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2014

The GLAADness of Los Tigres

LOS-TIGRES-DEL-NORTE1-650x400

Good for them!

Los Tigres del Norte are making history today. The San Jose, Calif.–based norteño group are receiving a Special Recognition (Spanish Language) award from GLAAD for “Era Diferente,” a song on their newest album, Realidades. The song is about a lesbian teenager who falls in love with her best friend. It’s the first song about gay love in the band’s 47-year history…

“Era Diferente” translates to “She Was Different,” and is about a young girl who struggles with boys fighting for her attention. “They make bets for her affection,” sings Hernandez, “but none of them win her love … She was so different from the other girls because she was never interested in a boy’s love.”

The song itself, since you’re wondering, is cheerful pop-rock, with a backbeat and everything, as catchy as anything else on Realidades. In other news, every day I grow more certain that I underrated Realidades last year.

As for the song’s reception, the Youtube comments showcase a couple of the expected “abomination”-baiters, but on the whole I can’t imagine anyone being too surprised or upset with Los Tigres. The band has a long history of supporting sensible immigration policy and basic human decency, while singing out against North America’s more stupid immigration and drug policies. Even with some badass narcocorridos in their repertoire, they seem like polite liberals. (This Gustavo Arellano listicle remains the single best overview.) In the above article, singer/songwriter/accordionist Jorge Hernandez says, “Sometimes in the Latino community we see machismo and problems with acceptance, but this is an area where acceptance is the most important because this is such a large community and we must accept people who love each other and live normal, happy lives.” “The NPR of norteño,” suggests my friend Anthony.

I’ve likened Los Tigres to Springsteen before and I’ll do it again. They came up around the same time, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Their detailed story songs make larger points about politics and society. Drawing on their respective traditions, their music has moved más allá de tradición, to the point where they embody their genres. Just as Reagan couldn’t escape Springsteen, socially conservative norteño fans can’t escape Los Tigres, even if they wanted to. I bet most of the cops who turned their backs on “41 Shots” remained Springsteen fans. At some point fans accept that these guys will always speak for them like nobody else can, never mind the small disagreements.

¿Qué Estamos Escuchando? (Grammys, Remmy Valenzuela, Natalia Jiménez)

Vicente Fernandez at Latin Grammy Awards Backstage

NorteñoBlog would like to issue a correction: In the post entitled “Why Do the Grammys Hate Norteño Music?”, I mistakenly referred to Vicente Fernández’s Mano a Mano: Tangos a la Manera de Vicente Fernández as a “tribute album.” It’s not. Rather, the album is what it says it is: ranchera singer Fernández singing tangos in his own style, with lead bandoneon from Raul Vizzi. It’s a likable little album that peaked at #3 on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Albums chart and #11 on Hot Latin Albums. Sunday it won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano). Congratulations!

Of course, Mano a Mano represents the current state of regional Mexican music (including Tejano) somewhat less well than Beck’s Album of the Year-winning Morning Phase represents popular music overall. Never mind how Beck stacks up against Beyoncé — at least his album appeared on TV soundtracks and radio, shaping both music conversations and “the sound of 2014.” (Maybe there should be a Grammy category for “Best Soundtrack to a TV Character Having Epiphanies About Life.”) Compared to the list of overall Album of the Year winners, Fernández’s album is closer to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters — an undeniably well-performed and polite museum piece that everyone can now safely ignore.

Not to be ignored is accordion hero Remmy Valenzuela, singing “Mi Princesa” to a young woman whose tipo just cheated on her at the Orpheum Theater. Remmy saw it all from the stage. We covered the song at The Singles Jukebox, where I wrote:

A dextrous accordion hero puts down his axe to sing a banda ballad with more authority than he’s ever sung before, enunciating to las estrellas. Noel Torres would farm this kind of thing out to the likes of Luciano Luna, norteño’s own Diane Warren figure, but Valenzuela wrote “Princesa” himself and he’s smart about it, intuiting how the brass will clobber the high points in his melody. (I don’t care how fleet his fingers are, this thing would sound thin with just his quartet.) Has any guitar hero ever done so well with a guitar-free power ballad?
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More cheating in Natalia Jiménez’s “Quédate Con Ella,” which the Jukebox liked more. Abby Waysdorf heard schlager; John Seroff and I both heard ABBA, which some days is the same thing. I wrote:

