A hodgepodge of traditional Mexican, pop, polka and country—and sometimes jazz and R&B—contemporary Tejano eludes easy description, even for the artists who play it. Flaco Jimenez, 56, the much-admired accordionist who has recorded with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, says Tejano is basically an updated version of norteño, or conjunto, music. Tejano mixes the classic sounds of Mexico—played with the large acoustic bass guitar called the bajo sexto—with the accordion-based polkas brought over to Texas by German and Slavic immigrants at the turn of the century. "A few years ago, when new instruments were added, such as synthesizers, saxophones and trumpets, then the word Tejano came up," says Jimenez.
Bobby Prado, program director for the popular San Antonio Tejano radio station KXTN-FM, thinks the style is even broader than that. "It's a blend of all sorts of musical textures from different nationalities and flavors of music," he says. "We have the German influence with the accordion and, of course, the bajo sexto from Mexico. And there's jazzy Tejano, big-band sounds and synthesizers. And now the accordion has come back. It's a blend of country, jazz, rock, R&B and rap."
In addition, Tejano—Spanish for "Texan"—can refer to more than music: Many Texans of Mexican-American heritage use the word to describe themselves and their culture. Producer and keyboardist Armando Lichten-berger sums it all up this way: "Tejano is simply music recorded by Tejanos."
And, like Texas, it's hot. According to EMI Latin record-company president Jose Behar, sales figures for records by Tejano artists have jumped from $10-12 million in 1990 to more than $50 million in 1994. Performers like Emilio, Mazz and La Mafia have become household names and idols to Latinos who speak English and wear cowboy hats, yet also want to explore their cultural heritage by listening to homegrown music in Spanish.
Of course, the biggest star of all was Selena, whose inclusion of cumbia rhythms—the lilting, reggae-tempo sounds originally hailing from Colombia—won her fans within the large Mexican populations in California and Chicago, which historically had shunned polka-based Tejano. After her death, her music began reaching an even wider audience: Selena's last album, Amor Prohibido, will enter the Billboard magazine Top 200 pop chart at No. 36, and four of her other Spanish-language albums will also land on the list. "She has brought Tejano to the attention of millions of people," says Grammy-winning singer Little Joe, a Tejano veteran. "People who have never heard the word or music now know about it."