Current reading on the NorteñoBlog nightstand is Helena Simonett’s 2001 book Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders. Simonett is an ethnomusicologist at Vanderbilt University; she spent much of the ’90s interviewing banda musicians and fans around L.A. and northwestern Mexico. If you think back to ’90s banda — at least to the small extent that the blog has delved into it — the predominant sounds were the synth/horn combinations of technobandas like Banda Machos and Banda Maguey. They were sort of precursors to Chicago duranguense bands, with synths replacing horns and fewer members than a typical Sinaloan brass band. The venerable acoustic Banda El Recodo was respected and toured internationally through the ’90s, but it didn’t have much of a presence as pop music. Now, along with a host of other acoustic bandas, it does, and the technobanda sound has all but disappeared. One of the blog’s ongoing goals has been to learn how the current banda sound — classic acoustic brass bands playing newly written pop tunes — took over the radio.
As told by Simonett, this history is complex, so here’s an oversimplification. For much of its early history, banda was largely confined to the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico. (How it got there is a whole other story.) Mexico’s intellectual elite, centered in Mexico City, pushed mariachi as the national music of the people — it was cultivated by radio and the national government, which required mariachi bands play the capital in elegant charro costumes. Mariachi musicians still weren’t rich, but their string-based folk music was considered more noble and sophisticated than that of the bandas, even when the ensembles were playing many of the same songs. The difference? “Sinaloan intellectuals had never considered regional banda music folk music,” writes Simonett. “It was never the focus of interest, never presented as a tourist article, and never used for national political purposes… It evolved in the shadow of the periphery.”
Simonett includes an amazing 1926 article, written just a few years after the revolution, from a newspaper in Sinaloa’s port city of Mazatlán. The article’s author praises Mexican folk music because it jibes with his romantic notion of The People. (“The national soul has not yet died.”) But the guy hates banda. He writes sarcastically of its “hullaballoo”, “It sounds better to the ears standardized by the vibrating vertigo of the locomotives and electric trains and of the machinery of the factories.” Notice how Dylan Goes Electric that argument sounds: loud music that sounds like the city can’t be the authentic voice of the people! Too vulgar! Too commercial! Although I should note, banda was no more “commercial” than mariachi at that point.
Bandas would soon try to change that. In the 1950s, after chugging along as local phenomena in Sinaloa for nearly a century, some of the town brass bands started getting more ambitious. RCA Victor recorded Banda Los Guamuchileños in 1952 and, two years later, Banda El Recodo. The leader of the latter band, an ambitious thirty-something named Cruz Lizarraga, decided that if more people were going to hear his band through their recordings, the band needed to make some changes. He started dressing them in uniforms, which the musicians hated. (Don Cruz: “They started a hellish row with many protests.”) He started aiming for an upper class audience by adapting hits from American big bands and Mexican orchestras. The band toured Mexico and crossed the border to play in L.A. Where banda music had been almost all instrumental, Don Cruz experimented with putting solo singers up front. Some of the local bandas resented these changes; for one thing, they were worried banda recordings would make people less likely to hire the real thing. But Don Cruz saw the future, and his experiments paved the way for ’90s technobanda… which, in turn, paved the way for Banda El Recodo’s current pop success.
Simonett is very good at tracing how commerce shapes music, and she never demeans the music for its commercial aspirations. Musicians gotta get paid. At the same time, she doesn’t shy away from commercial music’s historical ironies. When Banda Machos hit big in the early ’90s, playing a panoply of different rhythms and covering most of the brass parts with synths, the old innovator Cruz Lizarraga hated them, as did lots of the other old time banderos. This wasn’t banda! And yet, instead of yelling at clouds, Don Cruz kept changing his band to connect with new audiences. In 1992 he hired Julio Preciado, a hot young corridero with a rough, nasal voice, to front the band. Banda El Recodo made no bones about playing for private audiences of narcos. After a while, some older fans started resenting them! “The new bandas are so contaminated. They dress like clowns, like eccentrics,” Simonett quotes one (former?) fan saying in 1994. “Cruz Lizarraga was the first to popularize the banda, but he also corrupted the banda… Out of the need to survive, they do whatever pays well.”
Technobanda wouldn’t escape the ’90s, but Simonett credits it with paving the way for our current banda pop era. In 1999 Recodo would hit #1 on U.S. airplay with a new singer and the trad-but-fresh “Te Ofrezco Un Corazón”; around the same time they’d start working with producers and label owners the Valenzuela Brothers, aka Los Twiins, who’d go on to bring the world banda rap, the horror-corrido subgenre El Movimiento Alterado, and current norteño star El Komander. Omar Valenzuela has admitted to another important personal innovation.
“We’ve learned how to really tune the banda,” he told Billboard in 2001, “which [in the past] maybe wasn’t really done.”