Jiménez shoots for Mexican mariachi and, with the help of Venezuelan producer Motiff, winds up singing a marvelously square ABBA song. “Square,” that is, in its perky chorus beat and tune; devoid of anything resembling R&B, “Quédate” stands out on a Hot Latin chart full of bachata and reggaeton. And “square” in Jiménez’s insistence that the Other Woman play house in every sense of the phrase — iron her ex’s clothes, make his toast, etc. What’s not square is her singing: Jiménez inhabits the song with giggly triumph, just as “Jajaja” into “LOL” is a triumph of Google Translate. She’s having more fun breaking up than she did when they were together. She’s Chiquitita with Fernando’s swagger.
[7]

Why Do the Grammys Hate Norteño Music?

los tigres grammy

In 2002, after the Latin Grammys had existed for two years, grad student Gustavo Arellano took the award show to task in an article titled “Latin Grammys Hide the Big, Uncool Truth.” (Arellano would go on to write the invaluable “¡Ask a Mexican!” column and book, which you’ve seen linked over on my blogroll.) At issue: regional Mexican music, especially norteño and banda, accounted for more than half of Latin music sales in the U.S. — and it continues to do so today — but the Latin Grammy ceremonies had given regional Mexican artists very few performance slots. “Meanwhile, previous Latin Grammy ceremonies have featured decidedly non-Latino acts like Destiny’s Child and NSYNC to perform,” wrote Arellano. He went on:

The definers of Latin culture have decided that the most popular Latin music genre in the United States isn’t worthy of promotion because it might lead people to believe that Latinos are poor and culturally backward, not slick and “with it.”

Indeed, statistics prove that Mexican regional’s primary audience is composed of recent immigrants with little money — 53 percent of adults who prefer it did not complete high school, and most who like it make less than $25,000 a year, according to a report commissioned by Arbitron. For music executives, these demographics are anathema to their promotions and extra products departments and discourage them from considering Mexican regional music for crossover attempts like “rock en espanol” and Latin pop.

Aha! This could explain why you never see regional Mexican acts at the overall not-just-Latin Grammys, even though a song like Intocable’s “Te Amo (Para Siempre),” whose parent album was nominated in 2014 for Best Regional Mexican Music Album, would totally slay a crossover audience who likes pretty things. At Latin Grammy ceremonies over the years, a handful of norteño’s biggest stars (Intocable, Jenni Rivera, Los Tigres, Gerardo Ortíz, Calibre 50) have landed performance slots, but even there, the small percentage of regMex performances and award categories understates how much this music drives the industry.

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Every Grammy article must contain a disclaimer explaining how little its author cares about the Grammys. In that spirit… oh, I can’t front, I kind of enjoy them. Or at least aspects of them. True, the Grammys are stodgy and 90 percent of their nominations make no sense. By leaning heavily toward chart hits in the main categories and NPR-friendly middlebrow stuff in the lower echelons, they reward money over vitality. Archival work has led me to seek out Grammy nominees from previous years, but the Grammys have never inspired me to check out current music, not the way Oscar and Emmy nominees have made me check out movies and TV shows. Maybe because music is my field, I’ve already formed an opinion of most of the nominees, vicariously if I haven’t heard them, and Grammy’s endorsement in no way guarantees quality. That said, the performances sometimes rule. At their best, they feel like gate-crashing a party at a rich dude’s house. I remember my friends’ and my excitement when Metallica played “Enter Sandman” back in the early ’90s; recent revelations include Miguel and “Swagger Like Us.” In fact, let’s pause for a moment to recall a time when “Swagger Like Us” was everywhere.

