Never heard Conjunto Bernal before? This is wonderful, in-the-pocket Tejano music, perfect for those who love Los Lobos' accordion/bano sexto, norteño workouts. The songs come from the same 1955-1965 time frame as Arhoolie's 24-track Tejano Roots: Mi Unico Camino, but there's no duplication, and these don't sound anything like second-rate leftovers. Far from it -- the tantalizingly brief 43 minutes of music here makes you eager to hear more.
The two-paragraph liner notes adequately sketch the fundamental story down to the group breaking up in 1972, when accordion player Paulino Bernal became a born-again Christian and abandoned secular music (the devil's music must lurk in many forms). The group's big 1958 hit, "Mi Unico Camino," opened John Sales' Lone Star, and it's not a great stretch to suspect that Tejano-leaning rockers, like Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, were hearing Conjunto Bernal right along with Flaco Jimenez when they were coming up.
Now, Tejaon, or norteño, or Text-Mex, or con junto is a pretty by-the-book style, so the shock is how fresh and open this music sounds. It doesn't feel reined in or locked down by genre rules, as Paulino tosses off nice solo moves on "Voy Perdiendo," and "La Ultima Palabra" just rockets along nice and rangy and light. Part of it is an inventive accordion style, mixing unusual chord flavors with single note flurries -- broad notes playing against staccato bursts offer plenty of intriguing soloing possibilities, as Paulino demonstrates on his polka instrumentals, like "La Margarina," or the exuberant "La Coneja."
There's another reason, but it's not Eloy Bernal capably holding down the bano sexto fort. Let's give the uncredited drummer on these tracks some credit, because he does more than just keep time and beat. It's active, but nothing fancy, based on rolling tom-toms, and it gives the music all sorts of snap and new dimensions, be it on another polka instrumental like "Melinda," the near-ballad "Pensamiento," or the rat-a-tat punctuations in "Dios De Mi Vida."
The last song broadly hints at Paulino's future conversion, but "Castigame" returns to secular love, so there's a gospel/blues duality at play here. The bolero "Por La Misma Senda" is haunting and brooding, with staccato accordion interjections, and "Quiereme Un Poquito" is a rapid-fire, good time declaration of drunken love. "La Turicata" features soprano sax or clarinet intertwining with the accordion -- it's another distinct touch, lively and bright.
What a great surprise and discovery 16 Early Hits is. The brothers' vocal harmony blend is really impressive, and this accomplished and vital band should rank right up there with Jimenez and wildman Steve Jordan for anyone starting to check out this side of Texas/Tejano music. For those already aware of this genre, Conjunto Bernal is certainly a band to become well-acquainted with.