Santiago Almedia, Sr., bajo sexto player, was born in Skidmore, Texas, on July 25, 1911. Almeida, along with accordion player Narciso Martínez, is best-known for his pioneering work in helping shape the early development of Texas-Mexican conjunto music.
Almeida was born into a family of farmers who played music during their free time. As a teenager, Almeida began playing the bajo sexto in his family’s band, La Orquesta Almeida, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley area. The bajo sexto is a twelve-string guitar, which is often used to provide rhythm and bass in conjunto music.
In 1935 Almeida joined accordionist Narciso Martínez, and the two helped forge the modern conjunto sound. Previously, conjunto music relied on the accordion for melody and bass notes, while small drums or other instruments provided rhythm. However, Santiago Almeida helped change this by playing rhythm and bass lines on the bajo sexto, thereby allowing Martínez to focus on performing more intricate melodies on the accordion. By 1936, at the Blue Bonnet Hotel in San Antonio, Almeida and Martínez began recording for Bluebird Records and cut their hit song “La Chicharronera,” a polka, widely regarded as the first commercial conjunto recording. Soon Almeida and Martínez became the “most imitated and sought-after conjunto musicians in South Texas.” During the mid-to-late 1930s Almeida and Martínez recorded almost sixty records. They continued to perform, primarily along the Texas-Mexico border, during the 1940s and recorded for the Ideal and Disco de Oro labels.
After World War II Almeida’s career began to slow down as his family grew. In order to make a living, Almeida and his family had to join migrant farm workers as they traveled northward following the crop harvests. Almeida eventually settled in the 1950s in Washington State, where he picked apples and other crops and performed odd jobs. Though his recording career had ended, Almeida continued to play at family and community functions. He also began teaching younger musicians to play the bajo sexto. In 1987 Almeida was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Antonio. In 1993 he received the Governor’s Heritage Award in Seattle, Washington, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Santiago Almeida, Sr., died on July 8, 1999, in Sunnyside, Washington. He was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 2005.