Born in Marion, Texas, near San Antonio, Domingo Saldivar took up the guitar in 1948 because his parents liked to sing around the house. A year later, he started playing the accordion, learning conjunto (group) music, also known as la musica norte&entilde;a, the regional music of South Texas that highlights the accordion and features dance rhythms such as the ranchera, polka, huapango, and waltz, in addition to storytelling songs called corridos. Saldivar started his professional career with the legendary group, Los Guadalupanos. After time in the military and in Alaska, where his relatives ran a restaurant, he returned to San Antonio in 1970. By 1975, he had formed his own group, Los Tremendos Cuatro Espadas, and was performing throughout the Southwest. His blend of tejano sounds and popular country tunes, such as Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, gained him a large audience, while his animated stage performances earned him the title The Dancing Cowboy. His artistic reputation has spread outside the Southwest through performances at Carnegie Hall, the Folk Masters series at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia, the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and on a tour of Africa and the Middle East for the U.S. Information Agency. From 1994 to 1997, he performed extensively in Monterrey, Mexico where his fans developed a novelty dance in his honor, called Mingo Mania. In addition, he was recently featured on the widely acclaimed PBS television series American Roots Music.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. Tell me about your reaction when you heard the news.
MR. SALDIVAR: It seems like everybody around me knew except me and I finally got word about five weeks ago. Somebody called from Washington and told me about it and of course I was very excited. It's a wonderful award.
NEA: Have you known any other conjunto musicians who have received the award?
MR. SALDIVAR: There's two of them - the late Valerio Longoria and Flaco Jiménez's brother Santiago Jiménez, Jr.
NEA: Did they influence your career?
MR. SALDIVAR: Valerio was an influence on me back in 1947, '48. I used to sneak uptown in San Antonio and go to these little cantinas and peek through the window to watch him play.
NEA: How old were you at the time?
MR. SALDIVAR: Probably about nine or ten. We weren't allowed in those places because we were under age. A friend and I used to watch him - we were trying to learn how to play the accordion. We'd try to memorize what he was doing with his fingers at a particular point in a tune then go home and see if we could do it on our accordions.
NEA: What was the music like then compared to what's being performed now?
MR. SALDIVAR: It has changed over the years, of course. Back then we didn't have all the electronics that they have now, the lights and all that, and in a lot of instances we played without microphones. Just a bajo sexto and an accordion. Then bands added a bass fiddle, and an upright bass. Years later they added the drum. These changes took place within six to eight or nine years, between '47 and '55, '56. Now the big bands, the tejano bands, have in some instances added keyboards and the synthesizers and echo rhythm machines. My band has just got the four instruments, though once in a while I use the harmonica. We still play the roots music, a lot of the old songs.
I've noticed a big change in the young people. It used to be only boys played accordion but now we're seeing more and more young girls who are just as good as the boys.
NEA: When did you actually start performing? What was your training?
MR. SALDIVAR: I started playing the guitar first, back in the forties. My daddy played the guitar and he and mom used to sing together. He taught me how to play the guitar a little bit and he taught me how to sing. I learned a little bit about the drums and then the bass fiddle and the upright bass, but I kept my eye on the accordion because I really wanted to learn that.
He bought me a one row accordion that I had for a couple of years and then he bought me a two row accordion. Like I said, we were too young to be to play at the places where people went to dance, but we were able to play in houses when they had festivals, for birthdays, weddings and family events. We didn't charge a set price. They used to pass the hat around back then and we made a couple dollars here and there.
In 1950 a competition was started in San Antonio. If you had a band you could join it and people would hear you play. They made allowances for the bands to play the big dance halls. This went on for about six months, maybe more than that. The audiences would vote for each band, a penny a vote. People who wanted to vote for you would drop a penny and the name in that slot and that was a vote for that particular person or band.
The band I was in wasn't really professional, but by competing we started playing these places where people could dance to our music. When the contest was over the band that I was with got second prize. The first place band got to buy instruments with the money they won, with the pennies from the votes . For second prize we got a trophy and recognition that we had gotten second place.
That led to some more work in and around San Antonio. We used to get three, four, five bucks a night for the band because back then money went a long way. We often just played for free because we loved the music so much. It went on like that for a while and then I joined another band that was getting more work.
When we were growing up my family used to migrate to the northern states to work. My dad got us out of school early to go work in the fields and all that. When we came back home I was behind on my music because for those months being away and working there was no time for that. When I was 16 I stayed with a family in Minnesota after my father went back to Texas. I was there for two years.
Growing up I became a bricklayer. I continued with the music and then joined a band, a conjunto from San Antonio called Los Guadalupanos. Things really changed for me then. I was getting more and more professional all the time. I played with them in between going back and forth to the fields and all that in Minnesota. I made my first recording with them.
I got married and I tried to make it work with the music, but of course back then they didn't pay enough. So I had to continue to do construction work, bricklaying and stone laying and all that. But I kept playing music and I kept recording.
NEA: Given the difficulties of making a living, why do you think that you kept playing music during that time? Why was it so important to you?
MR. SALDIVAR: Music has always been important to me because it comes from the heart. My family made a lot of sacrifices because of my persistence. It was a struggle, with children growing up and all that. By being persistent though, I was finally able to quit the other stuff, the work, and just play music. I made my own recording label later on. Then my wife became my manager and now one of my daughter is a manager. It feels good to hang in there.
