“Naturally now you can’t stick just with polka and redova and schottisches. You have to play what’s going on in the world. Starting with polka, and a little rock-and-roll, or a little cumbia, cha-cha-cha. …
Because it’s pretty hard just to play just polka, polka, polka, polka, or just cumbia, cumbia, cumbia. You have to mix it up.”
Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez Interview (55:17) LISTEN HERE: Flaco Jiménez
Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez
Interviewed by: Chris Strachwitz
Location: San Antonio, Texas
This is an unedited interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Chris: Flaco Jimenez. First of all, where does your nickname come from?
Flaco: Originally, Flaco means slim or skinny. When I was a young kid, thirteen, fourteen years old I used to be real, real skinny, real thin. Here in a TV show, this radio announcer, he was Master of Ceremonies though, he used to play with me all the time. Flaco, and Flaco here, and Flaco there, so when I started recording when I was 16, the name Flaco now. It wasn’t Leonardo Jimenez which is my name.
Chris: What is your first name?
Flaco: Leonardo. I started recording under this name of Flaco Jimenez so it’s been like that ever since.
Chris: I guess, was your father fairly slender too? Because I have some records where he’s called El Flaco on it.
Flaco: Yes. He started recording in, I think it was 1936, and he was called Flaco Jimenez, too. He was flaco, too.
Chris: Are any of the people still here that he recorded with? Do you know this fellow who played bajo sexto with them?
Flaco: Let’s see. Not the bajo sexto. His second voice is still living at [?] He resides here in San Antonio. Yes.
Chris: What is your birthday? When were you born?
Flaco: March 11, 1939.
Chris: 39 yeah?
Flaco: I’m 34 right now.
Flaco: Do you think so?
Flaco: Well, thank you.
Chris: Was your father the first accordion man you heard play?
Flaco: Here in San Antonio, yes. He was the first one that came out in record, though. The accordion it has been in existence for a long time.
Chris: Did you pick up your playing from him mostly?
Flaco: Oh yes. He used to give lessons to guys here and there. I used to just look at him and I started watching how he did it. As a young kid I used to play a little, not much.
Chris: When did you start playing the accordion? How old were you?
Flaco: I was about thirteen. No, about twelve years old.
Chris: How did you find other people to play with? Were there other youngsters in school?
Flaco: Yes. I started with this guys that have their own conjunto, right now ……There’s Henry Zimerle and Mike Garza, a lot guys that have their own band now. We just played and got our own, our own group.
Chris: Who were some of the other accordion players that you liked when you started out? Besides your father.
Flaco: Besides my father? There’s a lot of them that I like. One of them is Valerio Longoria. He’s a good accordionist. Narciso Martinez from here, the valley. Narciso Martinez. Juan Lopez, there’s a lot of guys that I sure enjoy their music.
Chris: Did you hear mostly on a record or did you …
Flaco: Yes. By record. I was kind of young.
Chris: Excuse me. How can you close those doors? Is there any way? Let me just look.
Chris: Did you already have a group when you were still going to school? Or did you just kind of practice?
Flaco: No. I just practiced and hang around with guys that knew how to play the guitar. Actually, I came to have a group when I was about sixteen years old. I got my own group.
Chris: How’d you pick the songs that you wanted to play? Did you write any yourself or did you pick up the ones that the jukeboxes liked?
Flaco: The ones I have recorded?
Chris: Or the ones that your band played, at a dance or whatever, when you started performing.
Flaco: I used to just pick them up. Wherever I heard them, I just picked them up. Of course, now that I’m recording, it’s kind of hard to get the material. You can’t record the same material that everybody’s recording.
Chris: Have you met any older men around, that may have some interesting old songs that you might like to hear? Have you ever looked for any of these guys?
Flaco: Yes. I’m always looking for some new songs, yes, and old songs that haven’t been heard for a long time. There’s a lot of old people, that they know those kinds of songs. We have to just look for them.
Chris: Yeah. I think it’d be really interesting. Maybe we could get together on that because that’s what really I’m sort of intrigued by, because I just was over at Norteño. Did you learn any songs from your father, like he made several corridos……
Flaco: Yes. I’ve recorded quite a few songs which he made. Now, I’ve got a release, a new, I think it’s a pretty good release of a song he made. It’s Buscando a Mi Madre. It’s a song that’s pushing pretty good right now. It’s his. It’s not an old song. He just made it a few months ago so he gave me the privilege to record it.
