Only a few years ago, it appeared that la musica norteña, a snappy, accordion-pumping Mexican polka style indigenous to the border area of southern Texas and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, was about to go the way of all other folk-rooted musical genres. Upper- and middle-class Mexicans preferred the more genteel sounds of mariachi and other folkloric music promoted by the cultural establishment in Mexico City. Norteño was widely considered to be a crude style associated with los pobres, the poorest stratum of society along the U.S.-Mexico border. Against the onslaught of multinational recording conglomerates and their attempts to create pan-Hispanic popularity for romantic balladeers like Julio Iglesias and youth-oriented bubblegum groups such as Menudo, norteño seemed doomed.
Yet, like zydeco, its accordion-based, black-French Louisiana cousin, norteño is growing in popularity and attracting both young fans and musicians. And like rap, another phenomenon born outside the music business mainstream, norteño speaks to the current concerns of the common people Today, norteño music accounts for a large percentage of Mexican record sales on both sides of the border.
In the U.S., those records are issued only by independent companies (for example, Freddie in Corpus Christi and Fonovisa in Los Angeles); but in Mexico, they are released by large, established labels — EMI Pope, CBS Columbia, and Musart among them. And like the ranchera idols of yesteryear, who wore sombreros and shot pistols while crooning in front of large mariachi + orchestras, the biggest names in norteño music now star in popular Mexican motion pictures. Among the musicians-turned-screen-stars are the norteño supergroups Los Tigres del Norte, from San Jose, California, and Los Bravos del Norte de Ramón Ayala from Monterrey, Nuevo León.
Norteño is now big business, and its popularity has spread north to Chicago, well into the Mexican interior, to Mexico City, Central America, and even to Colombia and Venezuela. In Tijuana alone, there are four radio stations devoting the majority of their music programming to norteño and a dozen groups currently recording.
On the U.S. side of the border, norteño groups can be found playing several nights of the week at such local clubs as Marisol and Zoralia’s in Chula Vista, Lydia's in Imperial Beach, El Coco Loco near Oceanside, and Polo’s in North Park. Norteño groups such as Los Tigres and Ramón Ayala frequently appear in shows at the Civic Theatre. And many less professional conjuntos entertain in small local Mexican bars and restaurants, accepting requests and tips. Los Regionales de San Diego are the most active of the norteño groups here, performing Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons at Marisol and Friday and Sunday nights at Polo’s.
In a typical scene at Marisol, couples in their 20s to 60s, campesinos and businessmen alike, fill the dance floor, two-stepping under revolving red, blue, yellow, and green lights to Los Regionales' spirited polkas. Fingering the buttons of his accordion with remarkable speed, pulling on it to sustain its moaning tones, leader Enrique Zapata sings the Spanish lyrics in a strong, slightly nasal, low tenor. Alto saxophonist Bias Casillas echoes the accordion’s darting runs in high-pitched wails. When not playing, Casillas is grinning and skipping in place to the bajo sexton (a 12-stringed bass guitar), bass, and drum rhythm.
Jorge Villaseñor, a trumpet player originally from San Jose, opened the 300-person-capacity Marisol five years ago in order to feature his own group Colour. The eight-member Top 40 and salsa band plays there on Fridays and Saturdays. The club has become so successful, Villaseñor says, that he plans to open a larger one nearby later this year. Colour will play there, as will big-name Mexican groups from out of town. But he'll keep the present club and book only norteño. He feels there is that much demand for the music in this area.
A decade ago, most young Mexicans wouldn’t be caught listening or dancing to polkas. Norteño was backward, old-folks’ music. Tropical and pop combos, their sounds dominated by cheap tinny organs, were preferred, as were American rock oldies and vintage American rhythm and blues by famous soul singers such as Mary Wells and Billy Stewart or forgotten ones like Jay Wiggins and the Notations. During the ’70s, XPRS in Rosarito beamed oldies programs, taped in Los Angeles, up and down California. The station called this music programming the “Brown Sound.’’ Today, however, the under-30 crowd can be found dancing to norteño music at Tijuana’s 4500-capacity La Taconaso dance hall or at nightclubs like El Tapatio. Norteño has become the new "Brown Sound."
