The Tuba Takes Its Spotlight In Mexican Bandas

Traditional Mexican music, known as 'banda,' has been popular in Southern California for decades. And now, the tuba has gone from carrying the bass line in the back of the band, to stepping out front and leading dance trains. Host Michel Martin speaks with musician Jesse Tucker and Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones, who has been covering the tuba revolution.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next guests say these days if you want a banging brass band for your party you have got to get one with - wait for it. Wait for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOS HERMANOS CARRILLO CON CHIKILIN Y SU TUBA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: A tuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was the trio, Los Hermanos Carrillo con Chikilin y su Tuba with Jesse Tucker on the tuba. The tuba has become all the rage. It's even become a kind of status symbol, especially in Los Angeles, where the weather is nice all year round and traditional Mexican music is a way of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TUBA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: But the so-called tuba revolution in traditional Mexican music has not only given birth to a young generation of talented musicians, it has also spurred a spate of tuba burglaries in Southern California high schools.

Here to tell us more about the tuba trend in the Greater Los Angeles area is Sam Quinones. He's been reporting on this for the LA Times. Also with us is the tuba player you just heard, Jesse Tucker. Welcome to you both. Happy New Year.

JESSE TUCKER: Happy New Year.

SAM QUINONES: Happy New Year to you too.

MARTIN: Sam, first I'd like to ask you, how did this tuba revolution start?

QUINONES: Well, I think it began with a few younger tuba players deciding that being no longer wanted to be kind of confined by the limits that tradition had imposed on them for many, many years. I think in Mexican Banda music the tuba has always been kind of in the back, a very limited role for the tuba. Always necessary because that's the base, that's the kind of the propelling motor of the band, but always kind of, you know, not too sexy. In time some new musicians came about. They were better. They were more fluid in there playing. They had new influences, particularly up here in the United States, and they wanted to be more like taken seriously as musicians. And so you get some people who are now switching from other instruments, like the trumpet and trombone, to play the tuba. So you get a kind of a dexterity that goes along with it and at the same time a really big part of this, of course, is that people, particularly in Southern California at house parties, really demand the tuba now. And so there's a real economic incentive to becoming a tuba player...

MARTIN: OK.

QUINONES: ...in Los Angeles that wasn't there like five, 10 years ago.

MARTIN: OK. Jesse Tucker, how about that? I understand that you started playing tuba in high school. Was it sexy?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Well, when I started playing tuba, no, I didn't think of it at all as a sexy instrument. No, I didn't really see too many opportunities for tuba at that time. You know, I went into the service, went into the Marine Corps, came back and I noticed there was a lot of, a lot more bands using tubas, a lot more different types of groups.

MARTIN: And I just wanted to get - what's your take on what Sam Quinones was telling us about why the tuba became hot and you became the in thing?

TUCKER: There is competition. People want to put their own ideas out there. They want to have the spotlight on them and they want more gigs. Plus here in LA, there's a lot more groups. It's just a whole lot of opportunities as compared to the other instruments.

MARTIN: Sam, what effect do you think that the tuba craze has had on the music?

QUINONES: Well, I think people are now using tuba a whole lot more. I've met bands where they fired their bass players because if people want it at their parties you're not going to get hired if you don't have it, you know. And so you're having this change there. You're also, I believe, what's interesting is taking place in the tuba is it's a little bit like a civil rights movement for tuba players. For so long you've had the tuba kind of defined and limited by what other people thought it should be. And so you're always kind of liked at the back of the band, your opportunities were limited, and now I see what's going on in the tuba as very kind of revolutionary, a radical kind of change, because not tuba players are playing like Jesse, you know, really fast and fluid. They are defining who they are for themselves, not allowing other people to say this is what they're capable of.

In Mexican music, Mexican culture, that is a radical thing because for so long traditional Mexican music was kind of frozen in time, you know, you don't touch it because it's classic, it's traditional. But here you're seeing a whole lot of new experimentation.

MARTIN: We're looking at the so-called tuba revolution that's changing traditional Mexican music, especially in Southern California. We're speaking with Sam Quinones of the Los Angeles Times, who has been covering this trend. That's who was speaking just now. And also with us, tuba player Jesse Tucker.

