Banda music is all about hard work; that work allows for banda’s fun, its depth, and its despair. Every banda song represents an enormous coordination of talent and effort, and this coordination is plain to anyone who listens. Aside from the lead vocal and an occasional horn solo or percussion fill, there is no pretense of spontaneity in banda music. The music we hear is the result of countless hours spent in preparation. Someone had to write charts for the horn players. To cleanly execute these charts’ complicated musical passages, the players had to devote time to rehearsal, both on their own and together. Popular musicians from metal to rap spend many hours practicing, of course, but the sheer size of a banda gives all this preparation, all this work, a quality of ornate formality. A banda song is like a room full of delicate antique furniture, where one misplaced elbow sends priceless valuables crashing to smithereens; or like an elaborate negotiation through a complex system of social etiquette, a labyrinth of rules that must be internalized if it is to be understood.
The rituals we see in videos — the horn players performing cheesy coordinated dances, the heartbroken singer bringing the banda to serenade his girlfriend outside her window — underscore what a lot of work a banda demands. In the movie Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler famously played a boombox outside Diane Court’s window to woo her. It was a charming gesture, in keeping with his character, and the wooing worked: the serenader won over his audience of one, and in doing so he won over the audience for his film. The serenading banda works in the same way. Just as the mujer at the window is impressed with the effort of her hombre — for starters, how the hell did he get 16 brass players together on the spur of the moment? — so we at the computer screen are impressed with the care and concentration the ensemble squanders on their silly pop song. When the three well-rehearsed virtuosos in Rush play a side-long progressive rock suite, they’re devoted nerds pleasing themselves; they could just as easily be arguing politics or playing Dungeons and Dragons. When the 16 virtuosos in a banda lavish their skill on their singer’s romantic plea, their audience must understand their effort as a formalized gesture of romance, or else all that effort and per diem money is wasted.
The canniest bandas recognize this elaborate formal system and use it to their advantage. Often their goal is romantic; Gerardo Ortiz can only soften his “Mujer de Piedra” if his banda’s music is harder and more rigid than her heart of stone. One of them must crack, and the banda never does. But just as often, the goal is humor — a humor that acknowledges The Void. In Recoditos’ “Ando Bien Pedo,”, the players’ dexterity mocks the drunken heartache of their singer as he marches toward oblivion. The audience, having learned to feel their way around the banda’s formality, recognizes this mockery for what it is and knows to laugh at the singer. Taken further, this effect explains an inescapable fixture of current banda albums: the big dumb cumbia. Nearly every banda album attempts one. Big dumb cumbias typically use only two or three chords, and their subject matter barely strays beyond drunken revelry or dance sensations that are (not usually) sweeping the nation. Yet the banda shows their big dumb cumbias the same, or more, consideration as any other song. Someone writes a horn chart full of elaborate musical passages. The players rehearse for hours to cleanly execute those passages. A banda rarely releases its big dumb cumbia as a single, so there the song sits in the middle of the album, awaiting its audience of several thousand: a hilarious and possibly scathing testimony to how much work musicians devote to their craft and how little, in the end, it all means.