Conjunto, like American country music, possesses rural roots and deals with traditional subjects such as drinking, cheating, lying, etc. The most notable feature of the style is its danceable 2/4 polka beat. However, many other stylistic elements can be discerned within the mix, including Mexican forms like ranchera and mariachi (the latter built around a classical instrumental ensemble--e.g., several winds, violins, guitarrons; the Germans contributed accordions, whose versatility made them comparable to today's synthesizers) and German, Polish, and Czech immigrant dances as well as other European and Mexican styles (e.g., vals, schottische, huapango, jaranas, the Spanish bolero).
The earliest recordings of accordion-based music of this type were made by Bruno Villarreal in 1928. The real pioneers of the style, however, were Narciso Martinez and Santiago Jimenez.
Tony De La Rosa, who began his career in the late 1950s, was the next big influence on the genre. Utilizing a choppy, staccato style, his accordion playing was melodic and intricate. His legacy included establishing the use of drums in the conjunto ensemble, amplifying the bajo sexto, and introducing the electric bass. Other important 1960s conjunto performers included Steve Jordan and El Conjunto Bernal.
By the 1970s, virtuoso accordion player Flaco Jiminez had introduced a rock style, along with pronounced country features, to the genre. The Texas Tornados--which included Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender and two alumni of the Sir Douglas quintet, guitarist Doug Sahm and keyboardist Augie Meyers--became his most widely known vehicle.
Conjunto has retained a flexible, continuously-evolving core up to the present day. Modern practitioners play a wide range of styles and rhythms. The most notable styles include:
Ranchera; i.e., songs idealizing hacienda and rural life. A Mexican form of country music, its variants include norteno (northern Mexican music) whose most successful interpreter is the Los Angeles-based Los Lobos.
Corridos. Essentially ballads, they are the mainstay of most Tex-Mex bands. Usually played at a slow or moderate pace, the genre is largely comprised sad or poignant stories of struggle or controversy.
Cumbias. Part of the Tex-Mex family, they represent a simpler working-class variant of the original Colombian dance form. The genre is characterized by aggressive syncopation, percussion, and the sound of flutes and saxophones. The subject matter includes historical incidents, life stories of notorious criminals, and--like rancheras--lyrical songs about bad women, alcohol, lost love, and other struggles reflecting the social conditions of the time.
Tejano. A newer, urban-based offshoot of conjunto, the genre incorporates instruments identified with rock such as electric guitars and synthesizers. The artists tend to have a glitzy appearance, with leather, big hair, etc. Their repertoire includes rock, country, and pop material in addition to the traditional, polka-based, accordion-laced conjunto style (complete with a German oompah beat). Among the more popular artists have been Selena (Corpus Christi), Los Palominos (Los Angeles), La Mafia (Houston), and Mazz (Brownsville).