Watching Flaco Jimenez play his button accordion is like looking back in time. His grandfather started playing an accordion in cantinas and family parties along the Texas/Mexican border around the late 1800s. Then Flaco's dad, Santiago Jimenez Sr., carried on the family tradition when he released his first record in 1936.
Two of the songs you hear Flaco Jimenez play in this Tiny Desk Concert are traditional German polkas; they were popular in the mid-1800s as German immigrants settled in Texas before it became part of the U.S. almost 20 years later. Over time, the two-step stayed the same, but the German lyrics were replaced by the Mexican storytelling song form known as corridos.
But Jimenez is no dusty relic; he's very much of the here and now. For almost six decades, he's carried on those traditions and taken them to places neither his grandfather nor his father could ever imagine. He's played with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Los Lobos, Willie Nelson and Ry Cooder; he's toured the world and won Grammys. He's become a symbol of ethnic pride among Mexican-Americans for not only preserving the conjunto sound, but also moving it forward.
Listen closely to this recording: I think the secret to Jimenez's longevity lies in the short bursts of improvisation in between verses he shares with bajo sexto player Max Baca, of the Grammy-winning band Los Texmaniacs. (The two have an album due out in the spring.) The notes seem to spin and strut just as the dancers do in the serious conjunto dance halls. There's a stutter here, a jazz-like riff there, and when he extends the notes and holds them playfully, I recall my own mother teaching me to spin her in a tight pirouette at family weddings and quinceñeras.
Jimenez was able to perform a Tiny Desk Concert because he had traveled to Washington, D.C., from his home in San Antonio to receive a Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts. He was being honored for carrying on what his grandfather and so many other conjunto musicians have been doing for more than a century: getting people on the dance floor with an accordion and a song.
- "La Paloma"
- "Cada Vez Que Cae La Tarde"
Producer: Felix Contreras; Editor: Denise DeBelius; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Christopher Parks, Ryan Smith; photo by Lauren Rock/NPR