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Oral Histories  

James Cotton
Bela Fleck
Arlo Guthrie
Buddy Guy
Flaco Jimenez
B. B. King
Alan Lomax
Willie Nelson

Flaco Jimenez

Flaco, could you talk about some of your earliest memories of music?

    Well, I started playing the accordion when I was about five years old. I come from a musical background — it's been like a family tradition to play this certain instrument, the diatonic button accordion. It started with my grandfather and my dad and kept on. My grandfather started with a one-row accordion. Then, in 1936, my dad started recording. And a lot of people consider my dad a pioneer of Tex-Mex or Conjunto music, with the influence, of course, of the polkas: the Germanic polkas and the Polish polkas.

Where did your father get his accordion?

    My dad bought an accordion in San Antonio. There were no Conjuntos at that time, and he managed to buy one and started translating or copying the oompah beat of the waltzes and polka from the German and the Polish who settled in this area around New Braunfels. He used to come to their dances to check out how they play.

When did it start to become Tejano? When did he start putting Mexican American rhythms into it?

    Well, I would say the Polka beat has been the same all the way through, of course, but he added a little taste of the Mexican flavor to it and started recording in Spanish lyrics. In 1936 he started recording with the bajo sexto, and then he changed to Lorenzo Caballero, who was a guitar player, so he added guitars to a bajo player, because he wanted to make it sound a little more modern. Lorenzo was the sidekick of my papa. My dad's first recordings were in 1936, for Decca Records. From then on, there was airplay, just local airplay. There was not a big explosion of the music itself. But then came some of the major-label companies—RCA, Imperial, Globe—so it expanded more. It was heard not just here in San Antonio—it went to Corpus Christie, Dallas or whatever. So that is why it expanded.

Your dad played public dances — can you talk about that?

    My dad started in house dances. There are so many stories he told me about just playing, birthday parties and celebrations of anniversaries or whatever. But they were house dances—they used to get the furniture out into another room to make space to dance. Then they went outside—they just put some water in the dirt and made it like a dance floor. And they would stay till like seven in the morning or two or three days just dancing and having a good time.

What are your first memories of learning to play the instrument? Did your dad teach you directly? How did you learn? And who did you like to listen to?

    Well, when I was seven years old, I used to observe his teaching. He used to teach young kids from the barrio. I was there all the time to watch what he was teaching. I caught on real fast. Whenever the student went home I picked up their accordion and I knew the tune. My first polka that I learned from him was "Viva Sagine," which is still a standard.

When did you make up your mind that you wanted to be a professional musician?

    When I first picked up the accordion.

When did you play your first professional job, for money?

    Well, my first professional job was when I sat in with my dad, at this place he used to play on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I was about nine years old, but I always wanted to be around him, and he wanted me to be around him, 'cause he knew I had the feel for learning how to perform, to play. So my first paid gig was when I sat in with him. I played about two or three polkas, and then the bass player, who was Ismail Gonzales, took me into the public with a big cup for them to put some money in - their pennies, nickels, quarters, whatever. It was just on Saturday nights. On Sunday, I went straight to the store and bought candy for everybody. [laughs] My brother and sisters, ya know.

Can you describe the heart and soul of Conjunto? What makes it so special?

    Conjunto music is a real happy dance music. It's just like country music: We have some truck-driving songs or sad songs like [singing] "Your cheating heart," but still we go more for happiness, to keep people dancing and having a good time. So if there's a sad song, we make it a happy song.

    Conjunto music was born here in the United States. Sometimes there is confusion—just because we come from Mexican descent doesn't mean it came from Mexico. Conjunto music in Mexico is going strong—they call it Norteņo. But sometimes they get confused, just imagine an accordion player playing "Viva Sagine" in a sombrero — it just doesn't fit. But you put on a Texan hat and play "Viva Sagine," it tells you it came from the United States.

Could you describe the innovations Valerio Longoria brought to the music? Why is he important to you?

    Valerio Longoria progressed a lot of Conjunto music because of his jazzy type of playing. When my dad played it, it was just straight traditional two-chord changes. And Valerio started to add a lot of progressions . So I respect Valerio for that. Valerio is really an inspiration — he is respected and known for progressive Conjunto. And then there's so many that came along, like Polino Bernal.

What was Polino's contribution to Conjunto music?

    Polino Bernal started in the right direction of progressions of Conjunto and vocals, 'cause he added trio instead of just duets. Conjunto is known more for duets singing, so he modernized the Conjunto sound.

What is the role of Tony LaRosa?

    Progressive, but more hard-core Conjunto — more danceable Conjunto.

What about you? What are you are trying to do?

    I started making Conjunto more progressive because of the versatility that I believe in. I believe that versatile things are more important then the same traditional scene. When I was in my teens, I used to tune into American music - to country. I used to listen to rock and roll when rock and roll started. So I decided, Hey, I think it's good to change it a little, and instead of just that Conjunto sound - it's still going to be Conjunto, but it's going to sound a little more rock-ish , more jazzier and more bilingual. I believe that bilingual music is more interesting, so people know what the song is about.

When you were young, did you get the Grand Ole Opry on the radio?

    Yes. I used to listen to Hank Williams, to Hank Snow, to even Tex Ritter and Gene Autry and all those movie stars that were singing.

