Orquestas Tejanascan be traced to the nineteenth century orquestas típicas of Mexico, five-to-seven-member folk ensembles linked to the rural mestizo population. The musical instruments these groups played included one or two violins, a psaltery, contrabass, bajo sexto or guitar, and mandolin. The típicas often provided the accompaniment for singing duets. String and brass orquestas Tejanas also existed in Brownsville, El Paso, Laredo, and San Antonio in the nineteenth century, often providing musical entertainment for the Mexican-American middle class. In the early twentieth century La Orquesta Fronteriza from El Paso was representative of this important musical tradition within the Texas-Mexican community.
The 1920s ushered in an orquesta style that featured horn instruments such as trumpets and saxophones. Los Rancheros from Houston was one of the first of the modern era orquestas Tejanas that would evolve over time as a synthesis of ranchero and jaitón (country and high class music), a unique bi-musical tradition. During the 1930s, however, the orquesta drew its inspiration from the popular American swing bands, for the time rejecting Mexican music. By the end of World War II, the infatuation with the swing band sound ended, and a revival of Mexican music began within the orquesta. The new orquesta emphasized the ethnic polca but added “Afro-Hispanic forms such as the bolero, rumba, and danzón.”
From the late 1940s through the 1950s, at least a dozen orquestas based on Villa’s model found success. Two of the most successful were headed by Balde González, who leaned toward the jaitón style, and Isidro “El Indio” López, who leaned toward the ranchero tradition. Another important orquesta was headed by the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Ventura Alonzo, who had formed Alonzo y sus Rancheros in the 1930s as a ranchero-style group but had evolved in the 1940s into a full orquesta. Ideal, Falcon, and other Mexican-American record companies sustained the orquestas by making them commercially successful within the Texas-Mexican community.
In the 1960s a new generation of orquesta leaders contributed to the ever-evolving tradition. Among them were José María de León Hernández of Little Joe and the Latinaires (later renamed La Familia), Ildefonso (Sunny) Ozuna of Sunny and the Sunglows (later Sunny and the Sunliners), Agustín Ramírez, and Freddie Martínez. Each of these musicians added uniquely to the orquesta tradition. Little Joe was instrumental in forging the Onda Chicana, a musical style that evoked connections between the Chicano movement and complex orchestrations of ranchero and jaitón to create a bi-musical polca-ranchera style that resonated with the a new generation of listeners. His recording of “Las Nubes” became an “anthem of the Chicano Generation.”
By the 1980s orquestas Tejanas gave way to a new generation of musicians attuned to the music videos of MTV and to the introduction of the synthesizer as an instrument. Thus a new musical tradition known simply as Tejano began to evolve. The musicians and groups working under the Tejano rubric have included the late Selena, Emilio Navaira, El Grupo Mazz, La Mafia, and others. While these musicians have to varying degrees continued to play the polca-ranchera of the Onda Chicana orquesta era, they have successfully employed the balada and pan-latino cumbia concepts, the latter with both rap and reggae ingredients.
The contributions of the most important orquestas Tejanas have been preserved in compact disc (CD) recordings. Tejano Roots: Orquestas Tejanas (1947–60) includes the work of Beto Villa, Balde González, Mike Ornelas, and numerous other important precursors to the current period. Another important CD is Texas-Mexican Border Music: Orquestas de Cuerdas which focuses on the string orquesta, a variation of the orquesta típica.