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