Listening to My Polka Playlist on Rhapsody,which is very short, because there’s not a lot of polka music on Rhapsody to begin with (oddly enough) and I only like the ones that have a tuba playing bass. I’m sorry. An electric bass guitar, or even a slap string bass just doesn’t cut it with me. I’m not particular about the other instruments involved — clarinet, accordion, trumpet, macht nichts — but I insist on a tuba. And that “macht nichts” I just snuck in on you is a good clue.
My maternal grandmother’s people are descended from German imigrants who settled in central Texas. The Méxican government wanted settlers of any kind (including Americans) to occupy this vast territory they called Tejas, and the Germans were certainly interested. The Texas climate was milder and more temperate than Germany’s, the land was fertile, cheap and there was lots of it. They came in droves. At first, they settled mostly in the Hill Country, but they continued to come after Texas became a republic in 1836, and a state in 1845. The tide was briefly stemmed by the Union blockade during the Civil War, but picked right back up again after 1865. By the end of the 19th century, there were German settlements all over Texas. In 1880, a third of the population of San Antonio was German. Even today, individuals who identify as being of either full or partial German ethnicity now account for over 17% of the population, making up the third largest ethnic group in Texas, with Anglos being the largest, and Hispanic second largest.
So, it’s really no surprise that I keep getting this weird El Lorenzo Welko* vibe about how close this is to this and this (note the tuba) is to this, a type of “Texican” music called “conjunto” (cone-HOON-toe) that arose out of the Hispanic culture of South Texas following the introduction of the button accordion by the German settlers in the late 1800’s. Although the rhythm pattern is basically the same, where the Germans would dance a polka to it, Hispanics typically do a variation of the Texas two-step. (Apparently, it’s not conjunto verdadero** unless the bajo sexto or the bajo quinto is slightly out of tune. Both types of guitars were introduced onto the mix from the same source at the same time as the button accordion). Conjunto which was born and raised in Texas has now been exported into Mexico and further south, where it is known as Tejano or Norteño.
The bajo sexto (BAH-hoe SEX-toe, literally “six [pairs of strings] bass”) or the more traditional bajo quinto (BAH-hoe KEEN-toe “five [pairs of strings] bass”) is strung with the strings in octave pairs in the same manner as a standard twelve string guitar, but uses a fourth tuning. It is played using a “walking bass” style of flatpicking in which the bass note(s) of a chord is picked, then the rest of the chord is strummed in a pick-strum pick-strum rhythm guitar pattern that is also common to blue grass and western/cowboy music. The picked notes shadow the bass line that in polka would be played by the tuba or string bass. The strum of this pattern occurs on the “and” beat the snare drum plays in the polka (which is the beat where it does the skip step.) A conjunto band very often includes a bass instrument as well as the bajo quinto, either an electric bass guitar or string bass. You’ll notice the accordion style is different too. Differences in style not withstanding, a button accordion is technically more difficult to play than those iron lungs with a keyboard like the late, great Myron Floren played.
Of course, the German polka belongs in that mixed bag of beer hall music, where the band may or may not have an accordion and the other instruments in the group are brass instruments. You can march to polkas, too, if you must, and military bands, with the exception of the percussion section, are practically all brass — trumpets, trombones, flutes, picolos, the tuba and it’s little brother, the euphonium. (There are clarinets as well, but they’re technically woodwinds.) If you play in a military band, it’s not too difficult for such a group of trained musicians to put together a pickup band and moonlight for Bier und Trinkgeld (beer and tips) in the local Bierhalle oder Biergarten (I don’t think you need those translated, do you?). If you’ve ever been in a bierhalle of any size, by about 9 o’clock of a weekend evening, the joint be jumping. In the days before microphones, brass instruments were loud enough to carry over the din. If you’re intent on dancing, because the polka steps on the beat, as long as you can hear the tuba (and can stand up!), you’re got it covered.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You can polka to conjunto but they do it a little differently than a German/European polka. For one thing, their style of footwork is different. They don’t get up on their toes as much, but then this style has likely been influenced by other Mexican dances such as this one and this one and, of course, this one.
It’s funny how things have a way of wandering from culture to culture, turning up in unexpected places, mixing and remixing in new and unexpected ways. The German-Texans don’t have the market cornered when it comes to Gemütlichkeit. Once the Dos Equis and Coronas start to flow and the bajo quintos and accordions come out to play, su cantina próxima can get muy alegre.
Now, we Texans have a tendency to draw lines in the sand, but this time, I’m going to smudge out the line. Which is the conjunto band? Click the link then minimize your browser and see if you can tell: is it “This one” or “This one?”