Música norteña grew out of música Tejana, or "Tex-Mex music," the music of Mexican Texans. The development of música Tejana is in turn interwoven with the history of its people from the 1700s to the present.
Without moving from South Texas, Mexican Texans have successively been citizens of Spanish Texas, of Mexican Texas, of the Republic of Texas, of the Confederate States, and of the United States of America. As a result, over the course of two centuries their music has evolved from a blending of early Spanish and Mexican music, French-European dance music styles filtered through Mexico, and Mexican and American popular music. In a cultural sense, from the 1700s until the early 1900s, the Tejanos were a Mexican provincial people, living in an isolated frontier area. Despite the Anglo-American political and economic domination of the area beginning in the mid-1800s, Tejanos retained their cultural ties with northern Mexico. But subsequently, Tejanos migrated from the farms and ranchos of South Texas to the urban industrial centers in Texas and throughout the United States.
Through the process of urbanization, and due to increasing pressures to adapt to the dominant society, Tejanos incorporated aspects of Anglo-American culture, but they resisted becoming a totally colonized and absorbed people. They maintained a regional Texas-Mexican culture that is reflected in their musical styles. Little is known about the beginnings of música Tejana. As settlement expeditions emanated from central Mexico in the 1700s and 1800s, Spanish, Creole, and mestizo soldiers and settlers brought their music and dances to the Texas frontier. There are many paintings and diary accounts of fandangos or dances held in San Antonio and South Texas through the 1800s, but they give little description of the sound of the music besides calling it "Spanish" or "Mexican." Small bands were composed of available local musicians who used whatever instruments were at hand. Violins and pitos (wind instruments of various types) usually provided the melody, and a guitar the accompaniment.
Historical information from the latter part of the century shows, however, that by the middle to late 1800s, Tejano musicians were playing Spanish and Mexican dance music less and were adopting a new European style that was trickling in from central Mexico. In the 1860s Maximilian, backed by his French army, ruled Mexico. In his court in Mexico City, and in garrisons throughout the country, the European salon music and dances of the time, such as the polka, waltz, mazurka, and schottische, were popular. These styles, disseminated from France, were taken up by the Mexican people in various parts of the country, but nowhere were they more enthusiastically embraced than in South Texas by the Tejanos. South Texas musical culture was similarly influenced by Germans who began immigrating to South and Central Texas in the 1840s. These German Texans also favored European salon music and dances. At times they would hire local Tejano musicians to play for their own celebrations. By the late 1800s, informal Tejano bands of violins, pitos, and guitars were almost exclusively playing European salon music for local dances. But taking root in this frontier area, far from its European and Central Mexican source, this music was being thoroughly adapted to the Tejano taste. At the turn of the century the locally performed polkas, waltzes, and schottisches could truly be called Tejano or "Tex-Mex" rather than European.
One of the most unusual styles of música Tejana to begin its development at that time is música norteña (music of the north), or "conjunto music," as it is often called. (Conjunto literally means "a musical group.") Música norteña embodied traits of Tejano music but also arose with the appearance of a relatively new instrument that was rapidly becoming popular among Tejanos on the farms and ranchos of South Texas. As a result, in the 1900s música norteña has become identified with the sound of the German diatonic button accordion. This instrument may have been brought and popularized by the Germans and Bohemians settling in Central Texas or by the Germans working in the mining and brewing industries in northern Mexico. Newspaper accounts show that by 1898 Tejanos in rural areas of the South Texas chaparral were playing their Texas-Mexican polkas, waltzes, schottisches, mazurkas, and redowas on a one-row, one-key accordion.
Norteña accordion music began as a solo tradition. The left-hand buttons of the instrument sound bass notes and chords, while the right-hand buttons give the consecutive notes of a simple scale. Since one person could play both melody and harmony on the accordion, it could substitute for a more costly band of musicians. Hence, partially for economic reasons, but also because of its sweet vibrato, the accordion gradually replaced the violins and pitos as the preferred instrument for dance music in rural areas. But because it was played around the ranchos for laboring people, the button accordion became associated early with working-class Tejanos. As more of them moved from the ranchos to the cities, the instrument was heard in the houses and cantinas of the barrios.
By the 1930s the popularity of the norteña style was such that accordionists, paired with guitarists or bajo sexto (a type of twelve-string guitar known in various parts of Mexico with lower bass strings and a different tuning) players, began recording their own ranch-style Tejano polkas. Following the lead of the guitarreros (singing guitarists) who were making "ethnic records" for American recording companies, the developing conjuntos also began commercializing their style and bringing nostalgia for the rancho to the city.
Although accordion dance music had been popular for some thirty years in rural areas, two men, Santiago Jiménez and Narciso Martínez, were responsible for pioneering the norteña style on recordings and radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Because of their popularity in recordings, their styles became models for a generation of musicians. Jiménez had a smooth, fluid style of playing the polkas and waltzes that he composed, and he emphasized the bass notes and chords of his instrument. Expanding his conjunto, he utilized a guitarist for harmonic accompaniment and added a tololoche or upright bass for a stronger bass line. Martínez, however, had a faster, more ornamented style than Jiménez, and emphasized the treble tones of his accordion. Rarely using the bass notes or chords of his instrument, he delegated the harmonic accompaniment and bass line completely to his accompanying guitarist. Both musicians used the newer two-row, two-key model of accordion.
In the 1940s, incorporating the singing tradition of the guitarreros into their music, these pioneer accordionists began to add song lyrics with duet harmonies to their instrumental dance music. The typical lyrics of lost love, often framed in a rural setting, seemed to reflect the working-class Tejanos' tie with the past on the rancho. By the 1950s música norteña was crystallizing into a mature style as a second generation of accordionists came to popularity in the cantinas, clubs, and dance halls. The conjuntos utilized new technology in their music and made some innovations, but to please their public they basically maintained the Tejano style.
Tony de la Rosa, from Sarita, Texas, became an extremely popular performer in that decade. He used the more versatile three-row, three-key accordion and was one of the first to add a drum set to his conjunto. Playing in the larger dance halls, groups like his needed more volume, so amplification was used for the four instruments that by this time had become standard in the conjuntos: accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and drums. Rosa's conjunto was one of the first of scores of groups to perform on what became known as the migrant trail. In the 1950s and 1960s, many poor Tejanos moved from Texas to jobs in agriculture and industry from California to the Midwest, thinking that a change of residence might bring a change in fortunes. Cities like Fresno, California, and Chicago, Illinois, accumulated large communities of transplanted Tejanos who would pay well to have conjuntos play for their weekend dances. After the late 1950s the conjunto of accordion, bajo sexto, electric bass, and drums, playing mostly polkas and valses rancheras (both with romantic lyrics), changed little, though its popularity grew. Flaco Jiménez, son of Santiago Jiménez, was the first to perform norteña music in concerts over the United States and Europe for general audiences and was enthusiastically received.
Through the late twentieth century the norteña style remained conservative and stable with minor refinements in electronic sound quality and recording techniques. This era is probably best represented by the style of accordionist Ruben Naranjo from the Corpus Christi area, who died in 1998. Música norteña has also had its own category for many years in the Grammy awards, and a perennial winner in the early 2000s was the long-popular group of Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte. See also CORRIDOS, MARIACHI MUSIC, TEXAS-MEXICAN CONJUNTO.