Tejano music, also known as Tex-Mex music, conjures up images of accordions, polka rhythms, and lively dance halls. The style originated in Texas in the late 1800s as a blend of traditional Mexican folk music like mariachi and German polka music brought by European settlers. So why does Tejano incorporate so much polka influence? There are a few key reasons:
The History of German Immigration to Texas
In the mid-1800s, Texas experienced a huge influx of immigrants from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. These European settlers brought with them their cultural traditions, including polka music. At the time, Texas was still part of Mexico, and the local Tejano people were performing a style of folk music heavily influenced by mariachi. As the German immigrants settled in Texas, their polka music started melding with traditional Tejano sounds. Accordions were a key instrument in both styles, helping facilitate this blending process. The result was a lively, rhythmic genre that contained elements of both cultures. Tejano integrated the oom-pah polka style of beats with Mexican instruments like accordions, guitars, and trumpets.
Shared Characteristics of Polka and Tejano Folk Music
Beyond the blending of communities in Texas, polka and Tejano music share some basic musical qualities that lent themselves to integration. Both styles feature:
- Fast 4/4 rhythms and beats, often in 2/4 time signature
- Prominent use of accordion as lead instrument
- Songs designed for dancing
- Vocals in regional dialects like Czech or Spanish
These core similarities enabled polka to meld relatively seamlessly with Tejano’s upbeat rhythms and instrumentation when they came together in South Texas. The accordion specifically became a core part of both genres, informing their melodies and textures.
Continued Popularity of Polka in Tejano Culture
While Tejano integrated influences from rock, country, and other genres over the decades, polka has remained integral to its sound. The classic oom-pah polka beat gives Tejano music its distinctive driving dance feel. Leading Tejano bands to this day feature accordion polka riffs in their songs. Musicians like Flaco Jiménez and Esteban “Steve” Jordan pioneered the polka-infused Tejano style. Their popularity cemented polka as a central element that helped Tejano music stand apart from other Latin music genres. Even contemporary Tejano artists keep polka in their rhythms as a way to pay homage to the genre’s history and cultural roots. For Tejano musicians, the polka influence serves as an important part of their identity.
The Blending of Cultures on the Texas Frontier
To fully understand how polka became such a major part of Tejano music, it helps to look at the history of German settlement in Texas. In the 1840s and 1850s, Texas was still a frontier state seeing a lot of immigration. Germans entered Texas for affordable farmland after the 1848 revolutions in Europe. By 1850, over 5,000 Germans lived in the area around San Antonio. Soon they represented the largest number of European immigrants in the state. These settlers were coming from a culture steeped in polka music. The style originated in Bohemia in the 1830s before spreading to Germany and beyond. By bringing their instruments like accordions and strong polka tradition to Texas, Germans played a key role in shaping Tejano’s eventual sound.
Major Waves of German Immigration
German immigration to Texas occurred in several major waves:
- 1840s-1850s: Thousands of Germans settle in a “Latin colony” in San Antonio and establishing farm communities across South and Central Texas. They bring polka music and dance with them.
- 1870s-1890s: A second large wave of German settlers arrives in Texas following growing instability in Germany. The hill country northwest of Austin emerges as a popular destination.
- Early 1900s: As troubles continue in Germany, many German Mennonites move to communities in South Texas. They further reinforce polka’s influence in the region.
By 1910, over 100,000 Texans reported German heritage, cementing their cultural impact on Tejano music as it developed.
Blending of German and Mexican Communities
As more Germans moved into areas with large Tejano populations like San Antonio, the two cultures began intersecting. Germans opened dance halls and clubs catering to their polka traditions. Tejanos were exposed to polka rhythms and adopted them into their folk repertoire. Germans likewise embraced elements of Tejano music, like the accordion. Intermarriage between Germans and Tejanos also created families that blended musical heritages. This cultural interchange was possible because of the many similarities already shared between polka and traditional Tejano folk. Both emphasised dancing, cheerful melodies, and strong beats. The seamless blending of European polka and Tejano folk resulted in the lively, accordion-driven Tejano songs still popular today.