"We’re looking at a music that a lot of people didn't give a long life to, maybe five years, like Menudo’s music, which was here for a couple of years and now it’s gone," says Raul Musso, a raspy-voiced deejay at Tijuana’s Radio 80 (XEMMM), the station that claims to have introduced norteño to the local airwaves in 1982. "This music has increased our listenership Now the kids are pushing towards norteño music. They request songs by Ram6n Ayala, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Invasores de Nuevo León. They like songs like ‘La Banda del Carro Rojo,’ which is not really for kids, but they like it.”
Chris Strachwitz, the El Cerrito-based record producer noted for his blues, zydeco, and norteño recordings for the Arhoolie label, has been the (J.S. record industry’s primary pusher of norteño music to the English-speaking market. Besides recording Flaco Jimenez, the great San Antonio, Texas accordionist, he has issued a series of albums on his Folklyric subsidiary that traces the evolution of norteño from the ’30s through the ’60s.
The German-born ethnomusicologist is elated that norteño has achieved such mass popularity but is worried that it will obliterate other regional Mexican styles in its rise.
“Once something becomes very popular, it’s just like any folk tradition,” Strachwitz explains. “It’s actually very cruel because it wipes out everything else. It really replaced almost every other kind of Mexican-American music that existed along the border. Mariachis were pushed out of the way. They still have their audience for sort of the better-to-do-class people. At first, just like zydeco, norteño was definitely only related to a rough element, kind of a honky-tonk element.”
But this once-despised music has now won acceptance, even among much of the Mexican middle class. ”And like zydeco, when church halls started hiring Clifton Chenier, then it became respectable because the families could come to the dances,” Strachwitz says. "The same thing was done when Los Alegres de Teran, or even Narciso Martmez earlier, would give public dances, which became a respectable thing where the whole family could go, rather than just playing in dives. Los Alegres de Teran told me they started in Boys’ Town in Reynoso, which is the whorehouse district. We met the woman who ran one of ’em, and she said, ‘Yeah, they started here.’ That was certainly not a place where kids could go.”
Another factor in norteño’s ascendance locally has been the mass migration of people from Mexico’s interior into Tijuana and across the border to greater San Diego. "We’re all people who’ve come from the country, from rural areas to northern Mexico," says Jerardo Morales Galaviz, director artistico and disc jockey at Radio Ranchita (XEXX). Known as a bastion of ranchera music since it first went on the air in 1936, the Tijuana station now mixes plenty of norteño into its format.
"This little rooster is for you,” Galaviz shouts into a near-antique RCA microphone, then pushes a button that signals Radio Ranchita’s trademark rooster crow. The taped rooster, he boasts, crows before and after every record played, 24 times an hour.
"Seventy percent of the people who are in Tijuana aren’t from the large cities in the interior but from the small towns," he continues, as a bolero by 1950s ranchera singer Javier Solis spins on the turntable. “Norteño is their music. The reason I think it’s so popular here is because it speaks to our roots."
Many liken norteño to American country and western music and compare Monterrey, where many of the top norteño groups record, to Nashville. Norteño fans, Strachwitz contends, "will put down their own regional music because they consider it too country, but they figure norteño is the macho country and western music of the day. The other stuff is considered more folkloric.” "There’s a lot of nationalism connected with it," he adds. "People used to think of mariachi music as the national music of Mexico, but now they feel that it’s norteño music, the lower classes especially.
“It’s surprising how it has taken off in popularity here on the West Coast. Just a few years ago, I used to go hear bandas play at dances in San Francisco. They would have singers featured with them. That’s pretty much all gone now ’cause of the norteños.”
Topical songs, called corridos, are the heart and soul of norteño music. Their tragic lyrics, wailed in high-pitched, two-part harmony, in polka or waltz time or to an Afro-Colombian cumbia beat, tell of murders, scandals, border crossings, drug smuggling, police raids, and jail breaks. "They are just like newspapers or magazines are here,” says Strachwitz. One popular corridor of a few years ago tells of drugs being smuggled inside an accordion. The contrabando songs, especially those by Los Tigres del Norte, have such wide appeal that the governors of Sonora and Sinaloa met a year and a half ago with radio executives in their respective states and succeeded in having songs about drug trafficking banned from the airwaves.
Last year, the local Los Tucanes de Tijuana recorded a contraband titled “El Tigre de Tijuana" on their debut album, issued on the Cadenza Musical label in Guadalajara. To a bouncing polka beat, accordionist Joel Higuera and bajo sexton player Mario Quintero Lara blend their voices in plaintive, nasal harmony. They sing in Spanish:
Listen to this ballad of a notorious gunman Known in the north as the Tiger of Tijuana.
