Valentin Romero Jr. wipes invisible sweat off his brow when speaking of Rio Hondo, the sweltering Texas valley town -- population two thousand, twenty miles north of the Mexican border, twenty miles west of the Gulf of Mexico -- where his father and uncle were raised. Val's wife, Arly, born in the balmy Philippines, lays it out plainly: "I won't go there until they get air-conditioning," she says with a laugh. Indeed, in eighteen years of marriage, she has yet to visit.
Fortunately, Conjunto Romero has brought a little slice of that borderland and its music to Northern California, where Val Jr. (accordion and electric bass), his brother Alfredo (drums), father Val Sr. (bajo sexto -- a large twelve-stringed guitarlike instrument), and Uncle Lauro (accordion and electric bass) have kept the norteño flame burning since the younger siblings decided to take up music in 1998.
Norteño -- music evolved from accordions brought to the Texas borderland by German and Czech immigrants in the late 19th century -- is named for the Northern Mexican provinces where it slowly evolved into its current four-piece existence of accordion, electric bass, bajo sexto, and drums. The generic name for that quartet, conjunto, is also often used interchangeably with norteño. To further complicate matters, sometimes the line between Tejano (literally, a Texas-born Mexican) and norteño music can be tough to draw.
Or not. "There's no big difference," one player told me. "In Texas, they like to do more difficult stuff." And indeed, sometimes folks chuck it all and call the whole shebang "Tex-Mex."
Whatever he calls it, Val could've picked no better teacher than Tio Lauro. In the midst of his migrant-worker youth -- picking everything from sugar beets in Michigan to cotton in Mississippi -- young Larry was engaged in the latter when he and his father found an old Hohner two-row accordion in a furniture store. Thus began the adventure that Lauro, now a spry seventy, continues to this day with his family in Conjunto Romero.
So here we stand in the Romeros' rehearsal space -- actually the basement of Val Sr.'s Daly City home, its entryway marked by a Texas flag. Lauro rides his bandmates quickly through a polka, two redowas ("A minor," he declares, and the quartet kicks it into high gear), and a few other European musical remnants. There's no doubt who's in charge here.
Indeed, Lauro is a veteran of the San Francisco Mission bars, where he worked for two decades in different ad-hoc norteño ensembles. He's a traditionalist, then and now, and bristles at the thought of playing other styles with his accordion. "These drunks, they'd ask me to play Santana," he says. "I'd say, 'You think Santana can play a polka?'"
Val laughs at this story. It seems this generational battle now plays out in his brother, too. Alfredo was once heavily into rap, and opines that he'd like the band to maybe do some originals someday. But Uncle Lauro is having none of it.
To Val, norteño is simply the Mexican equivalent to country and Western. As if to prove the point, Conjunto Romero sways into a close-to-morose song that ends each chorus on the line Until you made me cry. Tears in your beer, Lágrimas en su cerveza, verdad. Just to show that he knows a musical cousin when he hears one, Lauro next tries to goad the family into a conjunto version of fellow Texan Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again." No dice.
Chris Strachwitz, founder of El Cerrito's Arhoolie Records, has spent a lifetime recording and filming regional musical styles like norteño. He produced the touching 1976 documentary Chulas Fronteras, which followed the conjunto scene on the Texas borderland. Unfortunately, he sees this style as a bit of an anachronism in the Bay Area scene these days, since people are now much more into banda, the Sinaloan music rich with trumpets, trombones, and percussion. "Norteño's not music typical of the area, except maybe some dives in Redwood City," he says. "There are some Tejanos who are into it, but many of them have drifted into the middle class, and this is a rural, workers' music." Uncle Lauro, too, notes that the sound of the Mission bars is now that of the recién llegada (the just-arrived) -- often Salvadorans with their own musical preferences.
Strachwitz adds that "Norteño is still considered the 'life of the borracho [drunk].'" But when he went to a recent Tejano Music Conference in Las Vegas, "There was barely an accordian there."
Mindy Gross, who volunteers with Strachwitz once a week while working on her anthropology master's at SF State (her thesis is on norteño music and its place in the social structure), isn't so sure this music is disappearing entirely. "It was big [in the bars] in the '60s and '70s, even into the early '80s," she concurs. "But it doesn't function solely on the streets. It's historically been used in the social context of weddings, quinceañeras [the traditional fifteenth birthday party for girls], and other family social events."
As for the idea that youngsters might not dig the music so much, she demurs. "I've found that [through the music] people find some kind of connection to the South Texas border area, through their grandparents or parents."
But not everyone.
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