Chris: Is he still playing actively?
Flaco: No. He records quite often but not in present days, because he’s kind of tired, now.
Chris: I can imagine. What sort of business is he in now? Somebody said you knew.
Flaco: He’s in a seminary. He does janitor work. He’s a handyman.
Chris: Ah yes, all around.
Flaco: All around. But he’s a foreman.
Chris: Did he ever tell you where he got most of those tunes from? A lot of those polkas, and schottisches and waltzes and huapangos.
Flaco: He used to just talk about it, but not all he made just from his, in this split second, all of a sudden he comes out with that, and that’s it. He makes it.
Chris: I was wondering if he ever knew a lot of Bohemian people or Germans ……
Flaco: I think so yes. Because in his kind of style of playing, it gives it a little taste of Bohemian or something like that.
Chris: When you can play a tune like that long polka you played last night …….., it’s something. That was, by the way, a really good set. I thought that was a well-balanced set.
Flaco: I was trying to satisfy you people.
Chris: It was really good. I really enjoyed that. You ended up with that weird version of El Rancho Grande. It was really pretty good.
Flaco: We ought to record that.
Chris: Oh you did?
Flaco: No. We ought to.
Chris: Oh definitely. I think that would be a, yeah.
Flaco: You know it’s a traditional piece of music.
Chris: Oh yeah except the way you guys did it by putting in a change in tempo and changing your key, too. That was really very clever.
Flaco: We just messed it up. Oh shucks.
Chris: Have you ever come across much of corridos that deal with sort of political things here? Like either marches when they had that thing going to Austin, about 10 years ago. That’s probably before your time or something. Or any problems between the Anglos and the Mexican population. Have you ever encountered any story-songs like that, like corridos?
Flaco: In corridos, not in that kind of …
Chris: Type of subject matter?
Flaco: Right. The corridos that we recorded is just like corridos from……. Mexican styles or like this one here, Jacinto Trevino.
Chris: More traditional ones.
Flaco: Right. El Contrabando del Paso, and all that.
Chris: Do you ever have people come up to you and give you a song written up on a piece of paper or anything like that?
Flaco: Yes. There’s a lot of those kind of people. Some of them are good. Or we can always polish them up so they’ll come out good. But we’ll take any kinds of subjects, because people they’ve got ideas. The only thing is that they’re not known. We’re still looking for them.
Chris: I think that might be a good thing to do, to keep an eye open for things for what you would like. You say you sure need that. Did you ever play for any other audience except Spanish-speaking people? Did you ever play for Bohemians? Or like the ……..
Flaco: No, well I haven’t had that chance. I sure am willing to get to play in those kind of …
Chris: Maybe there was one, because when I spoke Narciso Martinez a couple years ago down there, he said he played a lot for Czech people in Corpus where he grow up apparently. Did you grow up here in San Antonio?
Flaco: Yes. I was born and raised here.
Chris: Did your father live here in San Antonio too?
Flaco: Yes he was born and raised here too.
Chris: Right here in San Antonio.
Flaco: My great-grandfather was from Mexico.
Chris: Your great-grandfather was from Mexico. Did he play accordion too?
Flaco: My grandfather did. Yes.
Chris: Your grandfather did. What was his name? Do you know?
Flaco: His name was Patricio Jimenez, but in that time there was no recordings. Just recording from the capital of Mexico, but not locally here.
Chris: There was very little of this, yeah. Did you know him?
Flaco: No. I didn’t get to know him.
Chris: He died before you …
Flaco: He died, right.
Chris: That’s interesting if he played accordion because it apparently goes a long ways. I wanted to find out something about the different accordions. I think when you hear norteño music you can tell right off that that’s what it is. It’s a very specific sound. How do you get that out of the accordions? Is there any way you can tell me of, what makes it sound like that?
Flaco: Well, I don’t know. It just comes out. You can always tell a norteño accordion.
Chris: I mean, do you re-tune any of these instruments when you get them for example.
Flaco: No. You can always, well I have an accordion repair shop here so I know quite a bit of accordion. You can always get those vibrates that vibrates on a little part you know? It’s a different, you can tune them in different keys. At least I can do it.
Chris: What key? I notice that most of you use a 3-button row type of accordions.
Flaco: Yes. They come in different keys.
Chris: They come in different keys?
Flaco: There’s like a G-C-F, or a F-B-E or A-D-G. They come in different.
