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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”?”

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Selena and Ariel Camacho: coming to MoPOP 2019

selena memorial

Year after year, Seattle’s MoPOP Pop Conference is a great weekend to learn a ton of musical ideas you never imagined you’d need to know, and to meet and befriend a ton of very smart music geeks. This year the conference runs from April 11-14; the theme is death. See you there!

Here’s the abstract I’ll be expanding:

SELENA, ARIEL CAMACHO, AND TWO TRAGEDIES THAT RESHAPED REGIONAL MEXICAN MUSIC

selena cloudsIn 1995 the 23-year-old Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla died at the hand of her fan club president. She was already the biggest act in Tejano music, itself the hottest sound on the U.S. radio format known as Regional Mexican; but in death, Selena became a household name. Her posthumous bilingual album, Dreaming of You, debuted atop the Billboard 200 and became the best-selling Latin album of all time. A generation later Selena remains an icon, but the same cannot be said of Tejano music itself. “Tejano Market Hits a Lull,” read Billboard’s ominous 1997 headline, and in 1999 the Houston Press reported, “The Tejano scene is all but gone.” Over the ensuing decades the Regional Mexican format would turn to other sounds — most recently sierreño, an austere style that exploded in popularity after a different twenty-something singer, Ariel Camacho, died in a 2015 car accident.

ariel camacho cloudsAfter these styles’ respective stars died, why did keyboard-led, pop-friendly Tejano fade from the airwaves but sierreño — a drumless genre propelled by ornate tuba lines — became inescapable? To learn why, I’ll examine the aesthetic and commercial trajectories of both styles and the evolving Regional Mexican audience. I’ll also explore how the U.S. infrastructure for Mexican-American music has developed. Central to this story is the man who discovered Camacho, Ángel Del Villar, the owner of DEL Records and the person who realized modern sierreño could be viral youth music. Since Camacho died, Del Villar has kept the singer’s band going with two different replacement leaders; he’s also seen norteño stars like Gerardo Ortiz and Calibre 50 hop aboard the sierreño bandwagon. What insights do these styles’ respective death bumps give us into the machinations of the Regional Mexican industry and the identities of its U.S. audiences?

Relevant links:
Archivos de 1994 (Now With Submarine Tracking Technology)
A Guide to Regional Mexican Radio in Houston
“Go Tejano Day”: What’s In a Name?
Karma Comes Back to You Hard: The Tale of the Strangest Latin Hit in Years and the Dead Man Who Sang It
Odes to Music Executives and Other Criminals
¡Nuevo! (starring Los Plebes, Los Tucanes, y más)

Julión Álvarez’s Frozen Assets and the U.S. Treasury’s Overheated Rhetoric

alvarez press conference

NorteñoBlog top commenter Eric encourages me to address the current legal and financial travails of the continent’s best voice, Julión Álvarez. Challenge extended! If, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, “anybody with a computer can be a journalist,” her operative word remains “can.” Speaking from personal experience, most of us “computer havers” maintain such extensive to-do lists of huapango videos and jazz podcasts that important stories can fall between the keys. But I’ll give it a go.

In 2007, after singing with Banda MS for three years, 24-year-old Álvarez went solo. With a drumless, tuba-bottomed trio, he released his first album Corazón Mágico under the name Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda. Since then he’s remained as prolific and consistent as Electric Six or someone, releasing a studio album almost every year — including the best album of 2014, Soy Lo Que Quiero…Indispensable — along with several live albums and collections. He’s grown into the biggest solo norteño star who’s not named Gerardo Ortiz, reliably scoring romantic radio hits in two countries, plus mentoring young singers and judging La Voz… México. Until his recent troubles hit, he was set to judge the latest season of La Voz Kids, too. In 2015 he was Spotify’s most-streamed artist in Mexico.

Along the way, Álvarez started operating some music-related businesses. Germane to our story, his name is on the paperwork for the company that produces his concerts, Noryban Productions; a small ticketing agency, Ticket Boleto; and his publisher, JCAM Editora Musical, “JCAM” being the initials of his birth name, Julio Cesar Alvarez Montelongo. Also along the way, he met a friendly businessman named Raul Flores Hernandez. “If you met him [Flores Hernandez], you’d probably like him,” says one former official of the U.S. DEA. A lot of people liked Flores Hernandez, including fútbol star Rafael Marquez, who also now finds himself in the shit.

