[Note: this post has been edited to strike some unwarranted snark, for which I apologize to Milo Miles.]
A few weeks ago, the excellent music writer Phil Freeman alerted me to some “avant-banda” music at his blog Burning Ambulance. Although Freeman knows and loves Latin genres, Burning Ambulance largely covers jazz and metal, and the banda in question was Banda de los Muertos, a Brooklyn consortium of horn players playing what amounts to an arty chamber homage. (Says Muertos founder Jacob Garchik, “I might play a dance gig with the Banda on a Saturday but the next day play jazz for a cerebral, sit-down audience. I don’t want to do just one or the other!”) The Banda sounds like they’re fun live — by all accounts, Muertos shows are a blast of “hoots and hollers” and dancing. But on their new album Banda de los Muertos (Barbes), their take on the thriving commercial genre of banda resembles Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy remakes of the Notorious B.I.G. and the Spice Girls — both played with gusto on this album — or Brooklyn’s Asphalt Orchestra when they covered Swedish metal band Meshuggah. It’s a step removed. It’s “fun” (or “banging” or “rocking”) with scare quotes.
What it’s NOT is Banda For People Who Don’t Like Banda. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy, as NorteñoBlog has, both the mainstream banda music on commercial radio stations AND Banda de los Muertos’ somewhat jazzed-up take via NPR. Unfortunately, NPR reviewer Milo Miles seems to disagree:
Now, a pair of multi-instrumentalists in Brooklyn, Oscar Noriega and Jacob Garchik have revitalized Banda, a Mexican style Noriega grew up listening to with his immigrant parents and playing in a band with his brothers. Noriega and Garchik call their new group Banda De Los Muertos
[ed: in this segment pronounced “BAYNda DEE los Muertos”], and their leadoff original instrumental on the group’s debut, “Cumbia De Jacobo,” is as much unadulterated fun as any tune this year.
I turn to NPR for many things — detailed news, election coverage, the annual jazz poll for which they mysteriously allow me to vote, journalists trying to maintain straight faces while Republicans say crazy things — but I’ve never met anyone whose go-to source for “unadulterated fun” was NPR. (Maybe they need a new ad campaign.) Fun on NPR always seems thoroughly and explicitly adulterated, even if it’s adulterated by such respectable substances as “brains” and “human decency.” And while Muertos’s leadoff cumbia is, yes, fun, it’s fun in the manner of a killer Pérez Prado track from the ’50s.
This is by design. In the Burning Ambulance interview, Garchik says:
The repertoire is quite a varied mix. Some of the songs are [co-founder] Oscar [Noriega]’s picks, relating to his childhood — songs he used to play as a kid, a song his grandmother wrote, or a song his dad liked on the radio. Some of the repertoire are banda classics which I loved just from hearing the recordings.
Though Garchik and Noriega both shout out Banda El Recodo — whose current hit “Mi Vicio Mas Grande” sounds just as much fun and just as hard to play as any Muertos tune — modern banda this ain’t. That’s cool. But for NPR’s Mr. Miles, it’s cool for all the wrong reasons:
Banda had a surprise revival in the ’90s as younger groups became popular with Mexican immigrants in California. Compared to the fleet-footed style of the originators, however, the new Banda was a shade repetitious and hook-crazy.
[ed: THE HORROR!!!]Banda De Los Muertos solve all the problems in that their Banda does not sound antique, even when doing vintage numbers, and avoids top-40 simplicity, even as it makes you dance. Ooh! I have heard of this “Top 40 simplicity” and the pains musicians must take to avoid it. Just last week, while I was delivering Old Man Johnson’s weekly supply of BenGay and Fiber One, the crotchety bastard took some time to explain how everything on the radio sounded the same and anyway rappers weren’t musicians. I smiled and skedaddled before he could start reading me chain emails about United Nations Base Camps in Missouri.
Now, you know NorteñoBlog is appropriately cynical when it comes to radio’s supply of banda ballads, which focus on corazones and the hombres who break, mend, and fondle them. These songs are often boring and interchangeable. But they’re far from the only thing on “hook-crazy” “top-40” Regional Mexican radio. When I listen to unabashed pop songs like “Vicio,” or Marco Flores’s “El Pajarito” and “Amor de la Vida Alegre,” or even a ballad like Trakalosa’s “Adicto a la Tristeza,” I’m often spellbound by the unbelievably complex musicianship on display. And it’s not just a matter of technical chops — these bandas dig deep into the conventions of their genre and come up with novel ways of presenting old old truths, whether it’s Trakalosa’s campy despair or Flores’s adventurous uses of speed and texture. Dancing AND complexity? TOP 40 DOES BOTH OF THOSE THINGS TOO!
On Burning Ambulance, the leaders of Banda de los Muertes seem to agree:
Jacob Garchik: The level of musicianship in banda is extremely high, even with so-called “amateur” bands. The professional bands have some of the best brass players in the world. Playing banda for the last five years has certainly improved my sousaphone playing!
Oscar Noriega: As a clarinetist, playing the melodies. They are in the high and somewhat altissimo registers, which is technically difficult if you are not used to it. Also, learning to play loud and keeping one’s sound integrity together while blending with all brass and drums is not an easy task, it is exciting and a welcome challenge.
So by all means, check out Banda de los Muertos. And then listen to some Marco Flores, contender for best banda album of 2015. Fun, whether adulterated or un-, isn’t a zero sum game.
(Thanks to Phil Freeman for the tip; Burning Ambulance deserves yr clicks.)