Conjunto Festival in San Benito, Texas

by Ginger Yapp

Every year, the border town of San Benito, Texas, hosts the Narciso Martinez Conjunto Festival. The festival -- held every autumn since 1992 -- celebrates the South Texas style of music called conjunto, known in Mexico as musica norteña. Held at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Center, the three-day event brings together both new and old forms of conjunto; fans say the music heard at this festival is the purest form of the genre.

About Narciso Martinez

The festival was named in honor of Mexican-born conjunto artist Narcisco Martinez. Born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in 1911, Martinez became a master accordianist, and one of the most famous conjunto artists of all time. Martinez began recording songs in 1936; he put nearly 1,000 songs on tape before he died in 1992. Martinez often played the accordion part of his dance songs and was accompanied by an alto sax player.

The Festival's Origins

The festival was founded by Rogelio Nuñez in May of 1992, a mere month before Benitez died of leukemia in San Benito. Benitez released his last album, "16 Hits of Narciso Martinez," that same year. He was scheduled to play at the festival, but his health problems landed him in the hospital. The festival continues to honor his contributions to this vibrant musical form.

The Conjunto Sound

The festival has stayed true to its aim of booking only conjunto artists; musicians from related genres are not even accepted. Conjunto began in South Texas ranchos in the 1930s; instruments include the accordion, drums, the electric bass and the alto saxophone. The first commercial records featuring this genre of music were made by San Benito's own IDEAL record label back in 1946, with Martinez as the in-house accordionist.

Festival Features

Every year, the festival brings together over a dozen conjunto artists for three days of music, dancing, drinking and culture. By its 2010 edition, the festival was bringing in an estimated 3,500 spectators. Artists who have played at the festival in the past include Los Garcia Brothers, Tejano Boys, Los Fantasmas, Los Texmaniacs and Grammy Award-winner Joel Guzman. Admission to the festival is only a couple of dollars.