Unbeknownst to these innocents (or so they claim), Flores Hernandez also ran a cocaine cartel. Business Insider describes how he operated independently of the big, more violent cartels, while also skillfully mediating between them. In March, he was indicted in D.C. and California for trafficking and money laundering; he was then arrested in Jalisco in July. Shortly after that, on August 9, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) List, the registry of people it prevents U.S. citizens from doing business with. Of 21 Mexican citizens and 42 companies, the two biggest names were Rafael Marquez and Julión Álvarez, along with those three Álvarez-owned companies listed earlier. The charge was money laundering.

Money laundering is, of course, a time-honored aspect of the music industry, which until recently has been lathered in obscene amounts of money. Hilarious stories abound, inovolving everyone from Australian promoter Andrew McManus to Spanish singer Isabel Pantoja to American rap exec Irv Gotti. (“Mr. Gotti’s friend, Kenneth McGriff, known as Supreme on the streets of Queens… would simply send bags of cash to Mr. Gotti’s label, Murder Inc.”) The Treasury contends Álvarez and the others have “held assets” on Flores Hernandez’s behalf, and that’s why they’ve canceled Álvarez’s visa, frozen all his U.S. assets, and forbidden Americans from doing business with him. Seriously — try finding his music on U.S. Spotify any more. (Eric adds, “His music was removed from my iTunes account…”)

After the accusation of laundering has come the inevitable spin cycle. Álvarez admits he met Flores Hernandez years ago, at a club in Guadalajara, but thought the narco was a concert promoter. He denies they ever did business together. Whether his assets will ever thaw remains a cold, delicate question. (A Mexican judge recently ordered Marquez’s assets unfrozen, but that was before the world discovered Marquez’s madre once bought a substantial hunk of property with Flores Hernandez. Ay-yi-yi.) Álvarez continues to play concerts in Mexico, but the loss of U.S. streaming and touring revenue has gotta hurt him financially.

As NorteñoBlog tries to iron out this story’s wrinkles, my feelings are a wash. (OK, I’ll stop now.) On the one hand, I can totally believe that Álvarez, as an inexperienced businessman, unwittingly laundered money for a narco, especially given how closely the Mexican cartel world associates with the Mexican music world. Similar things have happened all over the world, so why not in Mexico too? Maybe Álvarez even knew what he was doing. Given the sad history of other Mexican singers who, wittingly or not, got too close to the cartels and were shot for their trouble, give Álvarez this: if frozen U.S. assets are his stiffest penalty, his fate could be infinitely worse.

On the other hand, I could also believe our over-zealous Administration is making an example of some famous Mexicans by overstating the dastardly nature of some trumped-up “crimes.” And I’d still believe that, even if this operation began under the Obama regime. For American politicians, the spectre of dark skinned people selling us drugs is an irresistible excuse to act tough, rather than effectively. Our Treasury Department is sure making a point of crowing: “This action marks the largest single Kingpin Act action against a Mexican drug cartel network that OFAC has designated.” And some of the coverage given this story has been predictably awful, with Breitbart’s Warehouse of Questionable Capitalization (no link) sanctimoniously calling Álvarez a “Narco-Music Superstar,” “known for praising the drug trafficking lifestyle in his music.” Bullshit. If they’d paid attention to Álvarez at all before turning his name into racist clickbait, the computer-havers at Breitbart would know that, while the singer excels at corridos and romantic music, he’s far better known for the latter. Then they’d publish a list of white singers they love who have praised the drug consumption lifestyle in their music, and they’d ask themselves whether the two repertoires are in any way linked.

I don’t hold out hope.

Archivos de 1996 (starring Jennifer y Los Jetz, Los Tigres, y más)

jennifer-pena

The Regional Mexican charts of 1996 held four separate genres. One of them was the deathless norteño of Los Tigres and Los Huracanes; the other three were in various stages of decline.

The technobanda of Bandas Machos and Maguey still thrived, but in a few years would be eclipsed by acoustic banda. Helena Simonett’s book Banda lays out the commercial leapfrogging these two styles played with one another throughout the ’90s.

