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Selena and Ariel Camacho at Remezcla

youth jolts

Back in April at Seattle’s Pop Conference, I presented the paper “Selena, Ariel Camacho, and Two Tragedies that Reshaped Regional Mexican Music.” Now I’m happy to report that the website Remezcla has published a streamlined version — down to under 2,000 words, from an original length of 3,000+ — with the new headline “The Tragic Artist Deaths that Reshaped the Future of Regional Mexican Music.” I have trouble boiling down the thesis for people (you can read the abstract here), but it’s basically: Selena and Ariel Camacho both died young; one of their genres fizzled out; one of their genres got big; figuring out why tells us stuff about Regional Mexican audiences. There’s also some backstory on how Regional Mexican formed in the first place; for more, see the Blog’s original research and nursery rhyme.

If nothing else, you should check out Remezcla for the original art of Alan López. Don’t miss his exploding keytar! However, when I changed formats from PowerPoint to thinkpiece, I had to abandon some of my beloved slides. See if you can piece together the argument from these images:

instant family

angel del villar yarn

los tigres kingmakers

captain ortiz

Yeah, me neither.

Finally, good news for the Blog’s readers: Remezcla music editor Eduardo Cepeda has been running more articles on Regional Mexican music, including his own (that’s in addition to his crucial reggaeton series Tu Pum Pum) and those of Roberto Jose Andrade Franco and Lucas Villa. Add in some pieces from my Singles Jukebox colleague Juana Giaimo and many many others, and that’s a website! I’m honored to appear in their company.

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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)

Yo Quiero Tu… ¿Grammy?

ramon ayala grammy

The Grammy category with the weirdest name — Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) — is especially bizarre this year.

It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the Grammys have no idea what to do with Mexican music, especially norteño. This shouldn’t be the case. As Chris Willman reported last year, every Grammy genre, including Latin, has a “blue ribbon panel” of 15-18 industry insiders tasked with whittling long lists of vote-getting albums into the final lists of nominees. These panels are diverse groups of music professionals, which may explain why the nominees for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) tend to reward repeat winners’ often middling work, or tastefully dull ranchera albums nobody heard. The industry professionals who nominate Grammys want to reward music that reflects their industry’s professionalism. El Komander probably doesn’t fit the bill.

Usually the results resemble the overall Album of the Year category in 1994, when Tony Bennett’s Unplugged beat out The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, Eric Clapton’s blues tribute From the Cradle, Bonnie Raitt’s 3rd straight AOTY nom, Longing in Their Hearts, and Seal’s 2nd album. Those nominees were so lame they sparked a “revolt” and reforms, partly because they completely omitted Hole’s Live Through This.(!)

aida cuevasSo this year the Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) category includes a couple such expected nominees: a pretty good album by a perennial nominee, Banda El Recodo’s Ayer y Hoy (Fonovisa) — like happy families, all Band El Recodo albums are alike — and the boring “unplugged” Arrieros Somos — Sesiones Acusticas (Cuevas), by ranchera legend Aida Cuevas, whose far livelier Juan Gabriel tribute album missed the cutoff date. But then, the category takes a turn for the strange.

ni diabloThe man with the continent’s best voice, Julión Álvarez, is nominated for Ni Diablo Ni Santo (Fonovisa). In a typical year, you’d shrug. But not this year! That’s because Julión Álvarez, like certain terrorists and North Korean businesses, is SANCTIONED by the U.S. Treasury, meaning his assets are blocked and Americans can’t do business with him. He’s vanished from streaming services and he can’t tour El Norte. Listening to his illegally uploaded, mostly romantic, Grammy nominated album on YouTube is now an ACT OF POLITICAL RESISTANCE, or something. (It’s OK, not his best.) #FreeJulionAlvarez!

