Narciso "El Huracan del Valley (The Hurricane of the Valley)" Martinez is considered the "father of conjunto music." A prolific artist, capable of recording 20 tunes in a single day, Martinez established the framework for the music of the borderlands between Texas and Mexico. In addition to recording such classic tunes as "La Chicharonera," "La Parrita," "La Polvadera," and "Los Coyotes" on his own, Martinez used his distinctive accordion playing to accompany such norteno and cajunto artists as Carmen and Laura, Beto Villa's Orchestra, and the Mendoza Sisters, including solo recordings by Lydia Mendoza.
Born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a small Mexican town across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, Martinez moved to the U.S. as a youngster and spent his early years in the Lower Rio Grande Valley city of La Palma, near Brownsville, Texas. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, who played accordion, he began playing the squeezebox by his mid-teens. In addition to being influenced by the orquestra tipicas, which featured violins, flutes, bass, and guitar, he found inspiration in the playing of accordionists such as Jose "La Bamba" Rodriguez, Lolo Cavazos, Francisco Gutierrez, and Alejandro Aguire. Teaching himself to play the accordion, Martinez moved from the traditional German approach to the accordion and developed his own style which emphasized the treble end of the instrument. Although he began on a two-row accordion, he moved to a three-row model by the late-'40s.
By 1928, Martinez had become so skillful on the accordion that he began to conceive a career as a musician. Temporarily relocating to Bishop, Texas, near Corpus Christi, he was inspired by the Bohemian, Czechoslovakian, and German music played by the city's many immigrants. He returned to La Paloma after marrying in 1931. From the early days of his career until 1950, Martinez performed with Skidmore, Texas-born bajo sexto player, Santiago Alemeida. Together, they built up a large repertoire that included polkas, redovas, schottishes, waltzes, mazurkas, boleros, danzones, and huapangos. Recording for the first time for RCA's Bluebird subsidiary, on October 21, 1936 Martinez had a hit with his debut single, "La Chicharronera." The initial recording session yielded 20 tunes, for which Martinez was paid $150. In addition to his conjunto recordings, Martinez recorded Cajun music as Louisiana Pete and Polish music as Polski Kwartet for Bluebird's Louisiana Cajun and Polish series.
He continued to record for Bluebird until 1940 when the label lost interest in regional or ethnic music. Moving to the San Benito, Texas-based label, IDEAL, Martinez continued to record at a prolific rate through the 1950s. His income as a musician, however, was not sufficient to support him and his family, and he was forced to work a variety of jobs. In the mid-'50s, he worked during the week as an agriculture worker and limited his playing to the weekends. Moving to Florida to pick tomatoes, he remained in the Sunshine State until 1968 when he briefly relocated to Ohio. Returning to Texas shortly afterwards, he recorded for the McAllen, Texas-based ORO label.
In 1973, he took a caretaker's position with the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. He remained with the zoo until his retirement in 1977. Martinez remained active as a musician, however. In the mid-'70s, he was featured in a documentary video, Chulas Fronteras, produced by film-maker Les Blank and owner of Arhoolie Records, Chris Strachwitz. In 1983, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment For The Arts in Washington, D.C.. Six months after recording his final album, 16 Exitos De Narciso Martinez, Martinez died of leukemia on June 5, 1992. Martinez was inducted into the Conjunto Hall Of Fame in 1982. ~ Craig Harris