Inspired by one of top commenter Manuel’s karaoke jams, here’s a short history of Breaking Bad‘s favorite corridistas, the band Allmusic calls “as gritty and dramatic as one of their songs”: LOS CUATES DE SINALOA. But first, the karaoke jam in question, 2010´s “El Alamo,” a jaunty and repetitive take on a little three-note motive.
The song features accordion, not always a given with Los Cuates, who started out with just two guitarists and a bassist. Well, technically they started with just two guitarists…
1998: Two 14-year-old guitar-playing cousins from Sinaloa, Nano y Gabriel Berrelleza, cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. After living homeless and busking for a couple months, one day they show up at a Phoenix nightclub owned by musician José Juan Segura. Segura tells Billboard,
It happened when quebradita and banda became big and the popularity of grupero music, which was my format, declined. I got into the nightclub business and one time outside my club, Los Cuates de Sinaloa showed up. I opened the backstage doors and there were two kids there with guitars. They said, “We’re looking for work. Can we play you some songs?” They got onstage and when I saw the audience’s reaction I said, “Maybe they’re getting attention because they’re kids, or maybe it’s because they sing well.” But [the crowd] started giving them pieces of paper with song requests, and people went up to the stage to get a closer look at them, which wasn’t easy in that little place. When I saw that reaction, I thought it would be a good opportunity to record them.
I had recorded my own group on my own label, Gypsy Records. When I traveled around to my competitors in Phoenix, I would hear people driving their cars and going to nightclubs, just to be seen, playing Los Cuates at top volume. That’s when I said, “I’ve got to get them out of Phoenix.” That’s when I started going to the radio networks.
(August 15, 2009)
2006: Ramiro Burr shouts out Los Cuates’ “musica de la sierra” in the Billboard article “New Sounds” (June 24), lumping them together with Los Alegres de la Sierra and La Chio. Other new sounds include duranguense, tierra caliente, and norteño-romantico boy bands. Burr writes, “The Berrellezas recorded seven albums independently before Sony BMG signed them last year. Now their major-label debut, Niña Coqueta, features the usual array of cumbias, polkas and rancheras, but the emphasis is on the guitars and the cousins’ smooth vocal harmonies. Bass, drums and other instruments play a very minor role.” What’s the allure? “Part of musica de la sierra’s appeal is “its sincerity and simple approach,” Viva Music’s Albert Garcia says. “The music projects a lot of feeling, and it has a small pueblo allure, which is how it manages to find favor.”” The pretty title track is a radio hit.
Note how close their lineup is to Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho; the only difference is Camacho would use a tuba instead of a bass. (Los Cuates would soon get a tuba too, just wait.)
2007: Los Cuates release their second major label album, Puro Sierreño Bravo (Sony). (This is also the name of a 2004 album by Fidel Berrelleza y Sus Toros — I’m gonna guess there’s a family relation — and Los Cuates have covered lots of that band’s songs.) The minor hit (#35 Regional Mexican Airplay) is “El Carril Numero Tres,” a tale of an illicit border deal; like everyone else at that time, they also cover Jorge Gamboa’s “Chuy y Mauricio.” Later that year they release another album, Los Gallos Mas Caros.
2008: Billboard notes, “A flurry of corridos albums by groups not known for their harder fare suggests the genre’s growing popularity is pushing it into the mainstream” (May 24). Los Cuates ARE known for their harder fare, but Billboard mentions them anyway because they’re charting with their third corridos album in two years, Puras Pa’ Pistear.
2009: Los Cuates release their first album with a tuba instead of a bass! (You knew that´d make NorteñoBlog happy.) Pegando Con Tuba also features accordion instead of lead guitar, and Los Cuates score their first Hot Latin Top 40 hit, with the irresistible “Me Haces Falta.”
Also in 2009, Los Cuates record what might be the first corrido to be featured in an English language TV show, when they perform “Heisenberg Song” aka “Negro y Azul” for Breaking Bad. The L.A. Times quotes Narcocorrido author Elijah Wald:
“What interests me about the Cuates is there was this group called Miguel y Miguel, and back when I was writing about this stuff, they were the first modern group to come out just doing the guitars — without accordions, without brass bands. It always seemed to me then that they were the obvious crossover group if there was ever going to be one, because, I’m sorry, accordions and brass bands just aren’t hip.”
I’d argue that, 1) the Breaking Bad gig didn’t exactly count as a crossover move, and 2) there’s nothing inherently more or less hip about accordions and brass bands under the command of guys like Gerardo Ortiz or Noel Torres, who, like the best stars, teach their audience new definitions of “hip.” But I’m glad Wald linked Los Cuates back to Miguel y Miguel.
2010: ¡Recuerda “El Alamo”!
2011: Now a standard quartet with accordion, guitar, bass, and drums, Los Cuates score their biggest radio hit with the corrido “La Reina del Sur,” a cover of a Los Tigres song about a Trap Queen type. The video is packed with action and explosions, I think taken from the telenovela that bears the song´s name.
Los Cuates would go on to release two more studio albums in 2012 and 2013, and then a live album earlier in 2015 to celebrate 15 years in the business. They are still way younger than I am.