Chris: Which is the most common, do you think?
Flaco: The G-C-F.
Chris: The G-C-F. Maybe that is the reason that ……..
Flaco: Yes, because it’s pretty hard to get all of the keys in this type of accordion. It’s pretty hard. It’s not like a piano accordion which it’s got the whole piano keyboard. It’s kind of hard to get all of them. Like the half-tones, yeah. But it all depends. Because we use a lot of singing it depends on how, what kind of pitch we have to do for the kinds of songs.
Chris: How would you accommodate that? Would you sometimes have two accordions. Like if you wanted to play a song in a key that’s not on the instrument you’ve got in your hand.
Flaco: Well, yes. This is the way we work it, that we have two accordions. One in G-C-F and one in F-B-E. Having two accordions, you have almost the whole keyboard. I think, practicing and studying it very good, I think it will come out with the whole keyboard in one accordion. It’s kind of hard though. I’ve tried it and haven’t. I couldn’t make it the whole thing you know.
Chris: One thing I want to ask. So many youngsters grow up in one kind of element, one kind of music, and they turn their back to it. How did you feel about it? How come you stayed with your music? Because you seem to have picked up where your father left off. How did you feel about it when you were a youngster?
Flaco: I loved it, you know, and I still do. Naturally now you can’t stick just with polka and redova and schottisches. You have to play what’s going on in the world. Starting with polka, and a little rock-and-roll, or a little cumbia, cha-cha-cha. You have to make the whole deal so everybody would you know … Because it’s pretty hard just to play just polka, polka, polka, polka, or just cumbia, cumbia, cumbia. You have to mix it up.
Chris: You like to mix up. The thing that always amazes me and I’m very happy to see it is that, despite the fact that you live so close to the American culture, like rock and roll music and all that, you people have pretty much stayed apart and kept your own music. How do you think that happened? What do you think gave you the strength to kind of stay your part?
Flaco: I think it comes just by heart, I guess. We were, I think I was born with it you know. I think the other accordionists, or music guys you know, they will stick to it.
Chris: Most of your audience likes the old style of music?
Flaco: Yes. They like the old style but you have to, like I say, you have to mix it up to go along with the young generation, too. You can play an old song with a new arrangement. It’s a same old song but with a new arrangement, so young kids they hear it.
Chris: Have you traveled anywhere else amongst Spanish-speaking people? Have you been to California or places like that?
Flaco: Yes. I’ve played in California. My own, I just recorded an album with Doug Sahm in New York. I’ve recorded with guys from California, but not in California. I recorded in Florida with Louie and the Lovers and with Doug. Like I say, I like all kinds of music.
Chris: You’re certainly an incredible accordion player. There’s no doubt about that.
Flaco: Thank you.
Chris: Who are your favorite musicians at the moment that you like to listen to a lot? I was just asking who are some of your favorite musicians right now that you listen to a lot?
Flaco: In this type of music, in polka music?
Flaco: Like I say, every accordion player I like. The ones that I prefer they play kind of an old style, like old rancheras. I’m referring to Los Alegres de Teran. They’re my favorite. Naturally they’ve got another style. Now Ramon Ayala he’s pretty darn good. I’ve heard a lot about him and in my point I think he’s the best.
Chris: Can you recall any particular accordion player who changed kind of from that? Like your father he played a much more flowing style and all of a sudden there was a very staccato style came in. It was much snappier than norteño. I don’t know if I can express myself right. You know, much stronger accent, much fast note. Like your father played the much more European-style maybe. Can you recall any particular musician who changed that sort of thing?
Flaco: Yes. Valerio Longoria.
Chris: He did.
Flaco: Because he’s more of a progressive kind of accordionist. In that time when my father was recording and all, he modernized the kind of type-playing, not just the old-type of playing. He modernized it and my father used to play just in 2-row accordions. When Valerio Longoria came in, he had a 3-row accordion which it’s more easy to get more keys and all, to make it a little more progressive. He was the one that made it.
Chris: Do you like any kind of American music, like English music?
Flaco: In the English language I like country and western. In polka, I like German-style polka.
Chris: Some people tell me that norteñ o music and country and western is really the same kind of music.
Flaco: Yes it’s almost the same.
Chris: They’re love songs about women done you bad or something like that?
Flaco: Yeah. The I’m going to die drinking, and all that.
Chris: Yes. That’s right.