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NorteñoBlog Pivots to Corridos Tumbados

This post is not about the song “Lowrider Gee”; maybe it should be.

We begin with a stoic tale of vehicular death. Fuerza Regida‘s “Descansando” began life a couple months ago as an acoustic memorial to one Arturo Garcia, whose truck, according to the song, was la más chingona in all of Houston. “El Fue Arturo” was strummed and sung by the band’s frontman, Jesús Ortiz-Paz, in a rhythmically tricky combo of strong 3/4 guitar chords and prancing 6/8 vocal cadence — supremely groovy despite its bereftitude. The Blog surmises the ode “El Fue Arturo” went viral, as such odes tend to do, especially if they have the backing of Jimmy Humilde and Rancho Humilde Records. From there the song passed into the capable hands of Jesús’s full band, a tuba-bottomed sierreño trio. Well, a trio plus Jesús, who cedes guitar duties to his bandmates and focuses on singing with just the right note of bittersweet dead-homie resignation.

Last time I checked in with the Fuerzas, on their breakthrough single “Radicamos en South Central,” I was nonplussed. Something about “needing backup singers” and “sounding like they were confined to a concrete bunker.” This assessment wasn’t entirely wrong; but, though “Descansando” doesn’t change the band’s instrumentation or lack of backup singers at all, and changes tempos less often than “Radicamos,” the Blog has come around to their sound. The three-against-two patterns are just as complex as they were in 2019 — thanks especially to syncopating tubist Jose Garcia (no idea if he’s related to the late Arturo) — but the virtuosity here is warmer and more offhanded. The groove never flags. Note also Ortiz-Paz’s rhyming facility, his rapper-like delight in landing “tesoro”-“morro”-“Arturo”-“seguro” at the end of verse two. This music sublimates grief into pure physical pleasure. And its grief and pleasure have connected, landing it at #20 on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs this week thanks to both streaming and sales. VALE LA PENA y PICK TO CLICK

“Descansando” currently occupies prominent places on two Spotify playlists: “Corridos Perrones,” a mix of badass songs both new and five-ish years old, and “Corridos Tumbados,” a genre the Blog wants to get to the bottom of. Named for a song by feisty sierreño youth Natanael Cano, corridos tumbados also go by the name “trap corridos,” linking them attitudinally-if-only-maybe-musically to trap music. Which makes Natanael Cano the T.I. of our day, I guess? The name’s idiom remains mysterious to Gringo me. Literally “corridos that are lying down,” but also (maybe?) “corridos that have toppled,” the term captures the same chill/threatening vibe as the term “trap.” Are the corridos lying in wait? To topple others? Or are they just hanging out? And how paradoxically should we take the juxtaposition of “corridos,” these running narratives, with “tumbados”? Explanatory comments from Spanish speakers are welcome.

In the meantime, the Blog will be focusing on corridos tumbados for a while because they’re new and hot; and I, being neither, would like a healthy infusion of their youthful traffic-driving juices. Plus, I never really liked the genre until washing a pile of dishes while listening to the “Corridos Tumbados” playlist, much of which sounded pretty good. So now I’m searching for all the songs that appear on both “Tumbados” and “Perrones” because their appearance on the latter makes them badass by definition. (OK, actually canine by definition, but IDIOMS.) And their borderline with trap is fascinating. Besides the cultural and attitudinal links, what musical territory do sung tumbados — largely played by two acoustic guitars and a bass instrument — share with heavily synthesized trap sprechtstimme? Stay tuned!

Slightly less interesting is “Se Amerita” by Junior H, a recent teen who crows like a sad gallo and drops new songs like a hen drops eggs. This song is from one of his four(!) 2020 albums, the Fifties-ily named Cruisin’ With Junior H. (I wonder if he and Natanael Cano have a stoplight drag race.) I don’t wanna presume but I think it’s one of those narrative-free living-the-high-life implied narcocorridos that all the trad corrideros hate. Sample translated lyric: “He’s not of my blood but he demonstrated loyalty,” which sounds like shop talk in a very specific line of work, plus something about piloting a Cessna and taking receipt of a horse. Here’s Junior and pal, sans horse, hacking through the song for his TikTok loyalists.