alex campos momentosThe other solo male nominee, Alex Campos, isn’t even Mexican! He’s a Colombian singer who wins Dove Awards and Latin Grammys for Christian music. (Here he is in 2012, singing “Dios Es Pederoso” with Hillsong Global Project Español.) His album Momentos (Sony) is a Christian mariachi album. Granted, it’s way more entertaining than Christian Nodal’s surprisingly un-nominated “mariacheño” debut, but also way less representative of the genre — not to mention less good than Alicia Villarreal’s ranchera pop La Villarreal.

zapateando en el norteAnd finally, there’s Azteca Records’ multi-artist compilation Zapateando en el Norte, the most bizarre nominee of all. It’s a compilation of puro sax bands from Chihuahua and Zacatecas, a longstanding interest of the Blog’s readership. Puro sax is a wonderful norteño subgenre all its own. Bands play bouncy sax/accordion polkas and sing often bereft, emo lyrics, and their popularity is impervious to larger regional Mexican trends.

Puro sax bands also play a lot of huapangos, largely instrumental tunes that contrast triple and duple rhythms — they’re all in fast 6/8 time — and are used for Mexican folk dancing. (“Zapateados,” these dances are called more generally; you stomp your feet a lot.) Huapangos make for spritely mid-album or mid-set novelties. As the Blog discovered last summer, more and more online playlists of huapangos have been appearing, so Azteca owner Humberto Novoa had his bands cut a bunch of huapangos for this comp.

Now remember, whoever nominates Mexican albums seems pretty oblivious to factors like hipness, relevance, and commercial performance. We can argue all day about whether that’s a good thing or not; for the Grammys in general, it’s a core existential issue. Anyway, this year, Azteca’s flagship puro sax band, the twice-nominated La Maquinaria Norteña, who stand astride the puro sax genre like Saxophone Colossi, missed the eligibility date with their own album, Por Obvias Razones. So in a sense, this album occupies their spot…

… which means the fifth nominee for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) is a compilation of a subgenre (huapangos) of a subgenre (puro sax) of a subgenre (norteño) of an industry format (regional Mexican). (Including Tejano.)

It’d be like the Best Rap Album nomination going to a compilation of Southern rap Mama songs, or something. Which, btw, the Blog would totally endorse.

But this is where the blue ribbon panel’s haplessness pays off! Give or take the Banda El Recodo album, Zapateando en el Norte is the best thing in this category. It’s a nonstop zapateado fiesta, with sax and accordion banging out their riffs over amazingly capable rhythm sections. I’d vote for it, anyway. Although if Gerardo Ortiz had been nominated as he should have been, it’d be a different story.

Oh yeah, one more bit of Grammy hilarity. Guess which subgenre goes completely unrepresented among these Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) nominees? As it has every year since the category’s 2012 inception?

TEJANO.

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”

Archivos de 1994 (now with Submarine Tracking Technology)

selena

One week in November of 1994, Billboard changed its method of charting the biggest Latin hits in the U.S. They’d been using “National Latin Radio Airplay Reports,” completed and submitted by radio programmers and presumably subject to unwelcome human error. For their November 12 issue, Billboard switched to a computerized service called Broadcast Data Systems, or BDS, which used supercool SUBMARINE TRACKING TECHNOLOGY to determine which songs got the most radio play:

The BDS system looks for an audio fingerprint — a characteristic that differentiates a song from all of the other ones that it tracks — using the same technology that was once used to track submarines.

BDS then weighs the songs differently, depending on how many people they reach:

Thus, a song that plays at 4:00 a.m. does not count as much as one played at 4:00 p.m., and a station with a large audience will influence the chart more than either a station in a smaller market or one with a specialized format that attracts less audience.

