Story of an American Music

Hector Galán's Songs of the Homeland

by Alex Avila At first, Hector Galán couldn't get anyone to hear the music in Tejano. When the filmmaker tried to secure funding for a film about Tejano music, he met with resistance from mainstream funding sources. Although the award-winning documentarian has had success with such films as Los Mineros, The Hunt for Pancho Villa, and Vaquero: The Forgotten Cowboy, plus a slew of mainstream PBS pieces that weren't Latino works, funders - even many who supported his previous projects - couldn't quite see his vision.

"It was one of those projects that was real hard to describe," says Galán. "It was a real hard `fund-raising' project. People would ask, `What is it about?' And you tell them it's about music. `Well, what kind of music?' And you start to describe Tejano music, which already is difficult. A lot of the funding sources, the more national funding sources, only were interested in folk traditions and that type of music."

Of course, that was before the death of Selena, an event which, beyond the obvious tragedy, proved to many unfamiliar with Tejano music that it has an enormous audience and a rich history. Prior to that moment when Tejano's power was proven to the world, the responses to Galán's idea for a documentary about the form were so cool that he might have been discouraged from making the film. But he persisted.

"The way I looked at it, I was going to do the project anyway, even if I hadn't gotten any funding," insists the director. "Because it was a part of me. I mean, I've lived all over the place. I've traveled. I lived in Boston for a couple of years (working for the flagship PBS station there). And everywhere I went, I took my music because it reminded me of Texas. It reminded me of home. I think that's true with music from any culture. In Vietnam, there were soldiers there listening to Little Joe y la Familia, because it reminded them of home. That's why I called the film Songs of the Homeland."

The way Galán ultimately kick-started Songs of the Homeland was with some funding he had obtained for a separate but similar project. "Originally," Galán says, "we had received a grant from the National Latino Communications Council (NLCC) for a project called The Lark of the Border. It was supposed to be a documentary that focused on Lydia Mendoza," a native of Houston who was the first Mexican-American to reach international star status in the 1930s and Forties. "That grant was for $20,000 and became the seed money for a much larger project that I envisioned on the history of Tejano music," he adds.

Galán wanted to present a historical overview of a unique musical form that evolved from the dual status of Mexican-Americanism. Like jazz, which has its roots in African, Creole, and Caribbean traditions, Tejano is a uniquely American form of music that grew from the sounds of diverse cultures. Tejano traces its influences not only from Mexico and Spain, but also the German, Polish, and Czech communities that settled near the native Tejano communities in Texas. "Texas has been amazing in creating an original American music," says Galán. "That's what Tejano is - it is an original American music. It borrows a lot from the European, Mexican/Spanish traditions. But what has evolved is uniquely American."

Songs of the Homeland opens with turn-of-the-century photographs of Mexican-American agricultural workers. Caught between Mexico and the U.S., these people called themselves Tejanos, a Spanish term for Texan. These images are contrasted with a modern Tejano nightclub in San Antonio with a performance by La Tropa F, one of the hottest Tejano acts today (appearing at the Fiestas Patrias celebration at Fiesta Gardens in Austin Friday, September 15). The documentary, narrated by Freddy Fender, points out that while the club may appear Mexican, with Latino dancers and Spanish lyrics, it is truly American, with American music played to an American audience.

"In Texas, you have this incredible cultural mix. It's not a `melting pot.' It's a universe of exchange," explains Pat Jasper, director of Texas Folklife Resources, in the documentary. "It's a place where lots of different communities, even if they weren't speaking to each other, their musical traditions and their artistic traditions were."

In addition to Jasper, the documentary features interviews with major personalities who influenced the development of the music. One of the first interviewees is Lydia Mendoza, now in her eighties. Once called "la Cancionera de los Pobres" (songstress of the poor), Mendoza describes how her family survived by taking the music to the people, following what was known as "the migrant trail," the route that farm laborers, predominately Tejanos, followed looking for work picking cotton.

Mendoza is an example of the Mexican musical influence of the Tejano populace - most of Mendoza's songs were Mexican ballads sung in Spanish. In the story of Narciso Martínez and Santiago Jiménez, Sr., the film reveals how European influences shaped Tejano music. Martínez paired the accordion, brought to Texas by European immigrants, with the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar brought to Mexico from Spain. This pairing was the basis for the term "conjunto," meaning conjoining. "My grandfather used to go to the dances around the San Antonio area in New Braunfels and Seguin," says popular conjunto artist Flaco Jiménez in the film. "And he used to listen to the oom-pah music that was playing around at that time. So he managed to buy an accordion and he copied the music of those guys, of the German and the Polish guys from Europe. So he managed to play like them."

Songs of the Homeland identifies many (albeit not all) of the music's pioneers and follows its evolution as it splinters into two distinct schools of sound: Tejano and conjunto. "What I wanted to do was to include this debate between commercial Tejano music and the more traditional, pure conjunto music," said Galán. "I wanted to make that clear." The documentary explores how societal changes such as World War II, the urbanization of the 1950s, and rock & roll's emergence all played parts in the development of these separate schools. By the Fifties, a growing middle class was drawn toward a more sophisticated orchestra sound and the accordion, which had reached a zenith in popularity in the late Forties, was frowned upon as too backward, too rural, too "Mexican." Orchestras were in, and the hot performers included Beto Villa and Isidro Lopez. Using Tex-Mex lyrics as opposed to "elegant Spanish and flowery phrases," this sound came to be known as Tejano music. Accordion-based conjunto was relegated to the underground along the migrant trail where a loyal base kept it alive and largely unchanged.

"I use the accordion as a metaphor in the film," explains Galán." In the beginning, all Tejano music was accordion-based. By the 1950s to the 1970s, the accordion was out. Nobody wanted to be associated with the accordion. Today, the accordion has re-emerged. It's like what Pat Jasper said in the film. You know, people want to be able to touch their roots and the accordion is a way to do that."

The documentary has proven enormously popular in area screenings, drawing standing ovations at several Latino film and video festivals. At the Cinesol in South Padre Island, the film was given the 1994 Sol Award for excellence in documenting the history and culture of South Texas. At the CineFestival in San Antonio, Songs of the Homeland won the "Special Jury" category in that festival's Premio Mezquite Awards.

Galán has been so pleased with the response that he plans to follow Songs of the Homeland with another documentary covering strictly conjunto music. For this project, funding doesn't appear to be a problem. Private investors and Southwestern Bell have already promised him the funding necessary to produce the film.

"I've been in the business for awhile now," reflects the filmmaker, "and I think I have the tools and the knowledge to bring some of these stories to the national psyche. And that was my goal. I've done that in the past with some other shows and I will continue to do that." n Songs of the Homeland will be broadcast on KLRU, channel 18, cable 9, on Sep. 20, Wed,
at 9pm.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle