Don Santiago Jimenez

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About Don Santiago Jimenez

Don Santiago was the visionary member of an accordion-crazy family. He has received practically all the credit for mixing the ranchera songs of Northern Mexico with a snappy German polka beat and accordion styles. His father, Patricio, had been an in-demand accordion performer around the turn of the century in southern Texas. And Don Santiago's two sons have made grand names for themselves as accordion players: Flaco Santiago as a leading firebrand of norteño or conjunto music and Santiago Jr. carrying on with the more traditional sounds of his father. Tracing the development of this family's musical heritage back to their grandfather, one finds Patricio regularly being hired to entertain Texan descendents of German and Moravian immigrants. To keep them happy, he learned scads of mazurkas, polkas, waltzes, and schotishes. Don Santiago picked up much of this music at his father's feet, as he was often allowed to come along to the dances. He got his first accordion at age ten in 1923. By the '30s, Don Santiago was establishing his own reputation throughout southern Texas with both recordings and live radio broadcasts. One development in the recording industry that could have easily caused them problems turned out to the advantage of regional artists instead. When the big labels began backing off on recording this type of music in the '40s, the smaller independents actually stepped up their activity in hopes of nabbing a larger share of the market. This allowed Don Santiago to record several of his larger hits, such as "Viva Seguin" and "La Piedrera." During this era, he was one of the most influential accordion players on the scene, as more and more players began to copy him and work with elements of his style. Not content to rest on his laurels, Don Santiago kept up with the changes in norteño music; as younger disciple Fred Zimmerle came up with the idea of bringing the Mexican duet singing style into the blend, Don Santiago added material of this ilk to his repertoire. On the Arhoolie recording session that turned out to be his last album, he performed original songs he had written in both the new and old styles. One of these numbers, "Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio," was eventually recorded as a cover by the Los Angeles-based roots rock group Los Lobos, and even made it on the soundtrack for the film Revenge. Don Santiago was an artist whose fame spread through word of mouth and through international record collectors, not through touring. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about his career is that he performed every weekend in the same San Antonio nightclub, El Gaucho, for more than a decade. These shows were almost without exception standing room only. He always retained his individuality as a performer, despite legions of imitators and the kind of all-pervasive influences that led to musicians playing in his style when they are unaware of it. Some Tex-Mex listeners give partial credit for this to Don Santiago's decision to stick to the two-row button accordion he started out on rather than switching to the three-row accordions when they came along. This was, in a way, a guarantee that he would sound different than anyone else. In 1978, Don Santiago and his family were filmed by documentary director Les Blank for his production on Texas-Mexico border music entitled Chulas Fronteras. He played for about six years after this film was released, working a steady weekly gig at Jimmy's, a Mexican restaurant in northeast San Antonio. He is survived not only by his sons, but by the rich norteño musical tradition that shows no signs of fading away. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

HOMETOWN
San Antonio, TX

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