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Los Angeles Azules/Los Angeles de Charly – Gran Encuentro (Disa)

Amid all the polkas and waltzes, regional Mexican radio loves to throw in cumbias, though sometimes you get the sense that’s more because they’re useful tools or building materials, the caulk of the format. They often pop up as behind-the-DJ music, and because cumbia beats tend to flow easily into one another, they’re consistent grist for those hour-long DJ mixes that make me change the station after a couple songs. But certain sounds you don’t shake very easily, and the sound of Los Angeles Azules — a 13-or-15-piece Mexico City cumbia/vallenato group that was big around the turn of the millennium — can’t be forgotten once you’ve heard it.

The sound’s all there on their first big hit from 1996, “Cómo Te Voy a Olvidar,” which took cumbia’s trademark guacharaca shuffle (“the rhythm… has been compared to a horse trot,” writes Ramiro Burr) and layered it with yearning pop melodies. Mysterious accordion riffs in the dorian mode (think “Eleanor Rigby,” the part that goes “picks up the rice in a church“) trade off with even more mysterious trombone riffs that invariably come to rest on some low “blaaaaaah.” In 1999 Azules scored Billboard’s Regional Mexican Track of the Year with “El Listón De Tu Pelo.” Excellent trombone blaaaaaahs in that one, and a female singer, Mayra Torres, trading vocals with Carlos Montalvo. (“An oddity,” wrote Leila Cobo about the co-ed singing in the April 28, 2001 Billboard.) Cumbia remains a proven route for female singers to get played on regional Mexican radio; last year the dear departed El Patrón 95.5 was playing Azules’ duet with alt-rocker Ximena Sariñana enough that the song landed inside their station top 20.

Azules weren’t the first or the only Mexican band to play this music, not by a long shot. In the Oct. 6 ’01 Billboard, Burr wrote:

Vallenato is indigenous to Colombia’s Atlantic coast. Throughout that country, vallenato — like that other Colombian rhythm, cumbia — continues to be as much a part of the cultural and social fabric as blues, jazz and rock’n’roll are in the U.S. However, cumbia and vallenato* are also Colombia’s most popular and best-selling musical forms. Although folk-based, the genre received an international boost when Colombian accordionist Aniceto Molina, on Joey Records, helped popularize it in Mexico during the 1970s with his former group, La Luz Roja de San Marcos.

The music gained popularity in Mexican urban centers in the early 1980s, when other artists, such as Los Angeles Azules and Celso Pina, began emulating Molina… Thanks to Carlos Vives’ 1993 landmark CD, Clasicos de la Provincia, the vallenato movement was thrust into the mainstream as Vives’ single “La Gota Fria” cracked the Billboard charts.

You can hear the guacharaca in “La Gota Fria,” but it’s faster and fleshed out by kick drum and other rhythms, along with some Andes flute.

The core of Azules, writes Burr, is the Mejía family — three brothers who kept their white collar jobs until at least 1999, well after they became a hit band and started touring extensively. Inevitably, somebody went solo. But it wasn’t one of the brothers. Billboard‘s Leila Cobo explains, again from 2001:

The foundation of Los Angeles de Charly is the high tenor of Charly Becies, a former singer with established romantic grupo Los Angeles Azules, a band whose greatest-hits compilation also topped the Latin sales chart this season. In 1999, Becies decided to branch out on his own, because, he says, “I was just one element in the group, and I wanted to have my own identity.”

That identity centered on romantic material, and the band initially tried to register a name that reflected that kind of music. When [producer Ignacio] Rodriguez found that all their top name choices were already taken, they settled on Los Angeles de Charly — a fortuitous choice, because the Hollywood movie of Charlie’s Angels was released at about the same time. “It was essentially free publicity,” Rodriguez says.

Pretty sure Loverboy got the same bump.

Last year Disa released a bunch of these Gran Encuentro retrospectives, variations on a CD format that’s super-popular in regional Mexican music. These compilations alternate songs by two different Mexican groups, related to one another by varying degrees of tenuousness. (I’m currently soldiering through Mazz/La Mafia and wondering both “why?” and “why the fuss?”) The two tribes of Los Angeles are, as we’ve seen, pretty close. But there’s definitely a difference in sound. Charly is the more conventionally poppy angel of the two, with major keys and soaring heartfelt vocals. The Azules sometimes go there, but they’re also content to skulk around in their dorian darkness while playing pretty love songs. And everywhere — everywhere — is the guacharaca. But that’s not all there is. Both bands know to dress up their rhythms with fx and gimmicks, like the deep voiced men singing “tututu TUM bobo” along with Farfisa organ in “Mi Cantar.” It’s the kind of thing that pops out on radio, and it sounds pretty good in this context too.

VALE LA PENA

*About those genre IDs: Burr seems to use “cumbia” and “vallenato” interchangeably while alluding to some never-explained difference. In the record guide linked above, he describes Azules’ repertoire as “horn-powered boleros and vallenato-styled cumbias.” What? In this fascinating interview, Colombian music scholar and cumbia DJ Mario Galeano Toro clarifies, “[V]allenato is a close cousin of cumbia. It’s mostly major keys. In the ’90s there used to be cheesy commercial vallenato that played on all the buses in Bogotá…” He goes on, “Cumbia is composed of many different rhythms; I would say around 30. They’re all part of one big family called cumbia, but each has its own groove. The guacharaca with that ch-ch-CH rhythm is really the thing you notice first when you hear cumbia.”

But, but, but! IS NOT THE MUSIC OF LOS ANGELES AZULES IN MINOR KEYS? Or at least DORIAN keys, which sound minor except with one note out of place? But does not Ramiro Burr call their music “vallenato”? This is all wading into treacherous territory, where people’s eyes start to glaze over at all the jargon. I remember having the same problem when I started getting Decibel magazine a decade ago, wondering how to differentiate dark from black from tech from grind from doom from death from whatever other kinds of metal were out there. (“Power” was pretty easy because of all the dragons.) Now I want to learn all the cumbia and vallenata rhythms, even as I’m pretty sure you can enjoy this music without going to that much trouble.

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