Just as when SoundScan began electronically tracking album sales, this new system of tracking led to eye-opening changes in what was hitting the charts. In Billboard‘s November 5 issue, only four songs on the Hot Latin top 10 would have been considered “regional Mexican” — on the list below, they’re the songs from Selena, Ana Gabriel, Industria Del Amor, and Banda Z. On November 12, the new improved Hot Latin chart contained 7 regional Mexican songs, and it would maintain this proportion for weeks to come. Of the regional bands propelled by BDS into the Top 10, four were nowhere to be found in the previous week’s issue: Tejano acts Los Rehenes, Sparx, and La Mafia, and norteño act Banda Machos. For whatever reason — a different balance of stations reporting, or maybe just human error — regional Mexican music had gone under-reported before BDS. The primary beneficiaries of the new submarine tracking technology were Tejano bands, but that may just be because Tejano music, led by Selena, had recently entered its boom period as the popular face of regional Mexican music.

In addition, Billboard starting running three breakout charts, based on the airplay of radio stations devoted to one particular style of Latin music: Pop, Tropical/Salsa, and Regional Mexican. Below is the (first?) Regional Mexican Top 10, from the November 12 issue of Billboard. I’ll be liberally quoting Jonathan Bogart, whose blog Bilbo’s Laptop tracks every Hot Latin #1 and explains several of these songs better than I’ve managed here.

Also, if anyone can tell me what a puchoncito is, I’d appreciate it. Continue reading “Archivos de 1994 (now with Submarine Tracking Technology)”

“Go Tejano Day”: What’s In a Name?

go tejano day

[Note: This article has been edited to reflect NorteñoBlog’s belated realization that HLSR is in fact a non-profit, using its proceeds for full college scholarships. Outside accusations of discrimination remain.]

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo sounds like a county fair on steroids and gamma rays, an orgy of horses, country music, and mad cowboys deep frying everything that’s not nailed down. I’m frankly jealous we don’t have one up in Chicago. But there’s trouble in Bayou City, and there has been for the past eight years, specifically surrounding the rodeo’s annual “Go Tejano Day” event:

Go Tejano Day is one of the biggest days at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo but it didn’t stop protestors from rallying outside of NRG Park.

Tejano supporters protested Sunday afternoon saying officials here have chosen musical acts in the Norteno and Banda genre and have not stayed true to Tejano music and culture.

Indeed, yesterday’s Go Tejano Day crowd broke the rodeo’s alltime record for attendance: 75,357 people paid to enjoy the music of Arrolladora and La Maquinaria Norteña, one banda and one norteño group, both of whom NorteñoBlog has been known to enjoy. Neither group has anything to do with Tejano music. To repeat, that’s the biggest ever paid attendance at any day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which otherwise features first-tier country artists and a couple top-40 pop stars. (Dierks Bentley’s playing tonight; tomorrow’s Ariana Grande.) The second most attended day in history? 2012’s Go Tejano Day, which featured Julión Álvarez and Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon, one banda one norteño, neither of them Tejano.

Indeed, you have to go back to 2007 to find an actual Tejano act playing Go Tejano Day. (It was crossover country star Emilio.) Not coincidentally, that was also the last year the event didn’t spark protests. In 2008 the concert planners broke with tradition. For the first time since Go Tejano Day started in 1990, its headliners weren’t Tejano bands — instead they were Duelo, Texans playing norteño, and Los Horoscopos de Durango, playing Chicago duranguense. 71,165 people still showed up, but so did some protesters:

“The bands that are inside are representing Mexico,” said one protester, Steve Rodriguez, 54. “That’s not representing Tejanos.”

The rodeo’s excuse has always been reasonable, as you’d expect from a gigantic moneymaking corporation. If you’re a Tejano music fan, maybe it’s infuriatingly reasonable. Go Tejano Day was never meant to refer to Tejano music; rather, it was a play on the “Go Texan” slogan and designed to appeal to Houston’s large-and-growing Hispanic population, and the nineties just happened to be when Tejano music was on the rise. As we saw around Grammy time, back in 1996, when the Grammys were busily neglecting norteño music, the Tejano music industry marshaled its clout to create the “Best Mexican-American/Tejano” category, which La Mafia promptly won. Since then, though, Tejano has grown less and less popular. As Tejano fan Ramiro Burr pointed out in 2008, “When it comes time to booking the bands, the Houston Rodeo folks are doing what commercial radio and record labels do — they go for what brings in the largest crowds.” Since Go Tejano Day started featuring norteño and banda acts, the event has consistently broken attendance records for the rodeo’s organizers. Can you blame them?

