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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””

On Banda Music

banda serenade

Banda music is all about hard work; that work allows for banda’s fun, its depth, and its despair. Every banda song represents an enormous coordination of talent and effort, and this coordination is plain to anyone who listens. Aside from the lead vocal and an occasional horn solo or percussion fill, there is no pretense of spontaneity in banda music. The music we hear is the result of countless hours spent in preparation. Someone had to write charts for the horn players. To cleanly execute these charts’ complicated musical passages, the players had to devote time to rehearsal, both on their own and together. Popular musicians from metal to rap spend many hours practicing, of course, but the sheer size of a banda gives all this preparation, all this work, a quality of ornate formality. A banda song is like a room full of delicate antique furniture, where one misplaced elbow sends priceless valuables crashing to smithereens; or like an elaborate negotiation through a complex system of social etiquette, a labyrinth of rules that must be internalized if it is to be understood.

The rituals we see in videos — the horn players performing cheesy coordinated dances, the heartbroken singer bringing the banda to serenade his girlfriend outside her window — underscore what a lot of work a banda demands. In the movie Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler famously played a boombox outside Diane Court’s window to woo her. It was a charming gesture, in keeping with his character, and the wooing worked: the serenader won over his audience of one, and in doing so he won over the audience for his film. The serenading banda works in the same way. Just as the mujer at the window is impressed with the effort of her hombre — for starters, how the hell did he get 16 brass players together on the spur of the moment? — so we at the computer screen are impressed with the care and concentration the ensemble squanders on their silly pop song. When the three well-rehearsed virtuosos in Rush play a side-long progressive rock suite, they’re devoted nerds pleasing themselves; they could just as easily be arguing politics or playing Dungeons and Dragons. When the 16 virtuosos in a banda lavish their skill on their singer’s romantic plea, their audience must understand their effort as a formalized gesture of romance, or else all that effort and per diem money is wasted.

The canniest bandas recognize this elaborate formal system and use it to their advantage. Often their goal is romantic; Gerardo Ortiz can only soften his “Mujer de Piedra” if his banda’s music is harder and more rigid than her heart of stone. One of them must crack, and the banda never does. But just as often, the goal is humor — a humor that acknowledges The Void. In Recoditos’ “Ando Bien Pedo,”, the players’ dexterity mocks the drunken heartache of their singer as he marches toward oblivion. The audience, having learned to feel their way around the banda’s formality, recognizes this mockery for what it is and knows to laugh at the singer. Taken further, this effect explains an inescapable fixture of current banda albums: the big dumb cumbia. Nearly every banda album attempts one. Big dumb cumbias typically use only two or three chords, and their subject matter barely strays beyond drunken revelry or dance sensations that are (not usually) sweeping the nation. Yet the banda shows their big dumb cumbias the same, or more, consideration as any other song. Someone writes a horn chart full of elaborate musical passages. The players rehearse for hours to cleanly execute those passages. A banda rarely releases its big dumb cumbia as a single, so there the song sits in the middle of the album, awaiting its audience of several thousand: a hilarious and possibly scathing testimony to how much work musicians devote to their craft and how little, in the end, it all means.

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