Critics hit the awards from two different directions — I just did it above. The Grammys either reward popular crap at the expense of, you know, Art; or they blatantly reflect the tastes of older people with money and Good Taste at the expense of, you know, popular crap. Partly this is a class issue. Membership in NARAS, which votes for the Grammys, costs around $100 a year; LARAS, overseers of the Latin Grammys, charge you $85 a year; and both organizations limit voting to active participants in the industry. This doesn’t mean everyone who votes is old and wealthy, but it does mean that “[o]lder people already settled in their fields tend to be the ones who join professional organizations like NARAS… so they’re not always in tune with the times,” says Thomas O’Neil in his book The Grammys. Besides that, many musicians want to reward music that reflects well on their line of work — music that showcases the virtues of artistic ambition, tasteful musicality, positive messages, and respect to elders. Critics and mass audiences don’t care so much about such stuff. That’s why Hole’s great, scabrous album Live Through This went platinum, scored radio hits, and won El Norte’s biggest national critics’ poll, but earned only one Grammy nomination, and that for a video.

This year’s NARAS Grammy field is especially stodgy. On February 8, the nominees for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano) will be:

Pepe Aguilar – Lastima Que Sean Ajenas (Sony Music Latin)

Vicente Fernández – Mano A Mano – Tangos A La Manera De Vicente Fernández (Sony Music Latin)

Ixya Herrera featuring Elias Torres – Voz Y Guitarra (Rampart Latino Records)

Mariachi Divas De Cindy Shea – 15 Aniversario (East Side Records/Shea Records)

Mariachi Los Arrieros Del Valle – Alegría Del Mariachi (Mariachi Los Arrieros Del Valle)

What do we see there? A whole lotta mariachi, including two tributes to man-myth-legend Vicente Fernández, one by the man-myth-legend himself and one by Pepe Aguilar. A lovely album of duets for voz y guitarra by the traditional ranchera singer Ixya Herrera. And ZERO norteño! In an eligibility period that included Gerardo Ortiz’s career-defining Archivos de Mi Vida! (He would’ve slain the Grammy audience with his beautiful “Eres Una Niña” — I could even imagine one of those “Grammy moments” duets with King Romeo or someone.) These nominations do have one advantage over most regional Mexican radio playlists — 40% of the nominees are female. But as far as representing where both popularity and innovation live in regional Mexican — and yes, the two often go hand in hand, as when “Eres Una Niña” mixes up the banda with the bachata — this list reads more like a museum piece. Or like an installation at a Disneyland resort, where the fine Mariachi Divas serve as the house band. In no way is it a snapshot of the best music of the year, if by “best” we mean “relevant” or “exciting” or “did something new” or “affected people’s everyday lives.”

To be fair, in recent years Grammy has come up with better lists — I mentioned Intocable last year, and ribald banda-pop characters Banda Los Recoditos have been nominated a couple times. One year the award even went to corridista El Chapo de Sinaloa, whose commitment to positive messages might be more… flexible than most Grammy voters’. But this year’s list demonstrates that NARAS, at least, is still shaky on where the action is.

In 2013, Arellano renewed his critique of LARAS and the Latin Grammys with an even better article (and title), “Why the Latin Grammys Remain America’s Biggest Anti-Mexican Sham”:

[Mexican performers] count as only three of the 15 scheduled performers for the evening… accounting for a pathetic 20 percent of all performances in a country where people of Mexican descent make up more than 60 percent of the total Latino pozole pot. There are only five awards categories devoted to Mexican regional music — shit, more than five distinct musical genres exist in Mexico City alone, from sonidero to rock urbano — while seven are given to Brazil, a beautiful, sonically rich country that nevertheless sells sells as much music combined in the States as Vicente Fernández can sell in one night from a street corner in Huntington Park.

There’s not a single Mexican artist this year nominated for Record of the Year or Album of the Year. And while two are nominated for Song of the Year… and Best New Artist… they’re dreck — and neither of them come from regional Mexican music. I’m not even going to bother looking at past nominees in these biggest of categories; any Latin music awards that never bothered to declare the late Jenni Rivera a winner EVER is about as much a Latino cultural authority as Rick Bayless.

He concluded:

The Latin Grammys are obviously an awards ceremony meant to celebrate Latin music in the United States, not Latin America, and specifically the Latin music that its organizers — centered mostly in Florida and New York — favor, far from the maddening Mexican crowds that buy the albums that keeps their labels afloat.