Well, maybe.

The thing is, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, to whom I’ll start referring as the more nefarious-sounding HLSR, has also done that big-corporation thing of changing the terms of the debate. The HLSR has accomplished this with diabolical ease. (MWA-jajaja!) The 2008 protests weren’t only about which bands would play the main stage; they made other demands:

1. Award greater number of scholarships to Hispanics. Only a few
scholarships are awarded to Hispanics.

2. Need Hispanic representation at the Executive Committee Level of the
rodeo’s governing group. Currently, Hispanics do not have
representation.

3. Retain event title as “Go Tejano Day”, while building greater
awareness of Tejano music & culture.

4. Expand role of “Go Tejano Committee” in the entertainment selection
process. The Go Tejano Committee has no role in selecting bands to
perform.

5. Pay parity for Tejano music artists. Tejano artists are paid much
much less than the other non-Hispanic artists. Yet, the Tejano artists
have broken numerous attendance records.

6. Increase Hispanic themed days/events at the Houston Rodeo.

Indeed, in 2008, “Several black lawmakers, including State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, joined the Tejano cause…, saying blacks, too, should play a bigger role in the show.”

But:

Rodeo officials counter that about one-third of scholarships already go to Hispanic students. And while there are no blacks or Hispanics on the rodeo’s highest volunteer committee [it’s called The Executive Committee, MWAjajaja], that’s because membership is based on years of service and financial contributions.

I can’t speak to the scholarship numbers. But that second point is a classic method of refusing to integrate your organization while still seeming cool with the idea of integration. The idea goes, “They, the people whose money we’re taking in record-setting amounts, can’t help us plan the specific means of taking their money because they’ve never done it before. But seriously, we’re concerned.” Well, if nothing changes, nothing changes. Here, feast your eyes on the pasty faces of the current 2015 Executive Committee! The rodeo does have a black Vice President and some Latino-sounding names on the Board of Directors, which isn’t nothing. But it also isn’t integration. And if you’re serious about representing your clientele, it won’t take you eight years to integrate your Executive Committee, sure as you don’t wanna touch your shoe soles after visiting the livestock show.

(Um, I would like to pre-emptively apologize to Chris Richardson or any other members of the Executive Committee who might, in fact, be Hispanic. Set me straight!)

But in 2008, Leroy Shafer, the HLSR’s Chief Operating Officer, saved his fighting words for the musical argument. “The very vast majority of the Hispanic community knows that this is a subterfuge to try to keep a dying music industry alive,” he said of the protest. “They’re not buying into it.” He’s right about that. This 2009 message board thread is a good read, with every other post offering a sound argument about appropriate names for the event (the meaning of Tejano isn’t in question) and which music is worth supporting. But nobody really addresses the power structure like those 2008 protesters, except for a poster named MH, who says, “[W]e will not be able to influence the Tejano Day if we do not start becoming involved in their planning…”

This year’s protests got some extra attention thanks to Oscar de la Rosa of La Mafia, that Grammy-winning Tejano band; de la Rosa went on a profane rant against rodeo organizers during one of his concerts. (La Mafia has played the rodeo in the past.) There was also a change.org petition. But neither addressed the power structure of the HLSR; they just implored Tejano fans to boycott so that the HLSR would schedule some Tejano bands. The HLSR responded in kind: “We put music on our main RODEOHOUSTON stage that attracts fans and sells tickets.” There are bigger fish to fry here. I frankly don’t care who plays Go Tejano Day, but there’s no question Tejano’s appeal has waned for a while. It simply has fewer fans than norteño and banda. Changing the name to “Hispanic Heritage Day” or hiring La Mafia instead of Arrolladora isn’t gonna change who’s in charge of the rodeo or how they make their scholarship money. They’d just make less money if they hired La Mafia.

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