Rancho Alegre festival returns, reminding Austinites conjunto music is alive and well
Like so many other events recently, the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival returns to Austin this weekend with an in-person celebration for the first time since 2019.
The music festival is going on its seventh year highlighting conjunto music, a sub-genre of the Tejano music genre, that features two very specific instruments. With commercialization of Tejano music in the '90s, the genre's sound became forever linked with the synthesizer (think of the classic melody that drives Selena's 1992 hit "Como La Flor"). Conjunto, on the other hand, incorporates a button accordion and bajo sexto, a 12-stringed guitar.
For Frank Cuellar, conjunto is the groovier cousin to Tejano's driving rock. Cuellar, along with Piper LeMoine, are the brains behind the festival and Rancho Alegre, a nonprofit that records oral histories with some of the conjunto and Tejano music's greatest aging stars. He says they were motivated to begin archiving these stories because "every other story we got was secondhand and not from the source."
Once a thriving element of the Austin and greater Texas music scene, conjunto music has now become a family and community tradition passed down through generations. LeMoine says the most important aspect of the event is driving home that conjunto, though quieted, is not gone.
The three-day music festival will feature acts from across the state in addition to local mainstays like Conjunto Los Pinkys, Johnny Degollado y JJ Barrera and Los Texas Wranglers. Conjunto music can be heard Friday night at Central Machine Works in East Austin, down South on Saturday at the Far Out Lounge and the festival rounds out on Sunday at Stubb's. Admission is free to all events.
This conversation with Cuellar and LeMoine has been edited lightly for clarity:
KUT: Before we talk about the festival, tell us a little bit about what Rancho Alegre does to preserve the story of Tejano music in the state.
Cuellar: What we're doing is preserving a lesser known version of Tejano music. I like to call Tejano the rock music, with the synthesizers and the keyboards, where the conjunto part is accordions and bajos [sextos]. It's more of a folk music. That's where it all started. It's as important because it's Texas music. It's as important as blues and everything else that comes from Texas. We started doing interviews because we were losing so many of the legendary artists, you know, because of age and health issues. So we just wanted to get those stories because they were being lost.
LeMoine: We always do an analogy like blues is to rock what conjunto is to Tejano. Conjunto has been very under-documented, particularly in a way that's accessible to music fans and especially in in the words of the artists themselves.
KUT: Tell us a little bit about the importance of conjunto, specifically for Austin's music scene.
Cuellar: It's just as important as any other roots music. I always tell people, "everyone's cultural music is beautiful and this is just a showcase of ours." Conjunto is what I know, what I grew up with. And it's just as important because it was a part of the landscape. As time goes by, conjunto just kind of got left behind kind of the way blues music has.
KUT: Now that Rancho Alegre is back in person, what you're most excited about?
Cuellar: I'm most excited about bringing this music to different ears, because for the longest time it was for Texas Hispanics by Texas Hispanics. If more people aren't exposed to it, how do they know they like it? That's the recipe that I'm going with: exposing as many people as I can to the family-friendly environment that we're promoting. We're pushing the way it was in the old days and seeing if they like it. And hopefully, even if it doesn't explode, at least it'll survive. That's why I love Austin. People here love music and we fit right in.
LeMoine: One of our goals is to educate people and get them to know the word "conjunto." It's really interesting to us that we have so many music fans in Austin and they know all these different genres. But if you say conjunto, they draw a blank and you have to make an association. Or you have to say it's like Tex-Mex and describe it. If there's something that we do with our festival, it's that we we really emphasize conjunto. We drive it hard and and try to get people to remember that word because it is vital.