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You know what else has had trouble getting Grammy respect? Hard rock and metal. The award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance didn’t come along until 1989, when Jethro Tull infamously beat Metallica and the category split into two the following year. Guns ‘n’ Roses never won a Grammy, and their debut album — one of the biggest and, in retrospect, most critically lauded albums of the ’80s — wasn’t nominated for anything. You can read into this slight that early G’n’R, like much hard rock in general, didn’t check off the proper Grammy boxes: they weren’t aiming for art (though plenty of exceptions exist — see Metallica’s heavy Grammy shelf), they weren’t tasteful, and they didn’t traffic in positive messages or elderlove. Raving about G’n’R, critic Chuck Eddy wrote, “I’m not saying I’d want ’em to eat dinner at my house (I’d sooner invite [Grammy winner] Suzanne Vega — she’d probably eat less!).”

Because I’m a straight white American male in my 30s, I’ve compared norteño to hair metal before. Both showcase instrumental chops, speed, and wild drumming, and both have unsavory messages about illicit drugs and working-class life. (U.S. privilege being what it is, the norteño characters mostly produce the drugs and the metal characters consume them.) Lots of corridistas seem like intimidating dinner guests, though my librarian’s friend knows El Komander and says he’s very sweet. As Arellano’s earlier article suggested, some cultural gatekeepers are either ashamed of norteño music or look down their noses at it, because they think it reflects poorly on their industry as a whole — same as metal.

And it’s not just the members of recording academies. In a 2014 “Latin Music Roundtable,” the Wondering Sound website convened five hip music writers to expound on the state of the scene. I’ve pretty much accepted that Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has had better taste than me for, like, three years now, so I can’t be too critical. But man, it took them a long time to get around to norteño music. And when they did, Carlos Reyes, who founded the hipster Latin music site Club Fonograma, said something interesting:

Residing in such a politically-boiling state like Arizona, I do get exposed to Regional Mexican music just by walking on the streets. [NorteñoBlog notes: Me too! Up here in suburban Chicago!] Just like Julianne hears bachata in her neighborhood in NY, I hear trucks blasting rancheras and corridos in my predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Phoenix. And I can’t help but wonder why people feel the need to externalize what they’re listening to. Every culture seems to have its reason. I once asked my dad (who plays the accordion and is a corrido enthusiast) why he turned the volume up particularly for this genre of music. He told me that it was to acquire some visibility: “Arizona still treats us like we don’t even exist.”…

So why is it that I feel guilt when enjoying a narco-corrido? Take, for example, the biggest narco-corrido hit in the last few years: Gerardo Ortiz’s “Damaso.” [NorteñoBlog notes: Great song!] Everything from the syncopated horns, the rhythm-shifting assault, to the blossoming of the melodies make it one hell of a track. And yet despite recognizing its pristine construction, I couldn’t push myself to celebrate it as one of last year’s best. The college-educated hipster kid isn’t supposed to like narco-corridos. Yes, I’m cheating and redeeming myself here. The change of heart came when realizing I was being a hypocrite for being so outspoken about being a Breaking Bad fanatic, and keeping a masterpiece of a song like “Damaso” on my shameful vault of guilty pleasures.

Is that attitude widespread among Latino music fans? It certainly was among white middle-class music fans when I was a kid. We knew listening to rap, country, and metal might reflect poorly on us, until we either found like-minded kids or decided to rebel, and then we had to have them all the time. This may be why I’ve grown to love banda and norteño so much lately. They feel like wide-open spaces where musicians can play with their least respectable — i.e., most vital — impulses, and it’ll usually come up sounding like a million bucks. And by the way? Chinga tu Grammy.

Los Maestros de CHOPS

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Noel Torres – “Para Qué Tantos Besos”

You know the scene in Don’t Look Back where Donovan and Dylan are exchanging songs in a hotel room? And Donovan sings the perfectly innocuous “To Sing For You,” to which Dylan responds with a scathing rendition of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”? And he looks directly into the camera and sings with exaggerated diction the couplet, “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun/Crying like a fire in the sun“? And you don’t know whether he’s putting you on, reveling in the singularity of his word choices, sharing an inside joke with D.A. Pennebaker, or simply casting about for some way — any way — to sell a song? That’s the sense I get from Noel Torres when he over-enunciates his way through ballads these days. True, Luciano Luna doesn’t write with the colorful precision of “Baby Blue” — he’s more in the ballpark of “Make You Feel My Love” — but Torres is bringing that precision to singing Luna’s ballads, which may be even more important.
VALE LA PENA

(In the video for “Besos,” Torres fantasizes about making out with a hottie in a variety of scenarios, totally ruining her bowling and billiards games in the process. Turns out it was all a dream, she’s marrying somebody else, and Torres is stuck at her real-life wedding with a cheerful but far less bosomy woman. I’m certain this is a metaphor.)

Long-time readers will know that NorteñoBlog admires Torres for his accordion playing even more than his singing. He owns his sound; at PopMatters I wrote:

When playing his own songs, which is usually, [Torres] arranges them into short masterpieces of precision and control. He tosses off riff after riff, their notes connected by chromatic flurries, then hits startling passages of kickass mind-meldery with the rest of the band while he’s singing.

That is, he’s precise, controlled, and tossed-off, the sweet spot for much pop music, if not Western music in general. It’s stomp and swerve; or, as they used to teach us in classical piano lessons, technique and expression. This isn’t a dichotomy or a balance so much as a tug of war, and if you’re playing an instrument, the tug of war conveys the tight switchbacks of human thought better — that’s to say, with more convincing illusion — than either wind-up-toy virtuosity or lazy splats of rubato. And yes, it’s always an illusion. You’re not gleaning the innards of Torres’s mind directly from air moved through the folds of his squeezebox or voicebox, but heaven know he makes you believe you are.

(The rockist should note that electronic music, while using different techniques, can create the same virtuosic illusions — for instance, the hilarious timing effects in New Order’s “Blue Monday.” And sometimes “conveying human thought” isn’t the goal so much as “conveying utter alienation from human thought.” But I rarely go in for dystopian shit.)

In this spirit have I grappled with last year’s album by Remmy Valenzuela, De Alumno a Maestro (Fonovisa). Valenzuela is a corridista in Torres’ mold: he writes, sings, and leads the band, but mostly he plays his accordion like a beast. He’s got some good songs, too. His radio hit “Te Tocó Perder” switches tempos confidently, something you rarely hear on the radio; the breezy dance tune “El Borracho” sounds like something Kenny Chesney could adapt from his old blue chair. (Assuming he can get Google Translate on the beach.) If I were judging conjunto contests, Valenzuela would receive the one-plus rating his fingers so richly deserve.

In the comments of his ratings sheet, though, I would advise him to avoid turning into DragonForce. Valenzuela has yet to make his accordion and singing speak for themselves; right now all the accordion really says is, “I can play faster than whoever the DJ plays next.” That’s something. But it’s not the same as Torres’s trademark riffs — notes connected by chromatic flurries — that say, “Not only can I play faster than the next guy, but SOY NOEL TORRES; Y YO SOY EL AMO.” Valenzuela and his skilled, polite band sound like they want pats on the head; Torres and his bunch make you wanna cover your head.

Still, Valenzuela’s album is fun and merits a polite VALE LA PENA.

In the most recent issue of revista Triunfo, a third young turk named Alfredo Olivas shows that he grasps the issue, which I’ll shorthand “Should a Virtuoso Have a Personality?” He says, “A lo mejor no soy a mejor, pero sí tenemos un estilo ya muy marcado.” — roughly, “Maybe I’m not the best [accordion player], but we have a style all our own.” Listening to his 2011 album Así Es Esto (Fonovisa) and his new one Privilegio (Sahuaro/Sony), he may have a point. Granted, back in 2011 his style’s most distinctive technique was a sound many (read: “zero”) accordion experts call “sawing.” Since then he’s developed more finesse and his singing has gained authority, especially for a young guy. (Olivas is 20 but he sounds about twice that.) So far Privilegio is the year’s highest profile norteño release, but I still need more time with it.

¡Nuevo! (starring Trakalosa and Alfredo Olivas)

trakalosa uresti

We’ll start with esta semana’s pick to click, and it’s a weeper. It turns out Edwin Luna, lead singer of La Trakalosa de Monterrey, is very convincing portraying un “Adicto a la Tristeza.” It helps that his voice chimes like a throaty bell. Luna’s labelmate and guest singer, Pancho Uresti from Banda Tierra Sagrada, is somewhat less convincing because his voice is scratchy. When the woman in the video spurns his advances, he’ll feel nothing and should be able to pick up pretty easily with someone else. I myself am addicted to the urgency of their chorus melody, and a quarter-million Youtube viewers in the past two days seem to agree.

Other newish singles include Hijos de Barrón’s “Mis Quimeras” (LNG/Hyphy), featuring cool bass work and a syncopated groove;

“Así Es el Juego,” an underwhelming cover of Colmillo Norteño‘s profane kiss-off (in a couple senses), by Luis y Julián Jr. ft. Naty Chávez. It’s available in both obscene and family-friendly versions!;

and I’m not sure if this counts, but Graciela Beltrán throws herself into a new ballad, “Qué Tal Se Siente,” and it’s good to hear her voice.

The big new album this week is Alfredo Olivas’s El Privilegio (Sahuaro/Sony), which originally seemed to have come out late last year but maybe it was leaked. Olivas is an alumnus of several labels, including Fonovisa and the aforementioned Hyphy, here making his Sony debut. He’s also written songs for big names, so maybe Sony sees in his boyish grin the next Gerardo Ortiz?

The quintet Los Ramones de Nuevo Leon’s Con La Rienda Suelta (Grupo RMS) exists, as does a new retrospective from hyphy floggers (and Hyphy alums) Los Amos de Nuevo Leon, 20 Éxitos (Mar).

And I’m confused about Hyphy alums Los Rodriguez de Sinaloa — didn’t they just put out an album? Well, there’s another one out there called Entre El Rancho y La Ciudad (Independent), which so far seems more energetic than Sr. Olivas’s album.

What’s that? — you’re worried Hyphy music is under represented? — very well, the trio Los Kompitaz released 12 Corridos y Canciones at the end of 2014.

Accordionist, singer, businessman, and crier of single tears Fidel Rueda releases Música del Pueblo on his own Rueda label. His latest single “No Te Vayas” has stuttering accordion and horn lines that sound like they’re fighting to squeeze through his tear ducts.

Feeling romantic and/or cash-starved, Fonovisa has released it’s annual Bandas Románticas de América comp, which last year sucked. As companion pieces, they’ve compiled 20 Kilates Románticos for a bunch of groups, including Recodo, Primavera, Bryndis, Bukis — you know, groups who have never been compiled before.

Los Angeles Azules’ Entrega de Amor

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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.

El Karma Karma Karma Comes Back To You Hard

ariel camacho

Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes Del Rancho – El Karma (Del/Sony Latin 2014)
This hypnotic trio album wants to trick you into thinking it’s traditional corrido music, when in fact it’s very modern. The 14 drumless songs follow a formula: Camacho and his guitarist, César Iván Sánchez, sing simple tunes in close harmony while tuba player Israel Meza plays basslines that double as leads. With the tuba hurling interjections around his vocal throughlines, Camacho calmly sets his requinto rippling. The results sound like dusty folklore, not at all like the shiny banda pop or driving corridos that currently occupy the regional Mexican zeitgeist. But is the combination of tuba with the higher-pitched requinto at all “traditional”? In Mexican bolero trios, requintos generally take on the virtuoso role, accompanied by two guitars, no bass instrument in sight. And as for norteño tubas — well, Gustavo Arellano doesn’t like em:

Time was when the accordion player was the papi chulo of the Mexican regional-music world, but tuba players have usurped the position in the past couple of years for banda music and that horrible-sounding banda-conjunto norteño pendejada.

[Emphasis mine.]

This isn’t that. But I mean, I like ’em both. Given the choice of a tuba or a bass, I’ll take the tuba 9 times out of 10. (As always, the 10th slot belongs to Noel Torres.) Though Camacho’s 14 songs are samey, their sound and melodies are indelible. And at a glance the songs all look new, mostly attributed to DEL Publishing. Written by a shadowy figure named El Diez, “El Karma” is an unlikely radio hit; though both Torres and Revolver Cannabis covered the song last year, Camacho’s stripped-down version sounds the most sinister. He and his Plebes also play the requisite Luna/Inzunza ballad — it’s pretty and not at all sinister, unless in Luciano Luna’s ubiquity you find a sign of the pending apocalypse.
VALE LA PENA

¡Nuevo!

super flamazos

It’s the first week of the year and pickings are slimmer than the mota supply in Wisconsin. El Komander’s up to a million views of his tossed-off kiss-off “Malditas Ganas” (Twiins), his sprechtstimme loose as he casually mentions “Soy De Rancho,” reminding the woman he can’t forget that nobody can forget him these days either. (At least I think that’s what’s going on.)