They say he killed many men.
From Texas to California, his legend was known. ..
Once, they caught him with drugs in San Francisco And locked him in jail for his criminal ways.
When he finished his time, they sent him to the border. But he harbored a very black vengeance.
Filled with the devil, he prepared his rifle carefully And killed four deputies in San Ysidro.
The Tiger was shot down near customs.
They sent his body back to Tijuana.
The notorious gunman, the Tiger of Tijuana, died.
But he got his revenge.
Led by 24-year-old Joel Higuera, Los Tucanes de Tijuana use the same instrumental combination that has been standard in norteño music since the ’50s: diatonic accordion, bajo sexton, electric bass, and trap drums. They perform six times a week for dances, rodeos, and baptisms, traveling in a baby-blue Dodge van that announces in white letters on its side, “We are Los Tucanes de Tijuana — Don’t mistake us." On Friday nights, this up-and-coming conjunto plays at El Tapatio, a middle-class nightclub just off the busy Diaz Ordaz Boulevard in Tijuana's La Mesa district.
The quartet’s repertoire is evenly divided between norteño polkas, taken at various speeds, and cumbias, holdovers from when so-called tropical groups dominated the local club scene. The youthful El Tapatio dancers, many of the men wearing cowboy hats and boots and neatly pressed blue jeans, dance close on the polkas, two-stepping in counterclockwise circles, heels kicking backwards as the bajo sexton and snare drum pronounce the upbeats, then clicking on the hardwood floor to the bass player’s bouncing one-two, one-two. Especially accomplished couples dip and spin gracefully as they rotate. For the cumbias, the dancing is more freestyle.
Midway through the first set, Higuera asks for requests from the audience. The first is for “El Gato Felix," a corridor originally recorded by Los Tigres del Norte on an album called Los Corridos Prohibidos. Los Tucanes follow Los Tigres’ arrangement closely. Higuera kicks it off on accordion in polka tempo, then switches to waltz time for a few bars before returning to the original rhythm. Then, as he jabs syncopated lines with his right hand on the tiny instrument’s three rows of buttons, Higuera and Lara sing:
Con una plums ualiente, seftald la corrupcidn.
Ayudd siempre a la genie.
MAs de dos presidentes le prestaron la alencidn.
De una forma traicionera, le llegd al Cato el final De una uez y de a deveras en caballo de carreras.
La muerte corrid a ganar. ..
SerA uno mAs en la lists de valientes periodistas Qud a si han querido caltar.
A Hector Felix Miranda te dedico mi cantar.
Pero no tengas pendiente,
Que anda por ahi el ualiente Que ocupara tu lugar.
With a brave pen, he pointed out corruption.
He always helped the people.
More than two presidents paid attention to him.
The end came for Gato treasonously.
Truthfully, like a race horse.
Death ran to win....
He will be one more on the list of brave journalists They have tried to shut up.
To you, Hector Felix Miranda. I dedicate my singing. But don't be worried.
For somewhere there is the brave one Who will take your place.
Since the April 1988 assassination of Hector "Gato" Felix Miranda, the popular muckraking journalist for Tijuana's Zeta weekly, seven corridos about the event have circulated throughout northern Baja. Although the Mexican courts convicted the driver of the vehicle from which Miranda was ambushed, many doubt the truthfulness of his confession. Los Tigres’ corridor alludes to horse racing — a reference to the fact that Zeta continues to point the finger at Agua Caliente racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon, son of Mexico’s minister of tourism, as the mastermind of the crime. Indeed, in the last columns he wrote before his death, Miranda had railed against Rhon, using insulting, gutter language. Because the very popular Los Tigres chose to record this Gato Felix corridor, they spread news of the ongoing scandal well beyond the Tijuana area.
"El Gato Felix" was issued in the U.S. in March but wasn’t released in Mexico until a month later. In Tijuana. Radio 80 played it first, having been mailed a copy from San Jose by Los Tigres’ leader, accordionist Jorge Hernandez. "We put it on the air immediately," says station director artístico Victor Hugo Arellono. "We even had an anonymous phone call saying that we should stop putting it on the air."
In March, Radio 80 was the only Tijuana station playing the record. The others couldn't get it. "The competition called and asked for a copy,” Arellono recalls. "I said, 'Of course not. It's exclusive.'"
