Bruno Villareal, accordionist, was born in La Grulla, Texas, on October 6, 1901. According to stories told by Narciso Martínez, "father" of Texas-Mexican conjunto music, during the 1930s Villareal lived on a ranchito three miles from Santa Rosa, at the north end of the lower Rio Grande valley. Although he was half blind, he walked every day into town to play his accordion for whatever money was offered. At times, he was also hired out to play at bailes de negocio or other kinds of celebrations. Villareal was nicknamed "El Azote del Valle" (the Scourge from the Valley) and is today still remembered by people as far north as Amarillo, where he once played in the streets with a tin cup attached to his piano accordion, an instrument he used from the late 1930s onward. He originally played a two-row button accordion, but switched to a piano accordion later in his career. In the early 1930s, conjunto players such as he used the left-hand bass and right-hand treble chord elements of the accordion.
Villareal was among the first accordionists to become popular in South Texas through phonograph records, and he made the first recording of the accordion in 1928. By the 1930s, often backed by a bajo sexto (twelve-string bass guitar), he was an acknowledged master. During this time música norteña or conjunto became the music of choice among the Mexican-American working class. This music enjoyed a great popularity in the area known to Mexicans as el Norte, the region bounded by South Texas and the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila.
Villareal apparently was the first accordionist to secure a long-term relationship with a major label. The OKeh label recorded him on June 12, 1930, and continued to do so for the next several years. Consequently, he is generally recognized as the first conjunto accordionist on records. His style was traditional, with almost equal emphasis on melody and bass. Villareal and fellow accordionists José Rodríguez and Jesús Casiano relied heavily on their left-hand, bass-and-chord elements for the accordion sets. This set them apart from Narciso Martínez, who began almost immediately to de-emphasize that side of the accordion in favor of more marked and better articulated melody lines at the treble end.
After World War II, Mexican-American music continued to evolve, and the accordion continued to play a central role. However, as some accordionists, such as Narciso Martínez and Santiago Jiménez, grew in popularity, others such as Jesús Casiano and Villareal, who were unwilling or unable to meet new musical challenges, all but disappeared from the commercial market. In his later years, Villareal lived at his home in Robstown. He died on November 3, 1976.
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Arhoolie Records, Music Excerpts, Liner Notes, and Photos (www.lib.utexas.edu/benson/border/arhoolie/arhoolie1.html), accessed February 15, 2009. Manuel H. Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
Genres (Conjunto, Tejano, and Border)
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