At the other end of the chart count spectrum, Los Elegantes de la Banda have broken 100 views with “El Corrido del Jr.” (self-released), a solid three verse banda corrido about (I’m guessing) someone whose Dad doesn’t pay much income tax. The tuba player adroitly executes a triplet line against the horn tutti; a pity the arranger made everyone execute that part the exact same way over and over.

MultiMusic has recently released two albums that I record here for future reference: a self-titled album by Carlos Y José, and a three-disc retrospective, Súper Flamazos, by the corrido group Los Flamers. Both acts have catalogs a mile long, but only Los Flamers have three different albums called Súper Flamazos.

And then there’s Fonovisa, summing up last year with four albums of #1’s 2014: one each for corridos, norteño, banda, and Latin, the last of which doesn’t really concern us except insofar as it contains a song written by Horacio Palencia. (Also Iggy Azalea’s “Problem” with guest star J. Balvin, Juanes’s fine “La Luz,” and everybody’s “Bailando.” It’s Billboard’s favorite Latin song of the year! Puzzling!) Palencia’s all over the banda disc, too, with four songs to his credit — more than even our friend Luciano Luna — including “Aqui Estoy Yo,” which Palencia sings. (And not very well!) The best of his lot is probably Banda Rancho Viejo’s “Una Entre Un Millón” from their 2013 album of the same name. The corridos disc, containing three of Calibre 50’s speedier efforts, looks like a keeper.

La Nueva Rebelión on the Jukebox

rebelion

We wrote about La Nueva Rebelión’s “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte” at The Singles Jukebox, awarding it an entirely respectable collective score of 7/10. My take, pulled apart:

1) La Nueva Rebelión rocks harder than most rock bands. I apologize for writing that. I intended to broaden the canon and poke a stick into rockist eyes, but instead I ended up using “rock” as a verb.

2) Why do we still do that? Is rock music still central to anything? Why doesn’t anyone say rockers “out-norteño most norteño bands” when they sing about vengeance and hardscrabble origins and that that don’t kill them making them stronger? For that matter, why don’t we say it of Kanye or Kelly? (“Norteño isn’t a verb!” shouts my Mom, but you know what I mean.) The usual suspects — “rockism,” privilege, most music writers not knowing Spanish — can’t explain why my “out-norteño” formulation feels so unlikely. Turning to norteño to make sense of other pop music? Unimaginable!

3) Look, certain segments of the critical population really want Arcade Fire to be a disco band, and I can well imagine some careless strawman critic saying they “out-disco most disco bands.” I can even imagine (I don’t have to imagine!) someone explaining an English-language song as “more K-pop than K-pop.” Disco and K-pop have both “rocked harder than most rock music” on occasion, but they’ve also opened themselves to pillage by other genres.

4) So if rock’s no longer central, if all these different genres are out there grabbing at one another, my question becomes: Why is norteño still so peripheral to the music crit corpus? The answer may be self-sustainability: musically and commercially, norteño bands are doing just fine, thanks, and they don’t need to make concessions to a mystified potential audience.

5) Yet here we have La Nueva Rebelión playing rock music, clearly and without ambiguity. Sure the song’s a waltz. Sure the lead instrument’s an accordion instead of a guitar, but listen to the sloppy virtuosity, the way accordion and bajo sexto don’t quite line up but still keep perfect time; or to those six-bar vocal glissandos over one pounded chord; or, for that matter, to the chord changes, which abandon norteño’s variations on I-IV-V polka patterns in favor of leaning on a flat 7 chord. The newest Rock Hall inductees use flat 7 a bunch.

6) The members of La Nueva Rebelión love to rock so they wrote their own rock song, and if they know how rock works they might also see that it’s a mouldering corpse. But here they are, making the rockist corpse — my corpse — dance with as much unpredictable lightning as I’ve heard this year. They’ve shoved a stick through my eye. It’s making me twitch with pleasure.

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