By April, when the competing Radio Tambora (XHTY) finally got the record, director artístico Nicasio Rojas Ramirez was initially fearful of adding "El Gato" to his playlist. “It would be very difficult because of problems with very, very powerful people," he stated at the time. But the tune has become so popular that Radio Tambora, too, is now airing it.
The 32-year-old Ramirez was trained in Mexico City and currently programs three radio stations out of his downtown Tijuana office. Radio Amor, as one might guess, plays love ballads, while RCN airs Mexican soap operas, known as novellas. Radio Tambora plays a mix of norteño, ranchera, and tropical styles. Unlike program directors in the U.S., Mexican directores artisticos also do market research. Ramirez divides Mexican society into four socioeconomic classes: A ("la crema"), B (upper middle), C (the proletariat), and D ("people who make it day by day"). By conducting surveys door-to-door throughout Tijuana, he has determined how to target the audience for each station. RCN, he says, appeals to housewives of all classes; Radio Amor to people in classes A and B; and Radio Tambora, with its norteño format, to B, C, and D.
La Taconaso dance hall is packed with some 3000 people of all ages — families, couples, and singles. One young woman has driven all the way from Los Angeles to see Ramón Ayala. After paying the equivalent of $15 apiece for admission, the fans are frisked for bottles at the door. Beer and brandy, sold from the bar at exorbitant prices, flow liberally at tables in back and seats along the sides of the cavernous hall. Couples mass on the huge dance floor, some women riding on their partners’ knees as they two-step to the polkas of Los Regionales de San Diego. Four sisters, one much plumper than the others, hover near the dancers. As the three beautiful girls accept invitations to dance, they pile their purses into the chubby one’s arms. She stands alone, watching.
Grupo Bacanora, a tropical-music group from Sonora, follows Los Regionales onto the stage. Outfitted in gold lamé jackets, the eight-member aggregation boasts two trumpets and a tenor saxophone; but an electric organ, the accordion’s close cousin, dominates their cumbias. Midway through the set the saxophonist picks up a clarinet, and the group begins playing a banda a song in the jerky style of Mexican brass-band music, somewhat akin to Yiddish Klezmer music in its spirited cacophony. The umpa-umpa of the banda tuba is simulated on synthesizer.
The dancers step lively, their feet seeming to fly in all directions during this brief folkloric interlude. They are washed in a red-and-white swirl from revolving lights resting on the towering speaker banks on the stage.
As Grupo Bacanora ends its set, Ramón Ayala can be seen through the picture window of La Taconaso’s office above the main floor. Wearing black cowboy hat and vest, a glamorous woman on his arm, the portly 43-year-old norteño idol holds a gold LP. Photographers surround him. flashing away.
In anticipation of Ayala s first set of the night, a group of teen-aged girls gathers in front of the stage, waving blue and white pompons. The emcee introduces Ayala as "the master, the king of norteño music." Ayala and his Los Bravos del Norte are engulfed in billowing clouds of smoke as they tear into a fierce polka. The little accordion, colored green, white, and red like Mexico’s flag, rests on Ayala's belly. Jose Luis Ayala (Ramon's brother) supplies a steady backbeat and tricky fills on his traps while Ram6n plays with passion, squeezing staccato syncopations out of his German-made instrument and sustaining chords until they moan.
Many young people in the audience gather below the high stage and pass notes to the emcee, who reads them between songs. They are dedications to loved ones, and each message specifies from which state in Mexico the concerned parties hail. Everyone knows the songs, and many sing along.
"La Cárcel de Chetumal," a corridor from one of Ayala's recent albums (he has released 55), gets an especially strong response. Ayala and his bajo sexton player harmonize plaintively:
La cárcel de Chetumal está sufriendo y se estremece
A ver lo immenso de un gran amor.
Una madre enloquecid porque a su hijo en esa cárcel
Un reo ingrato se lo matd....
The Chetumal jail suffers and trembles
From the depth of a great love.
A mother went crazy because her son was killed there
By a thankless inmate.
In the tragic song, the mother goes insane, refusing to believe her son is dead, even though she had buried him. She arrives at the jail every day with baskets of food for him.
El pueblo y la autoridad el drama ya comprendid.
Ella grita entre las rejas y lloran por su dolor.
The town and the authorities are caught up in the drama.
She shouts through the bars, and they cry for her pain.
