Best of SA 2012 Critic Pick
Bene Medina: Heritage Sound Savior
Published: April 25, 2012
Conjunto Heritage Taller, conjuntoheritagetaller.org
San Antonio's conjunto heritage is in good hands. While the city has plenty of teachers (many of them well-established musicians) who keep the conjunto flame alive, it's at the Conjunto Heritage Taller you'll find the person who is, arguably, the greatest living teacher of the genre. Born in Raymondville in 1939, Medina started playing at the age of 13 and in 1965 formed the famed Conjunto Águila, still active today with a brand new CD released in March. He began giving accordion lessons at Alamo Music in the '90s, and for the last eight years has been a teacher at the Conjunto Heritage Taller.
"Conjunto music, and the accordion itself, are two very special things," Medina told the Current. "I first teach my students to become familiar with the instrument, and then we go step-by-step on its complexities and teach them the basics. But I don't want to bombard them with music theory — conjunto is all about feeling and playing the songs."
A versatile player who knows his way around both the traditional and more progressive sides of conjunto, Medina thinks the genre is not only far from dead, but so underrated. "What are the Tejanos doing, if not playing conjunto?" he asks. "Everything the [more commercially successful] Tejanos do is play conjunto music. We're just making sure the next generation will do it as well."
Among his many students throughout the years, he singles out one. "I always knew Juanito Castillo was special," Medina said about the blind up-and-coming wonder kid, a protégé of the late Steve Jordan, who received the first formal accordion lessons from Medina. "And now, more than ever, I have no doubts that he'll be the greatest accordionist to come out of San Antonio in my lifetime."
San Antonio's homegrown conjunto was on the ropes, with many predicting its demise after the Selena-Emilio-La Mafia Tejano craze of the '90s cooled off and many kids moved from Tejano/conjunto to cumbia-hip-hop fusions. But the genre is alive thanks to institutions like the Conjunto Heritage Taller and teachers like Medina.
"Bene Medina is a conjunto hero," said Juan Tejeda, leader of Conjunto Aztlan, director of the Tejano Conjunto Festival, publisher of Aztlan Press, and a Chicano studies professor at Palo Alto. "There's a lot of teachers, but he's been teaching continuously for many years, and he's as good as teachers get."