Música Tejana and the Transition from Traditional to Modern: Manuel “Cowboy” Donley and the Austin Music Scene
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Texans of Mexican descent represent an indivisible component of Texas history, culture and music. Their vibrant musical heritage holds a central position in the Texas music narrative and by extension permeates the regional music of the Southwest and national music of the United States. Contemporary Texas-Mexican artists rely on electric instruments. Previous to the integration of amplification, Música Tejana, or Texas-Mexican music rooted in la canción mexicana, used acoustic instruments. The first Música Tejana ensembles to “go electric” originated a new music scene and experienced the transition from acoustic to electric and the separation of ensemble instrumentation into the categories of modern electric and traditional acoustic. Band leaders in the Tejano music scene before 1960, such as Beto Villa, Eugenio Gutierrez, Chris Sandoval, Isidro Lopez, Manuel Donley, and Eloy Perez, witnessed the arrival of the modern sound powered by electric guitar and electric bass and the decline of the traditional sound connected to the acoustic guitar and stand-up bass. Amplification moved through the popular soundscape along with the electric guitar and effected Música Tejana as it did other music genres. In urban areas like Austin, Houston and Dallas, a multicultural soundscape allowed for an exchange of musical influences. With the incorporation of electrified instruments, Música Tejana embarked on a progression that parallels developments in Anglo and African-American popular music. Yet, while historians have arguably made icons of the principal originators of the electric genres of rhythm and blues and honky-tonk, the electrification of Música Tejana remains uncharted. This research seeks to expand the body of knowledge on Texas-Mexican music begun by Américo Paredes. His student, Manuel Peña, has contributed multiple works to Texas Mexican music with folk and popular topics. Peña’s focus on a bimusical repertoire that combines English speaking and Mexican-Latin musical cultures as modern does not account for the sonic changes that happen with the incorporation of electric instruments. He also favors the Ideal record company for his sound recording references with little mention of the numerous other independent labels such as Corona or Rio Records in San Antonio. Guadalupe San Miguel also offers several works on Texas Mexican music. In Tejano Proud, San Miguel establishes topical chronological periods for the Texas Mexican commercial sound recording market. Yet, his periodization of 1946-64 seems to disregard the sonic changes of the 1950s and to overlook the originators of the modern electric sound with band leader Manuel "Cowboy" Donley in Austin, Texas in 1955, as an example. This period of transition from acoustic to electric prior to the introduction of the electronic organ represents a lacuna in the existing historical narrative that merits attention and research. The significance of electrical amplification reaches beyond sound, as its effect reverberates in a dynamic social and cultural intersection of music, dance and youth in the Mexican American experience. By focusing on the sonic changes from acoustic to electric, an alternative interpretation of “modern” Música Tejana emerges which will bring attention to the fifties originators of the current Tejano music sound.
CitationFuentes, E. L. (2019). Música Tejana and the transition from traditional to modern: Manuel “Cowboy” Donley and the Austin music scene (Unpublished thesis). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.