Earlier this year, Sr. H turned up in a Billboard article by Griselda Flores with the excellent headline “Sad Sierreño,” inspired by Junior’s only album of 2021 so far, the perfectly titled $ad Boyz 4 Life. The title’s juxtaposition of wealth and sadness seems borrowed from trap, which also plays on the well-worn rap conceit that its practitioners are presenting some unvarnished peak into their real lives. Never has a Junior spoken more like a junior: “I am exactly how you hear me in my music, vulnerable and sensitive. I’m not trying to sound poetic or find the right words, I’m just being direct… How cool that my fans feel connected and have embraced my sad songs. At the end of the day, we all have feelings.” Sigh. I suppose; but that doesn’t mean those feelings deserve to be set to music. And wouldn’t “finding the right words” communicate Junior’s feelings more directly? But we’ll still give “Se Amerita” a VALE LA PENA because its distinctive sound is Junior’s own, and whoever’s playing lead requinto seems to have their wits about them.

Alejandro Fernández and Chayín Rubio ride the mariacheño pony

caballeroOf all the 2020 events NorteñoBlog didn’t see coming, the one most likely to affect future generations, change the way untold millions live their everyday lives, and divide modern history into “before” and “after” epochs happened back in early January. That’s when certain U.S. specialists first noticed a particularly infectious agent, previously thought to be contained, dominating one of their charts with unprecedented scope and reach. I’m talking, of course, about Alejandro Fernández earning his first number one hit on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Airplay chart with the insidiously beautiful song “Caballero.”

Fernández was overdue. His dad is Vicente Fernández and his career has flourished for more than two decades, with multiple #1 hits on the more comprehensive Hot Latin chart, so you’d think the ranchera pop singer would have gotten his RegMex chart-topper sooner. He came closest in 1999 with “Loco,” a slow burn of understated insanity (Jonathan Bogart compares the string chart to Psycho) blocked from #1 by Conjunto Primavera‘s comparatively rinky-dink “Necesito Decirte.”

The timing of “Loco” was interesting:
Continue reading “Alejandro Fernández and Chayín Rubio ride the mariacheño pony”

Los Tigres y Banda El Recodo en las Noticias

los tigres folsom

A couple weeks ago, Banda El Recodo brought their act to the Twin Cities. In response, I brought my “turn Helena Simonett and a bunch of old Billboard articles into a listicle” act to the Minneapolis City Pages: 10 times Banda El Recodo, Mexico’s longest-running brass band, did something first(-ish).

The list runs down their history of firstness, from wearing uniforms in the ’40s to breaking sonwriter Luciano Luna in 2007. Along the way, they recorded swing, country, and… a version of the Lambada?

In 1989, they hired a singer to front the band.

By putting Conrado Calderón on payroll, Don Cruz made his job easier. Now the band could play their one-off vocal singles in concert without scrambling to find someone to sing them. But Cruz was also reading la borra del café: If the banda was going to reliably score hits, it needed a frontman. Calderón’s throaty voice was smooth as agave, making him perfect for this recording of “Llorando Se Fue/Lambada,” released when the Forbidden Dance was sweeping our sorry continent.

They were right to forbid it.

Meanwhile, over at Living Lutheran, I wrote about the documentary Los Tigres del Norte Live at Folsom Prison as a pretext to explain norteño music to the country’s whitest Christian denomination. Find the doc on Netflix, and then read Justino Aguila’s making-of account — playing at Folsom sounds like a logistical nightmare. From the review, enhedded The unlikely ministry of Los Tigres del Norte:

Though norteño bands play love songs and dance songs, they’re best known for corridos, story songs of regular people triumphing over the powers that be—or not. Los Tigres’ 1972 breakthrough hit, “Contrabando y Traición,” is a Bonnie-and-Clyde tale of two drug dealers that ends in tragedy. The band have kept singing complex stories of migrants: travelers from Central America, settlers whose children assimilate and grow distant, and countless others. Relying on hired songwriters, they’ve accumulated a catalog of immigrant narratives unparalleled in its thoroughness and subtlety.

