Cheat Sheet: Regional Mexican
by Rachel Devitt | November 13, 2012
For the uninitiated, regional Mexican music can sound like a perplexing, even intimidating tornado of dizzy accordions, drunken horns and cheeky ay-ay-ay's. And OK, it sort of is -- which is what makes so much of it so awesome. But there are also layers of nuance and quirky little details, not to mention whole distinctive schools of music-making, party-throwing, culture and life housed under that ambiguous, confusing umbrella term.
Regional Mexican is one of the fastest-growing areas of Latin music: Genre stalwarts like Los Tigres del Norte, Los Temerarios and Vicente Fernandez continue to throw down with the hottest of young pop stars, while the regional world's own hot young things play with dance beats, craft pop hooks, and give hard-talking hip-hop emcees and cocky country stars a run for their swagger. And more and more mainstream artists are starting to pay attention to these music styles that not so very long ago were considered the domain of old-fashioned abuelas and incorrigibly rural country folk.
So … shouldn't we all -- even we neophytes who don't know a conjunto from a corrido -- be paying attention? Yes, yes we should. So we here at Rhapsody decided to put together this little primer on the basics of regional Mexican. First, we'll go over the genres currently in high circulation. Then we'll break it down with selected albums and a playlist. Dive in! We bet our best pair of botas you're gonna be kicking up your heels to something in here by the time we're done.
The Genres You Need to Know:
Norteño and Tejano
One of the trickiest things about regional Mexican is that there's a good deal of slipperiness between genres. So banda can sound a lot like duranguense, and a ranchera star might also sing mariachis, boleros and even corridos -- sometimes on the same album. Nowhere is the slipperiness and ambiguity more pervasive than in the cavernous world of norteño, which can and has encompassed everything from folk music to pop, corridos (narrative songs) to conjuntos (which means "group," but also refers to accordion-driven styles of country waltzes and polkas). It also sometimes overlaps with Tejano (the name a lot of this kind of music is given in Texas), reflecting the cross-border routes and roots of this music, and its relevance among different Mexican and Mexican American communities.
We're going to ease in with the poppier progenitors of norteño and Tejano. The representative artists here include Selena, Los Tigres del Norte, A.B. Quintanilla y Los Kumbia Kings and Alicia Villareal -- artists who build on the triple meters and cumbia shuffles, the accordion and bajo sexto (a 12-string acoustic bass) licks, and the penchants for storytelling and romanticism of this music's history, but layer them with pop hooks and chart-friendly vocals. From there, move on to less pop-oriented fare from artists like Intocable, Conjunto Primavera and Joan Sebastian, who sing corridos, polkas and even gruperos (romance-drenched songs, basically the adult contemporary of regional) like rock stars.
"Narco" artists take up the narrative form of the classic corrido and apply to it the craft of telling gritty, gunshot-riddled, ominous tales of the drug trade. It's been compared to gangsta rap by more than one critic, but narcocorrido artists' instruments of choice are tuba and accordion, and the rhythmic up-and-down of a guitar. The stories they sling are boastful, but they're also usually based in reality -- and singing them can actually get you killed. Narcos are probably the biggest genre of regional Mexican in the game right now, with new-schoolers like Gerardo Ortiz and Larry Hernández keeping pace with pop stars and OGs like Chalino Sanchez and even Los Tigres, back in the day. For a more in-depth look at the underbelly of narcocorridos, check out our Young Guns of Narcocorridos guide.
Ranchera literally means "music of the ranches," although it's also an urban phenomenon these days. Punctuated by horns and deeply romantic, sweeping string sections, ranchera's themes are heavy -- love, loneliness and exile -- and the singer's overwrought delivery usually reflects this. This is Mexico's true country music, and it shares quite a bit with the drama and beer-tears of old-school American country. Listen for strings symphonic enough to sweep across a ranch, and big, rich and sometimes dramatically sobbing vocals from classic, beloved artists like Vicente Fernandez and Lola Beltran, as well as nuevo-ranchero from Lila Downs' and Los Temerarios' pop-ballad-heavy take on the genre. For more such romance, check out our Ranchera Megamix.
Contemporary mariachi sounds a lot like ranchera, only with trumpets driving the theatrics instead of strings. Originally, though, mariachi bands provided music for weddings and other gatherings in Jalisco, and the groups who stroll around restaurants and town squares in sombrero-and-bolero-coat uniforms -- with instruments usually consisting of guitars, the low-thrumming guitarron, violins and trumpets -- continue that tradition. Groups like Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan have also kept the genre's folk traditions alive. But mariachi is also big-time pop music throughout Mexico and much of the United States, thanks to artists like Pepe Aguilar and Cristian Castro.
Another chapter in Mexico's long romance with brass bands, banda is, at its simplest, country and pop music played by (often massive) groups of brass musicians. Created in the state of Sinaloa by musicians who reworked the tuba- and accordion-driven polkas and waltzes brought by Eastern European immigrants, banda made the transition from fiesta to arena (and even the pop charts) at the end of the 20th century. Today's banda music is typically made up of a large group (sometimes 10-20 musicians) of horn players, the occasional guitar, percussion and, more often than not, a charismatic pop-star frontman or -woman. They might play your abuela's conjuntos and rancheras, your mama's corridos and cumbias, and your little sister's pop hits, not to mention the occasional narcocorrido. See our Cheat Sheet to Banda Sinaloense for more info, and have a listen to exemplary albums old and new from La Arrolladora Banda El Limón, Jenni Rivera and Calibre 50 below.
If the duranguense artists below (including Alacranes Musical and Jazmin Lopez) sound a lot like they're playing banda to your now-expert ears, that's because they basically are, only with synths standing in for banda's brass. What really sets duranguense apart, however, is its point of origin: Chicago, where immigrants and their descendants from the Mexican state of Durango created this poppier, lo-fi, synth-soaked, often outlaw-obsessed genre that's become incredibly popular throughout the U.S. and Mexico.
Tribal, Urban Regional, Nortec and Other Post-Regional Mashups
Naturally, once a tradition (or a collection of traditions, as it were) gets established, these crazy kids today have to come along and screw with it. Yay! Artists like 3BallMTY, Akwid, Nortec Collective and Sistema Bomb have funked up bits and pieces of regional traditions into tribal guarachero, urban-regional hip-hop, nortec and electro-folklorico, respectively. Dig in.