Rey Avila, others, celebrate area’s unique cultural riches

It seems appropriate that we begin the 27th Annual Conjunto Festival, and close Hispanic Heritage Month, by remembering Rey Avila.

Avila, who died Sunday at age 77, founded the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito, where the musical genre was born. People who knew Avila said he worked tirelessly to preserve and promote this unique part of border culture.

Conjunto music grew from the collaboration between accordionist Narciso Martinez, who was born in Reynosa and later settled in San Benito, and Santiago Almeida, who played the 12-string acoustic bass known as the bajo sexto. Together they combined dance rhythms familiar to German descendants who settled in central and south Texas with those of northern Mexico and the border region, creating music that was popular in dance halls both north and south of the border before and after World War II. And it remains popular to this day. Throughout the growth of rock ’n’ roll, soul, hip-hop and other new musical styles, conjunto music has remained a staple of Texas and Mexican music.

Avila recognized that the genre was a unique artistic treasure, as well as a significant element of our border culture, and it deserved to be celebrated and preserved with its own museum and hall of fame, much like those that exist for country music and rock ’n’ roll.

He set about collecting artifacts and building a roster of Hall of Fame honorees. He first displayed his collection on the wall of his bedroom, until it was accepted for display at the San Benito Community Center.

Eventually it will become part of the city’s new Cultural Heritage Center, museum and city officials say.

Avila ensured that his dream would live on, establishing a board that will continue to manage the museum and select future Hall of Fame inductees.

South Texans and music lovers alike owe a debt of gratitude to Rey Avila and others whose efforts help celebrate this part of South Texas culture.

It’s in that same spirit that organizers produce the annual Conjunto Festival, which begins today at the Los Fresnos Memorial Park. The three-day festival will feature the music of 15 groups along with dancing and food and drink concessions.

Like Avila, promoters of the festival honor conjunto stars of today, with an eye also looking toward the future; the agenda of groups scheduled to play this weekend includes the Los Fresnos High School Conjunto Halcon, which could include stars of tomorrow.

Conjunto music is such a part of our border culture — several local radio stations feature it — that it might be easy for some people to take it for granted. That is why the efforts of Avila, organizers of the Conjunto Festival and others who promote this unique style of music perform a valuable service: they remind us that this music enriches our culture, and is part of what defines us.

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