One of those songs, “La Jaula de Oro,” found its way onto the Spotify playlist Strangers in a Strange Land: A Migration Soundtrack for 2019. It’s an hour of migration-related music that includes jazz, country, hardcore, new age, New Zealand Christian rap, a Tony winner, and the biggest single of the year, followed by a 40-minute chaser of John Luther Adams orchestral music. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m pretty sure you won’t like everything on it, but I’m even more confident you’ll find something on it you really like.

Selena and Ariel Camacho at Remezcla

youth jolts

Back in April at Seattle’s Pop Conference, I presented the paper “Selena, Ariel Camacho, and Two Tragedies that Reshaped Regional Mexican Music.” Now I’m happy to report that the website Remezcla has published a streamlined version — down to under 2,000 words, from an original length of 3,000+ — with the new headline “The Tragic Artist Deaths that Reshaped the Future of Regional Mexican Music.” I have trouble boiling down the thesis for people (you can read the abstract here), but it’s basically: Selena and Ariel Camacho both died young; one of their genres fizzled out; one of their genres got big; figuring out why tells us stuff about Regional Mexican audiences. There’s also some backstory on how Regional Mexican formed in the first place; for more, see the Blog’s original research and nursery rhyme.

If nothing else, you should check out Remezcla for the original art of Alan López. Don’t miss his exploding keytar! However, when I changed formats from PowerPoint to thinkpiece, I had to abandon some of my beloved slides. See if you can piece together the argument from these images:

instant family

angel del villar yarn

los tigres kingmakers

captain ortiz

Yeah, me neither.

Finally, good news for the Blog’s readers: Remezcla music editor Eduardo Cepeda has been running more articles on Regional Mexican music, including his own (that’s in addition to his crucial reggaeton series Tu Pum Pum) and those of Roberto Jose Andrade Franco and Lucas Villa. Add in some pieces from my Singles Jukebox colleague Juana Giaimo and many many others, and that’s a website! I’m honored to appear in their company.

Julión Álvarez sidesteps his sanction, and other surprises (Desfile de Éxitos 7/12/19)

sin memoria

Several unexpected finds inside this week’s Regional Mexican top 10, not least the presence of some good banda ballads. Unfortunately, #1 isn’t one of them.

1. Banda Los Recoditos“Perfecta” (#37 Hot Latin)
Billboard reports that this is Recoditos’ fifth #1 on the Regional Mexican chart. The first three of those — the iconic breakthrough “Ando Bien Pedo,” “Mi Ultimo Deseo,” and “Hasta Que Salga El Sol” — were about how the world is ending so we should all get drunk and shout along with Luis Angel Franco. The next two — including this one — represent the dispiriting comedown, with the personality-free Samuel Sarmiento atoning for everyone’s sins. If, as I once theorized, Franco’s songs are “the Spencer’s of the banda pop mall,” Sarmiento’s ballads are the HomeGoods. NO VALE LA PENA

2. Calibre 50“Simplemente Gracias” (#22 Hot Latin) NO VALE LA PENA

3. La Adictiva Banda“El Amor de Mi Vida” (#46 Hot Latin) NO VALE LA PENA

4. Banda MS“Por Mi No Te Detengas” (#38 Hot Latin) NO VALE LA PENA

carnaval olvidarte5. Banda Carnaval“Olvidarte, Cómo?”
A slow-as-agave ode to love’s unbreakable hold on the memory. The first line of the chorus sums it up: “Forgetting has some degree of difficulty.” That is, this banda ballad is studied and square, it pulls its punches and never cuts loose — but simmering under all that reserve is a geyser of anguish, rattling the ground around it. You hear it in certain musical gestures, like when the lugubrious on-the-beat melody jostles back and forth with the syncopated horns, and then they come into sync for a trio of “NO”s that seem exhaled rather than sung, yet pack a tremendous rhythmic wallop. Maybe I’m overselling this thing because of the video’s bargain-basement O. Henry “don’t text and drive” message. But Banda Carnaval undersells throughout, except when they strategically don’t, earning them a big old VALE LA PENA.
Continue reading “Julión Álvarez sidesteps his sanction, and other surprises (Desfile de Éxitos 7/12/19)”

