UT wordmark album cover of san antonio conjunto group circa 1950
Arhoolie Records Music Excerpts, Liner Notes, and Photos

All music excerpts, liner notes, and
photos on this page are the property of
Arhoolie Records, 10341 San Pablo Av.
El Cerrito, CA 94530



The diatonic accordion has been popular with Border musicians for probably over 70 years, and most of the instruments used in the Border area have been made by the German Hohner company. Hohner built their diatonic button accordions simply and inexpensively to popularize the instrument in America. The instrument heard on most of these selections (except the first two items which feature probably a one-row instrument) has two rows of treble buttons tuned in two major scales, such as G/C or C/F, and eight bass buttons, four for each key. The button accordion works like a harmonica in that each button has a two-note value, one pushing and one pulling, so that a scale run is played by working the bellows in and out, unlike the piano accordion which plays any group of notes in one direction. "Diatonic" indicates that the instrument does not have regular sharps and flats, as does the piano accordion, but it does have one flat key per row at the low end of the treble side.

These accordions are double-reed, that is, with each note one reed vibrates at standard pitch and the other about one fourth tone sharp. The dissonance produces a vibrato effect that gives the button accordion its unique sweetness and delicacy. Two adjacent buttons played together almost always produce a pleasant third interval, which is the basic harmony of all Mexican singing. No wonder this instrument became popular with the people of the Border!

The piano accordion never equaled the button style in popularity with Norteño musicians, probably because in addition to being four times as expensive, it doesn't have the right kind of vibrato sound and staccato action that characterizes the fast, choppy polka and the more expressive corrido and cancion style playing. The simple, direct action makes the button accordion very responsive to the technique of the player, and this flexibility led to the development of individual styles and eventually stylistic trends in Tex-Mex accordion playing. According to several accordionists, people at dances have even expressed their open dislike towards the piano accordion.

(Ry Cooder - 1975)


album cover photo of narciso martinez and santiago jimenez The first accordion was built by the German Friedrich Buschmann in 1822 who called it a Ziehharmonika (zieh in German means pull). However it was Cyrill Damian who in 1829 in Vienna, Austria, began to mass produce and adopt the name Accordion for these instruments. In Spanish the instrument is spelled acordeon while in English it is generally spelled accordion.

I found the first written report of the accordion being used along the Border in John Peavey's "Echoes from the Rio Grande Valley" (Springman-King, 1963, page 27) where he describes an open-air dance about 1905 where a band consisting of fiddle, accordion, and drum supplied the music. Most people told me that the instrument was brought into the area by German and Bohemian settlers who were also active in the construction of mines and railroads in Northern Mexico. Some of the tunes heard here may also be of central European origin.


Among the first accordionists to become popular in South Texas via phonograph records were Jose Rodriguez and Bruno Villareal. Both came from San Benito. Bruno Villareal, almost blind, was labeled on his records "El Azote del Valle" (the whip of the valley) and is today still remembered by people as far north as Amarillo, Texas, playing in the streets with a tin cup attached to his piano accordion which he used from the late 1930s onward. While Bruno was an itinerant street musician, Jose Rodriguez played primarily for dancing. Narciso Martinez recalled attending a dance where Jose Rodriguez, known as "La Bamba," was playing. Upon spotting Narciso, Jose stopped the dance and told Narciso that he did not want him around because he wanted to guard his tunes for his own recording sessions and accused Narciso of "stealing" his material. Jesus Casiano, known as "El Gallito" (the little rooster), lived in San Antonio where he continued to record for Rio Records in the 1950s, making polkas his specialty.

La cascada (Mazurka)

(RealAudio file | .wav file)
Bruno Villareal: Accordion with bajo sexto and tambora.
San Antonio, TX. January 31, 1935
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings

Lolo Cavazos, born January 5, 1906 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, today lives in Alice, Texas, and recalls that accordion music was popular since he was a little boy. He believes Norteño music got started in the Rio Grande Valley. Self-taught, he still plays a two-row instrument and in the 1950s recorded for the Ideal label.

album cover of norteno accordion featuring trio The most important and influential accordionist in the San Antonio area during this period of the first recordings was Santiago Jimenez. Born April 25, 1913 in San Antonio, Santiago was labeled "El Flaco" (the skinny one) on his first records. He started to play accordion about 1923 and learned most of his early tunes from his father, Patricio Jimenez. About 1935 Santiago bought his first two-row accordion at a pawnshop and within a year was broadcasting daily over the radio. Thomas Acuna, music store owner and talent scout, heard these programs and asked Santiago to record. The pay was only $7 per record and no royalties but via his records and radio programs Santiago became more and more popular. During World War II the major record companies stopped recording regional music, giving rise to many small firms in the late '40s. Santiago was one of the first to record for Globe and Imperial and was especially successful with "Viva Seguine" and "La Piedrera" which have become polka standards in South Texas.

La nopalera (Polka)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Santiago Jimenez: Accordion; with probably Jesus Via -- bajo;
Santiago Morales -- bass. San Antonio, TX. September 1938
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings

Santiago used to get his accordions tuned and repaired by the Stark Brothers, both immigrants from Germany during the 1920s. Chris Stark vividly recalls how Mr. Jimenez "was always trying to do something different" and asked that accordions which came from the factory in the key of G or C be put into a lower key like E which Santiago preferred. Today Santiago Jimenez lives in Dallas but still plays from time to time especially when visiting his children, particularly Leonardo, better known as Flaco Jimenez. Son Jimmy (Santiago Jr.) plays very much in his father's tradition and most of the other children play as well. The delightful Jimenez accordion sound will live on, and Flaco's little boy has already mastered "La Piedrera"!

photo of narciso martinez

Finally the Father of Norteño music: Narciso Martinez, who was no doubt the most popular accordionist from the 1930s to the '50s. Born October 29, 1911 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Narciso grew up in the Valley and became known as "El Huracan del Valle" once he started to record in 1935. Besides being a superb musician, Narciso emphasized the treble end of the accordion, leaving the bass part to his bajo sexto player. In the 1940s when Ideal Records started, Narciso became their primary artist who not only recorded prolifically on his own but also helped create the Norteño style: two voices backed by accordion. The singers were Carmen and Laura and their records were very popular and influential. Today Narciso still plays for dances and parties and works as an animal keeper at the Brownsville zoo. We hope to release a full album of his early work in the near future.

(Chris Strachwitz - 1975)

Flor marchita (Schotis)

(RealAudio file | .au file)
Narciso Martinez: accordion; with Santiago Almeida
-- guitar or bajo sexto; Santiago Morales -- bass. San Antonio, TX. September 13, 1937
Music excerpt courtesy of Arhoolie Records. ARHOOLIE/FOLKLYRIC LP 9006:
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings

Liner notes courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings Arhoolie/Folklyric LP 9006:

Materials copyrighted by Arhoolie Records.
Presentation of these materials on UT Library Online by the General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin was made possible under a limited license grant from the creator who has retained all copyrights to the works.

Return to  Border Cultures: Conjunto Music - Index Page

Arhoolie Records: Tejano Roots
The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music / Orquestas Tejanas: the Formative Years / San Antonio's Conjuntos in the 1950s / Narciso Martínez / The Women

Arhoolie Records Exhibit: Part 2
Norteño Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings / Narciso Martinez "El Huracan del Valle": His first recordings 1936-1937

Last updated: March 5, 2004.
Created by: Craig Schroer - Electronic Services Librarian
Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin
Please send comments to: schroer@mail.utexas.edu

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