Core Instruments that Created the Tejano Sound
While the cultural interchange formed the basis of Tejano music’s development, the introduction of key instruments from Germany also helped transform its polka-influenced sound. Certain polka instruments lent themselves well to Tejano folk, helping facilitate polka’s adoption.
The most pivotal instrument tying polka to Tejano proved to be the accordion. Introduced by German settlers in the 1800s, the accordion quickly caught on with Tejano folk musicians who were already using a similar instrument called the bajo sexto. But the accordion, with its buttons or keys controlling notes and chords on the right side, offered more melodic options. Tejano accordion players adopted the highly rhythmic style and bouncing tempos of German musicians. The instrument created a crisp, energetic foundation for Tejano songs and hook lines. While other instruments like guitars, fiddles, and horns joined the ensemble, the flashy accordion remained the lead. Today it remains core to conjuring the Tejano sound.
The Bajo Sexto
Another instrument blurred the lines between polka and Tejano folk was the bajo sexto. This specialized 12-string guitar offers a deep, brassy tone. It had been part of Tejano folk music before Germans arrived in Texas. But its full-bodied chord voicings and driving strumming patterns made it a perfect counterpart to the accordion’s melodies in polka arrangements. The bajo sexto became an essential rhythm section instrument and Tejano’s equivalent to other backing chordal instruments in polka. Together, the accordion and bajo sexto formed the instrumental base of the newly emerging Tejano style.
While less unique to either Germans or Tejanos, the introduction of a firm percussion backbeat strengthened polka’s influence on Tejano. German polka already emphasized a strong bass drum beat to keep people dancing. While Tejano folk music often featured softer or improvised rhythms, German polka’s regimented drum parts lent Tejano more rhythmic power. The addition of a snare or trap drummer playing a driving oom-pah rhythm helped Tejano arrangements mirror the peppy feel of polka. This percussive foundation made Tejano even more danceable.
Influence of Key Tejano Musicians
In addition to cultural and instrumental factors, the rise of influential Tejano bandleaders and musicians cemented the polka influence in Tejano music. They embraced polka early on and integrated it into the templte for popular Tejano bands.
No Tejano musician more represents the polka influence than accordion great Flaco Jiménez. Born in San Antonio in 1939 when Tejano music was just emerging, Jiménez fell in love with the German-style accordion as a boy. He was mesmerized by the virtuosic playing of his father and grandfather, both part of the earliest polka-Tejano groups. Jiménez mastered the instrument and signature conjunto Tejano style by his teens. His foot-tapping accompaniment and lightning-quick polka runs became hugely popular with Tejano audiences. Jiménez brought fame to the norteño style of polka-driven Tejano in the 1960s and became a pillar of the genre. His success and technical skills on the German accordion inspired new generations of musicians to follow suit.
Like Flaco Jiménez, bajo sexto player Steve Jordan was instrumental to polka’s integration in Tejano music. Born in 1908, Jordan performed Tejano folk songs from a young age before falling in love with polka as a teenager. He eagerly blended the styles by mastering smooth bajo sexto countermelodies to accordion polka leads. Along with his brothers, Jordan formed one of the preeminent conjunto outfits bringing polka and Tejano folk together in the 1930s. Their prolific recording and performing made the polka-Tejano fusion wildly popular around San Antonio and beyond. Steve Jordan helped pioneer the genre still enjoyed by legions of Tejano fans today.
A later Tejano star also influenced by polka was Ramon “Mingo” Saldivar. Born in 1943, he dreamed of honoring his Mexican heritage through music but found himself drawn to the polka repertoire beloved by his migrant worker parents. After seeing Flaco Jiménez perform, Saldivar devoted himself to learning the accordion-driven polka style. He formed his own orchestra in the 1960s and became known for his sensational dance sets blending polkas with Tejano vocals and rhythms. Saldivar’s talent helped polka remain an essential part of popular Tejano dance bands to this day. His savvy polka-pop arrangements made the genre more mainstream and dance floor-friendly.
