra. But Paulino is quite capable of emulating the previous generation, who recorded before his birth (in about 1939). Cosquillitos is just such an old-style polka, played flawlessly. Truly wonderful (sound clip).
The line up of accordions bajo sexto, bass and basic drum kit is pretty standard throughout, with all the boleros featuring added maracas, and La Turicata, in the post-war Monterey tradition, accommodating a busy sax (sound clip). The bajo sexto, played by Paulino's brother Eloy, is solid throughout, occasionally as on Melinda, coming to the fore. So too is the drummer rock steady, but once in a while, as on Quiereme un Poquito for instance, he will add a rather jarring syncopated passage.
Only the polkas are wordless. Rancheras, boleros and other rhythmic forms carry variations on the usual tales of love, both reciprocated and unrequited. Practically all of the vocals feature the conventional (for the tradition) baritone and tenor duet harmony. Paulino and Eloy fulfil those roles most of the time, although Strachwitz notes that Ruben Perez or Manuel Valdez may sometimes be present. And, in fact Paulino is unlikely to be singing on several of the tracks. On La Coneja, Viente Anos and others the accordion is so busy with exciting runs behind the vocals that it's hard to believe that Paulino can possibly be responsible for both lines. When we may be certain of his presence as vocalist, as on Voy Perdiento and La Ultima Palabra, a pair of duets with Carmen Marroquin, the accompaniment is confined largely to either chords or rudimentary twiddles.
I lament the fact that Chris Strachwitz appears to have settled on sixteen tracks as standard for his Tejano series, which may leave some UK purchasers feeling short changed. Certainly, their value for money is lower than those earlier 24 track volumes, but the reality is that the import surcharge adds several pounds onto the US retail price. But don't be deterred. There is a wealth of excellent (and some truly outstanding) music contained in these CDs, and I wouldn't hesitate to commend them as worthwhile investments for a damned good time.
Keith Chandler - 3.4.98
Eloy Bernal was killed on April 22nd 1998 when his tour bus flipped over near Corpus Christi, Texas. He was 61. He and his brother Paulino began performing in 1952 as Los Hermanitos Bernal and within a decade were the nucleus of the seminal El Conjunto Bernal, reviewed above, which had hits for Ideal Records and made a major impact on Tex-Mex music with their inovative genius and polished sound and vocal harmonies.
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