In early January, the Special Collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio welcomed a new addition to its holdings after more than a two-year wait. The Real Tejano Conjunto Accordion Book — a distinctive book and artifact that relays the story of accordionists and the musical form they helped develop in and around San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley — was created by book artists Peter and Donna Thomas specifically for the John Peace Library’s collection of artists’ books.
Its appearance makes it a unique entry to the university’s archival holdings. The story of its creation, though, suggests an innovative method for expanding knowledge and appreciation of the form beyond the borders of Texas.
Steph Noell encountered the artists’ books of Peter and Donna Thomas while working as a librarian at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. SCAD’s libraries hold three of the Thomases’ artists’ books, including another accordion book and a still-playable ukulele book. When Noell, a University of North Texas alum, returned to Texas as Special Collections Librarian at UTSA, one of the collections under the library’s purview was the artists’ books. Their reacquaintance with Tejano and conjunto music sparked a connection.
UTSA Special Collections holds the institutional records of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a fixture on San Antonio’s West Side and the chief organizer of the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival. The first Conjunto Festival, in 1982, featured four bands; since then, it’s grown to a three-day event where performers from throughout Texas represent their local flavors of the musical form.
“Being around a lot of conjunto and Tejano bands, having knowledge of Peter’s accordion book and working with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center records … it just kind of all came together,” Noell recalls. “And I was like, ‘I need to call Peter!’”
Peter Thomas is both a book artist and a musician, playing ukulele and accordion. In 2001, he drew from both of those disciplines to create a book about the history of the accordion-fold style of bookmaking, bound within a repurposed accordion. The result, The Real Accordion Book, was the first of nearly 20 similar editions. These books are about bookmaking, not musicianship: when Noell contacted him about creating a book about conjunto, he was intrigued by the challenge.
“It was exciting to get out of my normal range,” he says. “I thought it would be really fun to make an artist’s book about accordions in San Antonio.”
Thomas had some familiarity with the city, thanks to previous collaborations with poet Naomi Shihab Nye. He planned to travel from his home in Santa Cruz, California, but the pandemic prevented that. Instead, he endeavored to research online from his home. Noell connected him with Dr. Catherine Ragland, a University of North Texas ethnomusicologist and a specialist in borderlands music. Now, with the information readily at hand, the new challenge was interpreting it to fit the form.
“It’s about the whole package,” Thomas explains. “You don’t want to be overly scholarly when creating an artist’s book. Then it’s just a book.”
Thomas was recharged after a friend connected him with the Arhoolie Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving American roots music, and its founder, Chris Strachwitz. Strachwitz has longstanding ties to Texas music: he was inspired to start Arhoolie Records after hearing Texas blues musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Strachwitz was introduced to Tejano music in the 1970s, and his personal collection of recordings is now the Strachwitz Frontera Collection at UCLA.
“Chris said I shouldn’t try to be an ethnomusicologist,” Thomas says. “I should share what’s true for me.” After that, the project flowed. He wrote about how the project taught him more about conjunto than he knew there was to learn; how he could now appreciate its distinct sound; and how it carried through when he heard Flaco Jiménez playing with David Lindley.
The finished product is an antique Hohner accordion, gutted of its bellows. Now, unfolding the instrument reveals a colorful spread of image and text. Digital reproductions of photographs from UTSA Special Collections and the Arhoolie Foundation, hand colored by Donna Thomas and printed on Peter’s handmade paper, comprise a gallery of portraits of some of the most notable historic and contemporary San Antonio conjunto artists: Valerio Longorio, Eva Ybarra, and the Jiménez conjunto dynasty of Santiago Sr., Flaco and Santiago Jr.
It’s meticulously constructed — but it’s silent. Is there some dissonance (so to speak) with using a book to communicate the cultural significance of an audial art form?
“Artists’ books are really meant to be handled. They’re meant to engage the audience and the reader,” says Noell. “They’re also meant to inspire our researchers and our students: what can be done with all this content in Special Collections? What can we create that recognizes that history?”
Amy Rushing, assistant vice provost of UTSA Special Collections, concurs. “It’s important to have different modalities: we’ve got tactile learners, visual learners, people who are more textural. So in my mind having different formats provides a richer experience. We have something for everyone — history isn’t just text on a page.”
Adds Noell, “Some books are readable, some are just art, but they all stretch the imagination of what we consider a book.”
When Noell let me handle The Real Tejano Conjunto Accordion Book, I understood that point. The pearl buttons are still in solid condition, and I was surprised by how much force was required to press them. They also pointed out how this accordion was customized by a past owner, with two chunks of German text etched into the body of the instrument. Accordion playing is often a family art for conjunto musicians, as evidenced by the Jiménez family — and challenged by Eva Ybarra, one of only a few well-known women conjunto accordionists. This Hohner may no longer be a musical instrument, but it has become an educational instrument, and one that emphasizes the deep human resonance of this tradition.
Even the creator shares this experience. “It’s wonderful how any artwork leads an artist somewhere,” Thomas says. “In making a book, I benefit from someone else’s words — in this artwork, I’ve benefited from conjunto. Artists’ books can work literarily, spatially, conceptually. It’s drawing you into the world it’s created.”
The Real Tejano Conjunto Accordion Book and over 200 other artists’ books in UTSA Special Collections are available for public viewing by appointment. Peter and Donna Thomas’ catalog of work and book artistry scholarship can be viewed on their website.
Photos courtesy University of Texas-San Antonio.