And what about blues musicians? Are there any blues musicians you listened to and were influenced by?

    Well, I started doing some B.B. King on the accordion.

What do you like about his music?

    Well, he is a unique creator of the blues, which people all over the world know. But in my opinion, he is a master genius of the guitar.

    And if I could mention this guy, ya know, who really knows how to jazz the accordion up: Steve Jordan. He's really professional progressive accordion. So now the accordion itself is not just like "oompah, oompah," or "Lady of Spain" or "O Sole Mio." It's been changing as years go by. Now everybody jazzes up the accordion.

Who were the first musicians you recorded with outside the Conjunto tradition?

    My first experience of recording outside the Conjunto was with the late Doug Sahm. He was the one who introduced me to rock & roll; he was the one who said, "Hey, Flaco, let's go to New York and record this project with Bob Dylan and Dr. John." He had that feeling that Conjunto could fit in different types of music.

    Besides Doug, I recorded with Buck Owens, Dwight Yokam, Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones — so many, it would take two days. I really appreciate their help, to make people understand that there are channels among cultures.

What about the Texas Tornados? What part did they play in your own career?

    I think the Texas Tornados made a big boost for Tejano, for Tex-Mex, for Conjunto. The involvement for us of Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender — they call it a supergroup, ya know.

Tremendous, what they call crossover.

    Yes, and that's why we did those bilingual songs. It had different taste but the same feel.

    Unfortunately, we lost Doug — he died in 1999. We're still missing the guy, and I know it's hard to say the show must go on, but still, whenever I play in anyplace that I play, or just hang around with Augie Meyers or Freddy Fender, it seems like he's with us still.

Did you ever listen to Cajun accordion music? Is that now an influence on you?

    That really resembles Tex-Mex or Conjunto, because the accordion itself is involved — it's the lead instrument. I started checking out Cajun when I first heard Clifton Chenier. So, from then on I said, "Ah, man, what a happy music" The blend is not even just Cajun itself, it goes from zydeco to Cajun. Marc Savoy is another one, a good performer.

Clifton Chenier was called the King of Zydeco, and he played a different type of accordion. But what made him a great artist?

    Clifton Chenier was a creator of Cajun and zydeco itself. He had the feel to it, the charisma to it. In fact, I sat in with him quite a few times. It was fun. When Clifton and me played together, it was not playing. He was playing in Austin at the time, so he was courteous enough to invite me to jam in. I could see right away the friendship, ya know, to say, "Hey, man, let's jam, let's just have fun."

Why is somebody like Marc Savoy special to you? What do you like about Marc as a person, an accordion builder, and as a musician?

    I would say that Marc Savoy is a creator of his own style, and he is a great musician and accordion maker. He is a good person, really happy-go-lucky guy, a perfectionist, a good accordion player.

There is another tradition here in Texas that we really haven't touched on. I guess it's best personified by Little Joe. Can you tell us about what you think Little Joe's contribution to Tejano is?

    Little Joe has done a lot for Tejano music, for Conjunto music, for the whole scene in Texas. In not just Texas but all over the world now. And his contribution to the music has been tremendous, being he has played for not just old people or middle-aged people - that's what we're doing now — mixed audiences, young and old.

What about Lydia Mendoza? Why is she important to American music?

    Lydia Mendoza is one of the pioneers representing Tex-Mex music, Conjunto music, and because of her unique voice and all those years she's been in the business, I would consider her a pioneer as far as female vocalists are concerned.

Flaco, what is the future of your music? Are you trying to still expand into new horizons? Where do you want to take your music?

    I just take it one day at a time. Whatever offer comes or whatever country invites me to go and play my music, I'll be over there and do it.

How many countries have you played in? Can you name some of them?

    At first I started taking this music, which is Conjunto, to England, and then from there we jumped to Australia, we did Japan, we did Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain. And there is many more I cannot recall. But like I said before, if there's an invitation from any parts of the world, I'll try to be there.

    I have had some offers to go to Mexico and play. Of course, I haven't played in Mexico before, so if there's a chance or an invitation I will. But up to now it's been hard for me to penetrate in Mexico, being that I have played all over the world, and being that Mexico is just about two cases to get there [laughs]. I don't know why it's been hard, really. Sometime it's because of the record labels or syndicates or whatever. Because they know, being that I'm from the USA, and sometimes the record labels over there are not interested. There is no distribution in Mexico for Flaco Jimenez.

There must be kids interested in your music, because we saw a great group of high school students recently playing Conjunto. You must know of other young people carrying on this tradition.

    Yes. Nowadays there's a lot of young kids, they're picking up real quick the Conjunto sound. But still, it's not just the Conjunto, you know, it's lots of stuff. And I like to see young kids grow, to learn this kind of music. I know very well, it's not going to be just like I started, just the old-fashioned sound of Conjunto. So now when they start learning to play, they go by progressions right away.

One thing we ask of everybody is to define American roots music, what it means to them. Why is the concept of American roots music important, that we as a people understand each other's music?

    American roots music is the sharing and blending of different kinds of musics, like a brotherhood thing. It makes the world rounder when there's coordination.

More about Flaco Jimenez

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