The Rise of Tejano as a Recorded Musical Form
The commercial recording of Tejano music in the early 1900s also ensured polka became a standard element of the genre. Records helped codify the polka influence for mass audiences well beyond Texas and Mexico.
First Tejano Music Recordings
The earliest Tejano songs recorded were often ranchera ballads, boleros, and other folk forms. But labels quickly capitalized on the popularity of the new German-Mexican hybrid popping up around San Antonio. Some of the first deliberately commercial Tejano records were produced in the late 1920s and 1930s by pioneers like Santiago Jiménez (Flaco’s father) and Narciso Martinez. Their string-driven conjunto groups featuring accordions, strummed bajo sextos, and crisp polka rhythms created vibrant recordings. Their records enshrined Tejano’s polka roots for generations to come.
Growth of Mainstream Tejano Labels
As the genre grew, major labels took interest in cultivating polished, commercial Tejano acts. In the 1940s and 50s, influential labels like Falcon, Ideal, and Corona signed Tejano bands. They recorded upbeat, danceable polka numbers along with slower Latin ballads, widening Tejano’s appeal. Stars like Valerio Longoria and Tony De La Rosa became Tejano’s first breakout recorded acts. Their records spread the unique fusion of Mexican and German sounds throughout the Spanish-speaking Southwest and Mexico. This polka-Tejano template became solidified on records, old and new.
Tejano Goes Nationwide
In the 1970s-90s, major stars such as Little Joe y La Familia, Selena, Emilio Navaira, and Mazz took Tejano into the mainstream pop world. They maintained polka as a central element for crossover audiences. Selena’s smash hit “Carcacha” typified the blend of polkaInstrumentation and rhythms with Spanish lyrics that made Tejano so accessible. As Tejano conquered mainstream radio and MTV, its polka backbone endured as a key piece of its cultural identity and heritage. This widespread exposure ensured polka remained forever linked with Tejano in the public imagination.
Preservation of Polka by Modern Tejano Artists
Even as Tejano continues evolving and borrowing from pop and hip-hop, polka remains vital thanks to young accordion torchbearers.
Modern acts like Elida Reyna y Avante and Hometown Boys keep polka integral to old-school Tejano. They maintain the genre’s roots with classic accordion leads backed by bajo sextos emphasizing polka’s signature oom-pah. Festivals around Texas consistently book these younger conjunto groups alongside veteran performers like Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez. They ensure the polka-drivenorigins of Tejano music stay alive.
Polka as Tejano Identity
Just as polka defined Tejano early on, it remains a core part of Tejano cultural identity today. Accordion virtuosos from Esteban “Steve” Jordan to Flaco Jiménez to Eva Ybarra became icons by melding polka and Tejano. Continuing to include polka instrumentation and rhythms allows modern Tejano artists to pay tribute to these legends and their shared Mexican-German heritage in Texas. Keeping polka prominent is a symbol of Tejano pride.
Fusion with New Styles
As younger Tejano musicians update the genre’s sound with pop and electronic influences, they often retain polka. Stars like Selena Gomez and Grupo Fantasma integrate polka elements like accordion lines and oom-pah rhythms into modern remixes. This allows them to put a contemporary spin on their heritage. The polka spirit endures even as Tejano constantly evolves.
Over 100 years after German settlers brought polka to Texas, the style remains inexorably tied to Tejano music. Their cultural collision in the 19th century fused together in a new hybrid. Polka left an indelible stamp on Tejano’s instrumentation, rhythms, and origins. While Mexican folk elements enrich Tejano’s core, polka provides its heartbeat. Each new generation of Tejano musicians preserves that history and spirit. For both Mexicans and Germans, polka-fueled Tejano music represents the diverse melting pot of South Texas. Those multi-cultural roots ensure polka will forever energize the Tejano sound.