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1999

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”

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””

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”

Los Angeles Azules’ Entrega de Amor

angeles-azules-con-logo

Los Angeles Azules/Los Angeles de Charly – Gran Encuentro (Disa)

Amid all the polkas and waltzes, regional Mexican radio loves to throw in cumbias, though sometimes you get the sense that’s more because they’re useful tools or building materials, the caulk of the format. They often pop up as behind-the-DJ music, and because cumbia beats tend to flow easily into one another, they’re consistent grist for those hour-long DJ mixes that make me change the station after a couple songs. But certain sounds you don’t shake very easily, and the sound of Los Angeles Azules — a 13-or-15-piece Mexico City cumbia/vallenato group that was big around the turn of the millennium — can’t be forgotten once you’ve heard it.

The sound’s all there on their first big hit from 1996, “Cómo Te Voy a Olvidar,” which took cumbia’s trademark guacharaca shuffle (“the rhythm… has been compared to a horse trot,” writes Ramiro Burr) and layered it with yearning pop melodies. Mysterious accordion riffs in the dorian mode (think “Eleanor Rigby,” the part that goes “picks up the rice in a church“) trade off with even more mysterious trombone riffs that invariably come to rest on some low “blaaaaaah.” In 1999 Azules scored Billboard’s Regional Mexican Track of the Year with “El Listón De Tu Pelo.” Excellent trombone blaaaaaahs in that one, and a female singer, Mayra Torres, trading vocals with Carlos Montalvo. (“An oddity,” wrote Leila Cobo about the co-ed singing in the April 28, 2001 Billboard.) Cumbia remains a proven route for female singers to get played on regional Mexican radio; last year the dear departed El Patrón 95.5 was playing Azules’ duet with alt-rocker Ximena Sariñana enough that the song landed inside their station top 20.

Azules weren’t the first or the only Mexican band to play this music, not by a long shot. In the Oct. 6 ’01 Billboard, Burr wrote:

Vallenato is indigenous to Colombia’s Atlantic coast. Throughout that country, vallenato — like that other Colombian rhythm, cumbia — continues to be as much a part of the cultural and social fabric as blues, jazz and rock’n’roll are in the U.S. However, cumbia and vallenato* are also Colombia’s most popular and best-selling musical forms. Although folk-based, the genre received an international boost when Colombian accordionist Aniceto Molina, on Joey Records, helped popularize it in Mexico during the 1970s with his former group, La Luz Roja de San Marcos.

The music gained popularity in Mexican urban centers in the early 1980s, when other artists, such as Los Angeles Azules and Celso Pina, began emulating Molina… Thanks to Carlos Vives’ 1993 landmark CD, Clasicos de la Provincia, the vallenato movement was thrust into the mainstream as Vives’ single “La Gota Fria” cracked the Billboard charts.

You can hear the guacharaca in “La Gota Fria,” but it’s faster and fleshed out by kick drum and other rhythms, along with some Andes flute.

The core of Azules, writes Burr, is the Mejía family — three brothers who kept their white collar jobs until at least 1999, well after they became a hit band and started touring extensively. Inevitably, somebody went solo. But it wasn’t one of the brothers. Billboard‘s Leila Cobo explains, again from 2001:

The foundation of Los Angeles de Charly is the high tenor of Charly Becies, a former singer with established romantic grupo Los Angeles Azules, a band whose greatest-hits compilation also topped the Latin sales chart this season. In 1999, Becies decided to branch out on his own, because, he says, “I was just one element in the group, and I wanted to have my own identity.”

That identity centered on romantic material, and the band initially tried to register a name that reflected that kind of music. When [producer Ignacio] Rodriguez found that all their top name choices were already taken, they settled on Los Angeles de Charly — a fortuitous choice, because the Hollywood movie of Charlie’s Angels was released at about the same time. “It was essentially free publicity,” Rodriguez says.

Pretty sure Loverboy got the same bump.

Last year Disa released a bunch of these Gran Encuentro retrospectives, variations on a CD format that’s super-popular in regional Mexican music. These compilations alternate songs by two different Mexican groups, related to one another by varying degrees of tenuousness. (I’m currently soldiering through Mazz/La Mafia and wondering both “why?” and “why the fuss?”) The two tribes of Los Angeles are, as we’ve seen, pretty close. But there’s definitely a difference in sound. Charly is the more conventionally poppy angel of the two, with major keys and soaring heartfelt vocals. The Azules sometimes go there, but they’re also content to skulk around in their dorian darkness while playing pretty love songs. And everywhere — everywhere — is the guacharaca. But that’s not all there is. Both bands know to dress up their rhythms with fx and gimmicks, like the deep voiced men singing “tututu TUM bobo” along with Farfisa organ in “Mi Cantar.” It’s the kind of thing that pops out on radio, and it sounds pretty good in this context too.

VALE LA PENA

*About those genre IDs: Burr seems to use “cumbia” and “vallenato” interchangeably while alluding to some never-explained difference. In the record guide linked above, he describes Azules’ repertoire as “horn-powered boleros and vallenato-styled cumbias.” What? In this fascinating interview, Colombian music scholar and cumbia DJ Mario Galeano Toro clarifies, “[V]allenato is a close cousin of cumbia. It’s mostly major keys. In the ’90s there used to be cheesy commercial vallenato that played on all the buses in Bogotá…” He goes on, “Cumbia is composed of many different rhythms; I would say around 30. They’re all part of one big family called cumbia, but each has its own groove. The guacharaca with that ch-ch-CH rhythm is really the thing you notice first when you hear cumbia.”

But, but, but! IS NOT THE MUSIC OF LOS ANGELES AZULES IN MINOR KEYS? Or at least DORIAN keys, which sound minor except with one note out of place? But does not Ramiro Burr call their music “vallenato”? This is all wading into treacherous territory, where people’s eyes start to glaze over at all the jargon. I remember having the same problem when I started getting Decibel magazine a decade ago, wondering how to differentiate dark from black from tech from grind from doom from death from whatever other kinds of metal were out there. (“Power” was pretty easy because of all the dragons.) Now I want to learn all the cumbia and vallenata rhythms, even as I’m pretty sure you can enjoy this music without going to that much trouble.

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