Los Bravos del Norte, like most norteño groups, write few of their own tunes but have little trouble finding good material. "At just about every concert, someone will come up and present us with a cassette of three or four songs," explains José Luis Ayala during a break, while his famous brother is busy signing autographs. "When we get back to Monterrey to do studio work, we spend time listening to all the cassettes. If we find songs that conform to our style, we’ll use them.”
The accordion was introduced into Mexico during the end of the 19th Century. It was most certainly brought by Germans, though a debate lingers as to whether Monterrey or Texas was the point of entry. Originally played to the beat of a tambora (bass drum), the norteño accordion took on its present style during the '30s through the pioneering work of Narciso Martinez, Santiago Jimenez, and others. These musicians ignored the diatonic instrument’s little left-hand buttons, which produced a drone, instead concentrating on playing intricate, snappy melodies on the larger right-hand buttons. A bajo sexton supplied the pulse. Electric bass and trap drums were added during the ’50s, and the basic conjunto format has changed little since.
A few norteño groups, especially Los Tigres del Norte, also employ saxophone, usually an alto. In this area, the most prominent norteño group featuring saxophone is Los Regionales de San Diego.
Harmonizing with leader Enrique Zapata's complex 16th-note accordion fills, Regionales sax man Bias Casillas blows slurping, popping lines that seem to laugh and cry all at once.
The 28-year-old Zapata is known professionally only as "Jorge.” He’s been playing the accordion since he was six, shortly after he moved with his parents from Tijuana to San Diego, and has been leading Los Regionales for two years. A virtuoso musician, Jorge modeled his accordion style mainly on those of Ramon Ayala and the highly innovative Juan Villarreal of Los Cachorros.
"I believe that I have kind of mixed music, a little bit of every accordionist I have known," Jorge says during a break at the Marisol. "What I have done is mixed all the kinds of styles that there is around and I put ’em together and that’s how I got my new style. I don’t have a name for it. It just comes up."
Unlike Los Tucanes de Tijuana, who have never performed in the U.S. because two members lack passports, Los Regionales de San Diego work both sides of the border. They only play in Tijuana, however, when hired to open shows for stars like Los Tigres and Los Bravos. There’s too much red tape involved in crossing the border, Jorge says. Perhaps he fears that on his return trip, U.S. customs will tear apart his cherished Hohner No. 2 accordion in search of contraband. Rather than be the subject of Los Tigres’ next corridor, he’d rather have a hit record of his own.
On a recent self-produced cassette and in person, Los Regionales vary their repertoire more than most norteño groups. Theirs uses a lively mix of polkas, cumbias, huapangos, and other rhythms. Even some of the polkas are taken at a much faster clip than usual, in order to highlight Jorge’s breathtaking right-hand dexterity. The group is especially fond of double-entendre novelty tunes. Recently they rented a studio in San Diego to make a demo of a new cumbia number called “La Mayonesa."
The lyrics, Jorge says, ‘‘try to compare a girl to mayonnaise. She moves very nice and everything.” He’s so convinced he’s got a hit on his hands that he’s sending the demo to Musart Records in Mexico City in hopes of landing a contract.
One of the most requested tunes in Los Regionales’ repertoire at the moment is "Mi Cucu," a current hit for the tropical Sonora Dinamita group. Sung to a loping cumbia beat, it is filled with what Jorge calls doubletalk. "They talk about a bird that comes out of a clock," he says, "but they’re using those words to say that he likes her butt."
"Mi Cucu" has a long history. It was written and first recorded five years ago in Louisiana by zydeco accordionist Rockin’ Sidney as "My Toot-Toot," a nonsexual Cajun term of endearment. The record immediately took off among Cajuns and French-speaking blacks in Louisiana and Texas. Then, as Rockin’ Sidney’s record became a country radio hit, others cut cover versions, including John Fogerty, Fats Domino, and Doug Kershaw. Blues singer Denise LaSalle substituted synthesizer for accordion and retitled the song "My Tutu," making it more risqué. Hers became a pop hit in Germany and Switzerland, prompting German-language covers that, once again, used the accordion. And finally, in Texas, accordionist Steve Jordan recorded a Spanish-language rendition that became a regional norteño hit.
Like the accordion itself, this catchy ditty has crisscrossed the globe in a puzzling path. Sonora Dinamita may have changed the title and altered the lyrics drastically, but in Jorge's able hands, it has returned once again to the squeezebox and become gloriously infectious norteño.