Tejano fans were still mourning Selena — see #7 below — but they were also welcoming newcomers like Jennifer Peña y Los Jetz (see the Pick to Click, below) and Bobby Pulido (see the terrible song right below her). There were, however, rumblings on the horizon. San Antonio and Dallas were suffering from too many Tejano bookers flooding the market, one promoter told Billboard‘s Ramiro Burr. Some bands complained that clubs were replacing live bands with DJs. Burr would spend the next several years chronicling the decline of the Tejano genre as a commercial force, though it still exists for a small but fervent fanbase.

The third synth-based style, grupo music, also still exists, but its commercial mojo would peter out more abruptly. Marco Antonio Solís had just left Los Bukis and was scoring a bunch of solo Hot Latin #1 hits that sounded way more pop than the rest of his cohort. (See #2 below.) Bronco would retire in 1997, leaving Los Temerarios and Los Mismos to care for the genre. I think. NorteñoBlog’s disinterest in grupo music remains strong and resolute.

[EDIT: I just checked and Los Temerarios were still scoring big hits in 2004, and possibly later, so maybe the petering was more gradual.]

These were the Top 15 Regional Mexican songs, as published by Billboard on November 9, 1996: Continue reading “Archivos de 1996 (starring Jennifer y Los Jetz, Los Tigres, y más)”

Money, Innovation, and Resentment: Helena Simonett’s “Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders”

simonettCurrent 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.

jimenezAs 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. Continue reading “Money, Innovation, and Resentment: Helena Simonett’s “Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders””

Beto Cervantes D.E.P.

beto white hat

Multiple news outlets have reported that 42-year-old singer José Alberto Cervantes Nieto, aka Beto Cervantes of the band Explosión Norteña, has died. At around 11am Thursday morning, he was shot at the corner of calle Art. 27 and calle Michoacán in the Constitución colony of Rosarito, Baja California.

beto cervantesAs Manuel wrote almost a year ago, Cervantes has been attacked before, probably because he and his band have (allegedly) been cozy with a cartel and cartels (most definitely) shoot people. Indeed, Explosión’s latest album, De Regreso Y Con Bastante Decisión (ARS), has sparked several rounds of Hasty Cartel Googling as NorteñoBlog tries to figure out corrido protagonists like El Flakito and El XL. One rumor suggests Cervantes was killed by a rival cartel when he refused to write them a corrido — a courageous move, if it’s true, when your prospective employers brandish guns and offer you up to $50,000 for a day’s work. Continue reading “Beto Cervantes D.E.P.”

Juan Gabriel D.E.P.

JUAN_GABRIEL_2014_Thumb

Juan Gabriel has been trading on his lifelong success for the past couple years, but you can’t say he was coasting when he died last Sunday. On August 19th he’d embarked on a tour, playing his final show a week later at the Los Angeles Forum, capacity 17,500. In some ways he was more popular than ever. On Billboard‘s Top Latin Albums chart, he had just scored a record fourth #1 album in the past 18 months with Vestido de Etiqueta por Eduardo Magallanes, an album of ornate remakes of his old songs. (The new intro for the already elaborate groover “No Quiero” now approaches full blown symphonic pomp rock — you expect to hear Christopher Lee start talking about dragons.) The other chart toppers included the two volumes of Los Duo, where Gabriel sang duets of his catalog with a panoply of pan-Latin stars from across different genres.

That’s where NorteñoBlog caught up with Gabriel: in a video that’s easily as mind-melting as any by Peter Gabriel, a new version of JuanGa’s 1980 12-bar-blues “La Frontera.” Crossing whatever musical borders you care to name, it features the continent’s best singer Julión Álvarez, the new Zelig of reggaeton J. Balvin, a four-bar breakdown for tuba and funk guitar, an impeccably tiled studio wall, a whole lotta eyeliner, and an uncredited gospel choir. (“I knew that if God was listening, he was listening to African American music,” Gabriel once told the LA Times.) You owe it to yourself:

But keeping JuanGa’s story in the present does a disservice to a man whose life and music affected millions of people. He was an unfathomably prolific writer, like Dolly Parton or Prince, and just as beloved a performer of his own material; a robust challenger of his fans’ sexual hang-ups, like Dolly Parton and Prince with their own fans; and he could transform regional genres into universally beloved national pop music, like — you guessed it — Bruce Springsteen. (Also Dolly and Prince.)

Here’s what some better JuanGa fans have written: Continue reading “Juan Gabriel D.E.P.”