El Fantasma, Calibre 50, y glitter rainbow hologram Jenni Rivera (Desfile de Éxitos 7/8/19)

calibre 50

First up, from the YASSS SLAIN QUEEN file: July 2 would have been the late Jenni Rivera‘s 50th birthday, so her estate celebrated by releasing “Aparentemente Bien,” a ballad she was working on before her 2012 plane crash. Thanks to some skilled studio reconstruction, you can hear the song in banda, mariachi, and pop versions. It’s OK. Inspired, no doubt, by the heavy metaphysical symbology of the Thor movies, the banda video depicts a rainbow butterfly morphing into an onstage Jenni hologram. NO VALE LA PENA

And now, BILLBOARD’S TOP 5 REGIONAL MEXICAN SONGS:

1. La Adictiva Banda“El Amor de Mi Vida” (#40 Hot Latin)
This lovey-dovey Horacio Palencia ballad is very boring, so the Blog’s SEO Optimization Team has asked that I make the most of things by reporting that La Adictiva’s singers are Isaac Salas and Guillermo Garza, the latter of whom shares a first name with Guillermo del Toro, producer of the forthcoming film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The movie looks cool; this song, also recorded by sierreño quartet Alta Consigna, is NO VALE LA PENA.

encantadora fantasma2. El Fantasma“Encantadora” (#33 Hot Latin)
Now we’re talking. The man-myth-legend’s “Tu amor es que respiro” lyrics are hard to distinguish from Palencia’s, but the vaquero born Alexander García plows through all that sap like he’s racing his banda to the merch table. This song does NOT appear on García’s latest good album El Circo (Afinarte), on which the banda players routinely sound like they’re trying to trip their boss with their horns. Both album and single are VALE LA PENA. Also Pick to Click!

3. Calibre 50“Simplemente Gracias” (#20 Hot Latin)
Edén Muñoz remains one of the format’s most interesting lyricists, on a purely formal “watch me take pleasure in making these metaphors scan” level. When his band plays his ballads, they still sound like they’re gasping for breath. The Blog recommends their brand new, skippy hard luck tale “Chalito,” but this one is NO VALE LA PENA.

4. Banda Los Recoditos“Perfecta” (#29 Hot Latin)
This is the third song in a row to use el cielo and las estrellas as romantic metaphors. It seems they are endless. La mujer’s beauty is endless. This particular metaphor’s usefulness is not endless. This song feels endless. NO VALE LA PENA

5. Banda MS“Por Mi No Te Detengas” (#27 Hot Latin)
Wait a minute! Faithful reader, the Blog hasn’t yet directed you to my listicle for the Minneapolis City Pages: 10 times Banda MS, the world’s biggest brass band, didn’t totally blow. This single isn’t one of those times. NO VALE LA PENA

NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000

jenni-rivera-diva-de-la-banda

As a recovering rockist and certified Old, I enjoy listening to the radio station The Current, 89.3 FM, whenever I’m driving through the Twin Cities. Recently The Current held a listener poll to determine the 893 essential songs since the year 2000. This list is a hit of sweet, unfiltered white elephant art. “Seven Nation Army” is #1 — and to be fair, it’s got one of the first riffs learned by today’s budding guitarists. Arcade Fire is everywhere, and Duluth folk-rockers Trampled By Turtles are more ranked than they’ve ever been ranked before.

In response, last week the Minneapolis City Pages, led by the excellent Keith Harris, published a list of 40 non-essential songs since the year 2000. This was the termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss riposte to all that Art. As you might guess, the non-essential list is way more fun, since it contains songs about dog sex and smashing things with hammers. But still, there was something missing, and I don’t mean Trampled By Turtles.

