Conjunto Festival returns to Los Fresnos

LOS FRESNOS — For more than 50 years, Hector Barron’s music has fused the accordion-driven riffs of conjunto music’s legendary pioneers.

In Mercedes, he grew up on the vibrant, rollicking melodies of Ruben Vela, Tony De La Rosa and Paulino Bernal.

After learning to play the bajo sexto, the Mexican 12-string bass guitar, he was 18 when he began honing his talent on the electric bass.

“At home, me and my friends would jam,” Barron, 76, said yesterday. “It’s been conjunto all the time.”

Today, the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center opens its 27th Annual Conjunto Festival, which Barron credits for showcasing the genre before wider audiences.

“It’s keeping that alive,” said Barron, who takes the stage with his band Los Fantasmas Del Valle on Saturday. “I know a lot of people from out-of-state and all over the state come over.”

This year, the three-day festival features 15 bands at Los Fresnos Memorial Park.

For the arts center, the festival marks its second year in Los Fresnos after organizers launched the event in San Benito in 1992, helping to dub the city the home of conjunto music.

In 2017, co-founder Rogelio Nuñez moved the festival to Los Fresnos after San Benito officials’ new fee schedule drastically hiked the cost of staging the event.

“I feel very welcome here,” Nuñez said, referring to Los Fresnos city officials. “They’ve adopted us. They want this event to happen.”

Last year, the festival drew 1,435 fans during its three-day Los Fresnos debut.

This weekend, Nuñez is counting on drawing numbers closer to 3,000, which the festival reached during its 25th anniversary show in 2016.

“It’s a continuation of the tradition we started 29 years ago that plays music created by Narciso Martinez on the U.S. side of the border with a particular style,” Nuñez said, referring to the arts center’s founding.

The festival’s origins

In 1991, Martinez, the master accordionist from La Paloma hailed as the father of conjunto music, dedicated the art center’s opening as part of the celebration of his 80th birthday shortly before his death.

By 1999, the Smithsonian Institution had lauded the festival with a CD titled “Taquachito Nights,” featuring recordings of several conjunto pioneers who played the previous year’s shows.

“It’s authentic,” Nuñez said of the festival. “It brings in 15 bands that are keeping the tradition alive. It opens the pathway for all these pioneers who are keeping the tradition.”

A new home

At City Hall, City Manager Mark Milum said the festival offers a cultural draw that pumps money into the local economy.

“We love it,” Milum said. “It’s another activity we can offer our residents. It’s different from other things you can find.”

“This is a niche for a different part of our community and for the Valley and people come from San Antonio and other parts of the country,” he said. “They come and stay at our motel and eat a nice meal at some of our restaurants and fuel up with gas.”

Tourist draw

Last year, the festival drew about 500 “cultural tourists” from as far as California, Nuñez said.

On Facebook, he said, one of the arts center’s posts has drawn 18,000 views.

“We’ve built a following,” he said. “We’ve built a foundation.”

For about 12 years, Kevin Kenefick has traveled from Winchester, Va., to savor the sounds born along the Texas-Mexico border nearly 100 years ago.

“I fell in love with conjunto,” Kenefick, a retired nurse, said. “I was just stunned by the music — I’d never heard something like it before. I love the accordion. Something about it is wonderful. I love the dancing. I’ve had a love affair with southeast Texas ever since. I became friends with people here and I’ll be happy when I see them.”

Los Fantasmas Del Valle

On Saturday night, Barron and Los Fantasmas Del Valle are set to take the stage.

On the festival’s roster of 15 bands, Nuñez describes Barron as “the elder statesman” among younger artists who hold tight to the tradition.

“I feel proud of playing conjunto music,” Barron said.

For 52 years, the Mercedes-based band has helped define conjunto music with songs like Bellos Recuerdos, El Pajuelazo and Ya No Soy Un Prisonero.

“I don’t think conjunto is going to die,” Barron said. “There are a lot of young guys coming around. A lot of them copy from other groups. I’d like to see a lot of them to get their own style. A lot of these young guys are more progressive. We’re old-school.”

IF YOU GO

The festival kicks off today from 6 to 10 p.m., continues Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. and ends Sunday at 9 p.m. Sunday’s performances begin at 4 p.m.

Daily tickets are $6 and three-day passes are available, too. For more information about the event, visit “Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center” on Facebook.