Archivos de 2001: Los Twiins Break Through

los twiins

Lovelorn bounces and classic fanfares, old hats and new jacks, and early work by one of the most influential production duos of the past two decades, any genre: these were Billboard‘s top 10 Regional Mexican songs on May 19, 2001.

1. “No Te Podias Quedar”Conjunto Primavera (#4 Hot Latin)
The pride of Ojinaga, the gas-guzzling romantics of the road, Primavera scored their fifth Hot Latin top 10 with this soppy contribution from their go-to songwriter Jesús Guillén. Sometimes songwriters just find a niche, and Guillén was put on this earth to write soaring climaxes for the cavernous throat of Tony Melendez, the continent’s best singer before Primavera’s output dropped off and Julión Álvarez came along. The song itself barely exists.

2. “Y Llegaste Tú”Banda El Recodo (#6 Hot Latin)
In 2001, after 60 years of playing brass band shows to adoring but limited audiences, Recodo was enjoying the public’s newfound vogue for banda music and their first gold album. A couple years earlier, they’d begun hiring producer brothers Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, aka Los Twiins, aka the bankrollers of El Movimiento Alterado later in the decade. (El Komander still records for them.) The brothers had their identical fingers on the pulse of the youth, and in this song they led Recodo toward a sound that blanketed the airwaves all year, and then for years afterward — a newly written Noel Hernandez song that sounded trad yet vibrant, with a arrangement that turned contrasting instrumental sections into hooks. Plus, “We’ve learned how to really tune the banda,” said Omar, “which [in the past] maybe wasn’t really done.” Progress! Pick to Click!

los tigres paisano3. “Me Declaro Culpable”Los Tigres del Norte (#13 Hot Latin)
Sad limericks of lost love — with sax! Continue reading “Archivos de 2001: Los Twiins Break Through”

A Guide to Regional Mexican Radio in Houston

With the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo coming up March 1-20, including Go Tejano Day on March 13, I figured I should try to understand the complicated Regional Mexican radio scene in the 6th biggest U.S. radio market.

Look, I made a chart! Stations are listed across the top — frequency, station nickname, rating for the 4th quarter of 2015 — with the most recent call sign associated with that frequency just below, in the 2016 row. The chart begins with 1986 at the bottom; as you travel up through the years, you can see when new call signs take over specific frequencies.

Houston s RegMex Radio - Daily schedule (4)-page-001

OCTOBER 5, 1989: GERARDO ORTIZ IS BORN (That’s just for reference, and because this .jpg was hard to format.)

Houston s RegMex Radio - Daily schedule (4)-page-002

When NorteñoBlog surveyed Chicago´s Regional Mexican radio scene last year, it was a straightforward project — I traced the timelines of the three major stations in our market. Not so in Houston. As you can see from the above chart, Houston’s Mexican music fans have enjoyed an abundance of choices over the past three decades. They’ve also endured a confusing tangle of buyouts, simulcasts, and call signs changing frequencies, along with the national boom and bust of a vital regional style: Tejano.

Today non-Texans might have trouble understanding Tejano’s importance to the Lone Star State. After all, Chicago didn’t get our first all-Mexican station until 1997 — the same year KXTJ became Houston’s first station with a norteño focus — by which time Tejano was quickly losing spins to norteño on U.S. radio. In the previous decade, Tejano hadn’t merely been an important regional style; it had been central to Hispanic radio listeners across El Norte, and central to the identities of millions of Texas Latinos. The tragedy of Selena’s death in 1995 was a harbinger and probably a cause for a wider sense of loss — the loss of Tejano identity resonating with a broader populace. As we’ve seen from the outcry when the Houston Rodeo schedules norteño bands on its popular “Go Tejano Day,” Tejano music is more than a nationwide fad that dried up. It’s not duranguense. Tejano identity is a powerful and distinct thing, with music as one of its main expressions, and for a brief period of about a decade that musical identity was crucial to America’s understanding of Latinos.

And then all of a sudden it was replaced by a bunch of damn corridos and tubas. You can understand why Tejano fans’ nostalgia would take on a new intensity.

But that oversimplifies the matter. Let’s look at some of the chart’s high points. As you do, keep in mind that I’ve never been to Houston and I probably got some things wrong, so I’ll welcome your comments and corrections. Continue reading “A Guide to Regional Mexican Radio in Houston”

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