Orquestas de Cuerdas

by

Various ArtistsMexican-American Border Music – Vol. IV; Orquestas Tipicas “Pioneer Mexican-American Dance Orchestras” 1926-1938
Arhoolie/Folklyric 7017
Various ArtistsMexican-American Border Music – Vol. V Orquestas de Cuerdas “The End of a Tradition” 1926-1938
Arhoolie/Folklyric 7018

by Mark Rubin (Old Time Herald, volume 6, number 3)

It’s probably hard for us to believe it, but as little as two generations ago the accordion was basically unheard of in Mexican-American music. If it was heard, it would be in the bordellos, accompanying sordid noon-time “dollar-a-dance” soirees, or in the rough cantinas on the fringe of town where the respectable folk wouldn’t be caught dead. Proper entertainment was provided by the string based Orquestas Tipicas, playing a wide variety of popular and folk tunes.

It wasn’t until the rise of radio and the estimable talents of accordionists like Narcisco Martinez and Bruno Villareal that the accordion shed it’s “gutter” image. Today, however, the only sound of fiddles in the plaza in San Antonio is from the modern Mariachi. Though they may appear similar from the outside, they were in fact quite different, as this collection shows.

On Orquestas Tipicas the “typical Orchestra” was anything but it appears, and we have a wide range of ensembles represented, in many seemingly unlikely combinations. There’s a Sousa-styled brass band with slide steel guitar (Banda Chihuahua,) groups of violins and trumpets closer to what we know as Mariachi today , but with a full sax section as well (Orq. Thomas Nunez,) a guitar and sax duo (Jose Maria Arrendondo Trio!!,) and mandolin Orchestras as fine as you’re likely to encounter, (Orq. de la Famila Ramos and Quinteto Tipico Mexicana.)

The types of songs presented reads like a laundry list of lost Mexican-American dance steps. You got your polkas y valses, to be certain. But then there’s danzons, one-steps, foxtrots, vals bajito, chotis, mazurka, tango, marcha and my all time favorite, the lusty pasodoble.

The CD is laid out somewhat chronologically, which aids greatly in understanding the transition of the Orquesta sound through the years. Contrast the stately, almost Vienesse vals “Alicia” (Jose Perche Enriquez Orchestra, ’28) to the nearly not-for-note reading of Joe Venuti’s “Jig in G” (Emilio Caceres, ’34,) not coincidentally a tune favored by Anglo Western Swing bands of the area as well.

This is not “old-time” music in the narrow definition, these are genteel performances from seasoned performers. But it is music of the “old time,” and thoroughly enjoyable glimpse of the Mexican-American music scene now long since forgotten.

Much the same can be said for the next volume, Orquestas de Cuerdas which also features many of the same artists. Originally released on LP, the CD has twice the material and twice the surprises of the original release. The liner notes suggest that these recordings represent smaller, more informal, groups, with “closer ties to other vernacular traditions,” so the liner notes indicate. To my ear, it just means smaller bands, and a wider range of material.

From the opening polka, El Ciego Melquiades (literally, The Blind Fiddler) illustrates clearly just what Tex-Mex conjunto must have sounded like in the days before the accordion. His trio, with string bass and bajo sexto, is no different than the conjuntos that Don Santiago Jimenez popularized in San Antonio of the ’30s, substituting fiddle for his accordion.

Among the many revelations are the mandolin led Trio Alegre de San Antonio on several selections of danzon and vals. Truly fascinating is The Medina River Boys, Andale, Vamos Platicano, (cancion-polka) whose Hawaiian steel guitar would be right at home in any hot Western Swing outfit. And in another example of how we do things here in Texas, Al Hopkin’s Buckle Busters are found moonlighting under the sobriquet “Los Alegres” on the Czech-Bohemian waltz Marosovia, a tune still in the conjunto repertoire.

Fiddle music has been, and continues to be, an important component of the folk musics of many parts of Mexico. Early examples of Huastecan fiddling (Trovadores Tamipulas) and early Jaliscan Mariachi (Mariachi Tapatio de Juan Marmolejo) are included for good measure. But that is Mexican music, only a component of the Mexican-American experience, now defined by the accordion. There is, to my knowledge, only one fiddler left today playing a wholly Mexican-American repertoire, and even he must play accordion to make a living. The liner notes refer to the unlikely rebirth of Banda music in the last decade, hopefully positing the same could happen for the fiddle. Maybe so, but listening to these 2 CDs, we can come close to just a glimmer of what was once a thriving string tradition.

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