Both these lists gave NorteñoBlog an excuse to indulge in its two favorite pastimes: bitching that nobody pays attention to regional Mexican music, and shamelessly stealing the ideas of its betters.

So, in the pioneering spirit of 7-Minute Abs: ¡NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since 2000!

What does “esencial” mean in this case? I only got into Mexican music in 2005, so my list will look different than the list of someone immersed in this music for years, let alone decades. If you’ve followed the Blog at all, you know my taste leans toward novelty: cumbias, tubas, brass sections turned into backbeats, and squalid consortiums of instrumentalists all trying to outplay one another. I have Complicated Feelings about violent narco songs celebrating real criminals, but I don’t dismiss them outright, and I think they often make bands sound more exciting than they would otherwise.

In short — and this is one of the points I read in the City Pages’ subtext, and in Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock and Chuck Eddy’s books — the non-esencial is esencial to the whole enterprise. That’s why this list sometimes looks like a mutant termite-elephant hybrid.

Before we get started, here’s something else you won’t find on either of those other lists: an artist who’s currently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury! Romantic balladeer Julión Álvarez, despite being basically Iran, has the distinction of being the continent’s best singer, and he recorded the most esencial melody here, but you can’t find it on the Spotify playlist at the bottom. So enjoy “Ojos Verdes” as you peruse.

And now, get a whiff of the Blog’s essence.

40. Edwin Luna y La Trakalosa de Monterrey – “Mi Padrino el Diablo” 2014
Whether flaring his nostrils or trying to jumpstart his perpetually nascent acting career, Luna over-enunciates more dramatically than anyone in banda music. Here’s a jaunty waltz where he gets down with the devil.

39. Los Angeles Azules – “El Listón de Tu Pelo” 2000
Continue reading “NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000”

Who Invented “Regional Mexican”?

septima poster

Los Tigres play norteño, and so does Intocable —
Unless they play Tejano, un punto contestable.
The bandas all play banda; mariachis, mariachi.
Puro sax spews merry tears, norteño’s Pagliacci.
Cumbias are acoustic, when they’re not electric.
Singers may get richer, once they get eclectic.
Christian Nodal will tell you he plays “mariacheño,”
Y finalmente everyone starts playing sierreño.

Billboard‘s first Regional Mexican singles chart in 1994 contained a synth-heavy blend of technocumbias, technobandas, romantic grupero baladas, and one mariachi song. The chart was one of three new radio charts, along with Pop and Tropical/Salsa, that electronically surveyed Spanish-language stations across the U.S., a technology-driven update to the magazine’s never-ending effort to record which songs audiences heard most.

The “Regional Mexican” chart surveyed 70 stations whose playlists focused on — you guessed it — regional Mexican genres. That is, banda came from Mexico’s west coast, while Tejano began around the U.S./Mexico border region. Mariachi was an old, rural style specifically cultivated by Mexico’s intellectual elite to present a sophisticated and tourist-friendly cultural face. Grupera music was an abomination from the rank pits of hell, or maybe Acapulco.

kqqkThese disparate genres had a lot in common. Musically, the bands and their fans shared some core folk repertoire and an affection for polka and cumbia rhythms; socially, they shared the experience of being a largely working-class minority in a foreign land. But the genres were still pretty disparate. Of the 70 radio stations in that initial survey, 27 were in Texas, the home of Tejano music, and another 27 were in California, where L.A.’s KLAX had recently gotten huge playing banda music. My research is ongoing, but I’d be very surprised if, in 1994, KLAX’s playlist had more than a couple songs in common with Houston’s KQQK “Tejano 106.”

So “Regional Mexican” was a radio format that varied dramatically from city to city, based on the audience that lived within earshot. We’ll save for another day the question of how the format became standardized across the country. (If you can’t wait, Melanie Morgan breaks it down here.) Today’s question is, who invented the term?