Like I said, our music is very close to roots music. I believe our style of music will keep that particular art and that particular culture alive for years to come. The only way to make that possible was to persevere and persist.
And of course it brings memories. There's always memories of my grandparents and my mom and dad because this was the music they used to dance and sing to. They loved the music.
NEA: Why do you think that the artistry, the conjunto music is so valuable to the community there?
MR. SALDIVAR: The lyrics in our songs are stories, real honest-to-goodness stories. The songs are about life itself. Some of the songs refer to when we used to go work in the fields, and they refer to love and truck driving, trains, having a good time. The music is very similar to what they used to call hillbilly music back then - now it's country western - because it's stories about life itself. When you hear a very old song you're actually getting a little education, it takes you all the way back. And for young people to know what their grandparents did and their ancestors and their parents, it's an education. What's so great is that in the last fifteen to twenty years, a big change is that more young people than ever, boys and girls included, are picking up the accordion and becoming very good musicians. We always encourage young people to keep doing that to keep the art and the culture alive.
NEA: How would you describe your style? Do you think that it's a more conservative style or more innovative style?
MR. SALDIVAR: Apparently I was the first person to play the accordion and move around with it on stage. After a while I just had to do it. And now I'm all over the stage with the accordion. I play the widest accordion and I'm very energetic on the bandstand. When I see people dance or stand in front of the bandstand it just gives me a lot of energy. You want to do more for them because it seems like you're doing something that they like. That sort of became a first here in San Antonio with our band. It's done wonders for me and for the band
I don't know when it started but I was given a title of "The Dancing Cowboy," so now everywhere that we go it's "The Dancing Cowboy Mingo Saldivar and the Band." Even in the early fifties I remember playing in houses when musicians used to sit down in chairs. I couldn't sit down and play the accordion, I had to stand up and move around. Finally, it just became one of the highlights of the band. And now with wireless technology I can actually get off the bandstand and dance with the people while I'm playing. So I don't think we're very conservative.
NEA: What about incorporating any different genres of music into conjunto?
MR. SALDIVAR: Back in the fifties when I lived in Minnesota I loved to listen to hillbilly music. Hank Williams, Buck Owens and all those wonderful singers out there playing hillbilly music. There weren't too many Hispanic people in the area where I was living. I started to learn hillbilly songs and then I started to write the verses in Spanish following the same story that was there in English.
When I came back to Texas I performed several songs like that, sang them in Spanish and English. It didn't go over too well. But when I started recording, I did the bilingual versions and it started working. To this day I've incorporated mainly country western songs because, like conjunto music, they relate so much to everyday life. Now when we record there will be at least one, and sometimes up to three, bilingual songs on one CD. Its done a lot of good for us.
I think it's very important that we incorporate other songs into our music. I just did a CD for Rounder Records out of Cambridge, Massachusetts - I took the old song Blue Moon in Kentucky and put a harmonica on it and put bilingual verses in it. We did the same thing with Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison. We did that one entirely in Spanish. I think this will help us in the Anglo market, including classics like Blue Moon in Kentucky - then they will listen to the rest of the CD then hear the pure conjunto sound without the bilingual verses.
NEA: What advice would you give to young musicians playing this kind of music?
MR. SALDIVAR: To the young people who are already musicians I say, Keep it up and keep at it. Keep the culture alive for your children. It's a lot of fun and if you become good enough you get paid for it. If you record, then you leave something there forever, for other people to learn from.
NEA: You spoke about the sacrifices you and your family made early in your career. What have been the greatest personal rewards?
MR. SALDIVAR: I'm not a millionaire or anything like that, but I've gotten a lot of self satisfaction. I'm glad that I hung in there and was able later on to give my family the things that they needed.
Of course, the National Heritage Award is the biggest award in my entire career. We've had a Grammy nomination. We've played Carnegie Hall and the Atlanta Olympics. I've been inducted into the Hall of Fame in three Texas organizations. We went on a USIA tour out of Washington, DC for six weeks in Africa and to Syria, Jordan, Israel and finally Jerusalem. My kids and my grandchildren are very proud of all that. I thank God every single day for that, for all the accomplishments that are under our belts, so to speak. I have a lot to be grateful for. Having no education and going through all that struggle but making out so well. Of course it took a good girl, my wife. It takes a strong girl to be a wife of a musician.
NEA: Do you have any predictions for where conjunto music is going to go in the future?
MR. SALDIVAR: It's being played just about all over the world by different musicians. There's a lot of awareness and you see so many young people picking up the accordion. I think that conjunto music is going to be more popular in Europe and in Japan in a few years. We went to Brazil in December and they liked the conjunto. They have accordion players there, but the conjunto accordion playing is different. It seems like it's going to do things there. When my grandchildren are all grown up and their children, I think conjuntoÊ music is going to be all over the place, God willing.
NEA: What are you most looking forward to during the award ceremony and the concert?
MR. SALDIVAR: I'm really nervous about it but of course I've always been a nervous person. I'm really looking forward to this thing. The days just seem to drag on for that day to come. The whole band is excited about it. We're going to do a gig there, a one hour show after the award I believe. I'm going to be there five days and the band is going to be there four days. Members of my family are going to be there with me. I'm just looking forward to everything that's going to be there. And to meeting all the other recipients and having the chance to chat with them a little bit and see what it is that they do and where they're from.