As near as I’ve found (and it’s almost too obvious to be true), the answer is someone at Billboard — but if they knew they were coining a term, they didn’t trumpet the fact. Continue reading “Who Invented “Regional Mexican”?”

Joni Sandez on sierreño, “Las Mañanitas,” and “secrets nobody wants to say”

joni sandez

“The producer listening is probably gonna hate me — like, ‘No, don’t say that!'”

el tiempoJoni Sandez is joking, but he’s eager to talk about parts of the norteño recording process usually kept under wraps. He knows from experience. A lifelong resident of southern California, Jonathan Sandez, 26, grew up playing guitar and bass. At 14 he joined the long-running L.A.-based Grupo El Tiempo, playing bass and singing backup amid a synthesized sound rooted in the ’80s and early ’90s. “Modern Tejano, grupero, norteño music,” he explains. “They had accordion, but the accordion was actually in the keyboard.”

Going solo as a bandleader, Sandez has pursued a more acoustic direction. He plays concerts, festivals, and private parties with norteño groups, up to five shows a night. One New Years Eve he played for 12 hours and was still able to sing at the end. He’s justifiably proud of this.

Like many young musicians, his recent music has been mostly sierreño — two guitars and a bass. His latest single is straight out of the Great Ranchera Songbook: “Las Mañanitas,” a fond birthday wish sung by everyone from Vicente Fernandez to Javier Solís to Los Tigres. With his bassist’s ear, Sandez has added some smooth walking chromaticism to the bottom end, a sound you won’t find in most oom-pah-pah I-IV-V versions.

During our 45-minute phone conversation (edited for length), Sandez told the Blog about making the switch to sierreño, the differences between tuba- and bass-bottomed music, and some lesser known tricks of the trade — “those hidden little secrets that nobody wants to say.” Follow “jonisandez” on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and check out his website.

NorteñoBlog: Why did you start recording sierreño music?
Joni Sandez: It went back to my roots. The style of guitar was what I used to do, which was requinto. You know, all those tremolo-sounding riffs and terceras — two notes at a time, three half steps apart — and sextas, six steps apart. It was what I was playing back then, and most of the shows that we go to, they wanna hear that 12-string guitar. When you hear sierreño, you’ll hear the terceras — you won’t hear just one note, [he sings, outlining a triad] “dun dun dun dun dun”, you’ll hear [outinling the same triad] “drun drun drun drun drun.” It’s really subtle, too. A lot of people of people who aren’t familiar with the music won’t know about that. That makes it sierreña, you know?

Is that you playing requinto on your recordings?
Yes. Once in a while I’ll have somebody come through. It’s more having a little bit of variety — everybody has their own style of playing, and if it’s always me on the tracks, it becomes a little bit too played out. All the bass is me, but on the requinto I’ll try to have somebody come in and put in a couple of fill-ins for the track.

How did you decide to record “Las Mañanitas”?
There weren’t really a lot of modern artists, in general, and not even one sierreño artist [has recorded it]. It’s such a classic. [My version is] very different, in terms of the rhythm — the rhythm is not the traditional sierreño, it’s a descending little pattern. I really like it a lot.

Why do you think sierreño has gotten so popular in the last three or four years?
In the scene, when you have an accordion player, usually the accordion player charges a lot of money to play with you. I think a lot of people started recording sierreño tracks because it’s a lot cheaper. It’s one of those things that probably nobody wants to talk about, one of those hidden little secrets that nobody wants to say. When you record a sierreño track it’s a lot quicker, a lot faster, because you already have a guitar there. If you wanna have a norteño, then you have drums, and you wanna have an accordion, and you wanna have a bajo quinto, which is a little more expensive than a natural guitar. In sierreño you need a bass and a 12-string guitar, that’s basically it. And a six-string guitar. If you want, you can even play sierreño with six strings, which is kind of how it all got started.

Do you prefer having a sierreño band with a bassist or with a tubist?
Continue reading “Joni Sandez on sierreño, “Las Mañanitas,” and “secrets nobody wants to say””

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