So Jesse, I understand that you're going to first play us an example of a traditional tuba bass line. And Javier Inges(ph) Jr. and he is going to a company you on the guitar. And so what are you going to play us, a corrido or no?

TUCKER: It's just a basic rhythm for a corrido. It's a slow waltz will be the first example.

MARTIN: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And now let's hear an example of let's say the tuba revolution and something you'd play during one of your regular gigs. Tell us what you're going to play and then play a little bit for us, if you would.

TUCKER: This example is basically double-time waltz and it's still a corrido rhythm.

MARTIN: All right. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So Jesse, do you ever see any tension - generational tension - going on? Like little finger shaking going on on both sides of the generational divide here? Are you experiencing any of that at your gigs where some of the old folks are standing on the side - or older people, I should say, are standing on the side - during one set and the younger people, waiting on the other set? Do you find it hard to satisfy both constituencies?

TUCKER: You know, that's a good question. And actually, yes. Occasionally, you know, I will play with older people. Sometimes I have to change my style if I see they're kind of looking my way or they're not comfortable playing so I've got to - every situation is different. And I find when I play with the younger musicians they seem more comfortable with it, so it's an experimentation. Just like music, every situation is different.

MARTIN: Is Javier there? Can he come up to the mic for a minute? Javier Inges Jr. was accompanying you on the guitar. And I'm sorry, I just have to ask this because, Javier, are you there?

JAVIER INGES: Yeah, I'm here.

MARTIN: Because, you know, Javier, the guitar has traditionally been like the front guy. You know, they get the glory, along with the lead vocalist guy. Am I right?

INGES: Yeah, you're right.

MARTIN: The guitar has been the guy out front, right, or the gal out front. And traditionally the guitar man is the star of the show. Are you having trouble kind of letting the tuba guy get his share of the shine? Is it kind of causing a little bit of an existentialist crisis for you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INGES: No. It's okay to share. I mean like the spotlight is for everybody, I believe so. It's about time tubas, they go up front on stage, you know, and show what they got.

MARTIN: Plus he's bigger than you, right? So...

INGES: Oh, yeah. Very. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...it's better that you say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, gentlemen, thank you for bringing us up to date on this. Sam Quinones, I have to ask you this though, what is the deal with these tuba burglaries? It's a serious problem.

QUINONES: Well, a lot of it is – it has become so because obviously out here in California, you know, education budgets are really, really thin and music departments are even thinner and so we've had a number of thefts primarily in areas where Banda is huge. My impression is talking with the music teachers, a couple of whom are abundant musicians themselves, they're very clear that this is most likely being done to supply the Mexican Banda industry, so to speak, the new Bandas that are starting up all over the place with instruments. Particularly tubas because tubas, unlike say a trumpet, which is more or less affordable. You can find one for a few hundred bucks maybe. A good tuba costs $5,000, $6,000. And even a bad one costs, you know, $1,500 or $2,000. So it's beyond the means of a lot of people and so that's why you're seeing tubas being stolen.

And, you know, Southgate High School, a high school near here, lost five tubas in two burglaries. Huntington Park lost three tubas in two burglaries. One a few days ago out of Anaheim where a middle school that has a very poor area, you know, the instruments that they have are really difficult to replace economically, they lost every instrument they had. They had baritones, tubas trumpets, the whole bit. The thieves broke in and didn't touch the computer equipment that they could easily have stolen. It was all musical instruments.

MARTIN: And so Jesse, does this make you wary when you travel with your tuba now?

TUCKER: I keep my instrument pretty close to me all the time because it, you know, it's very expensive. It's like my third arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh dear. All right. Well, good luck with that. Sam Quinones is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Jesse Tucker is the tuba player in Los Hermanos Carrillo con Chikilin y su Tuba. He was accompanied today by Javier Inges Jr. on guitar, and he has no problem with that, so he tells us. And they joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for speaking with us. Happy New Year to you all.

QUINONES: Thanks very much for having us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

INGES: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Jesse, I understand you're going to take us out with a Ranchera.

TUCKER: Yes. Ranchera with some new ideas on tuba.

MARTIN: All right. Here it is. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Once again, that was tuba player Jesse Tucker accompanied by Javier Inges Jr. Tucker regularly plays with the group Los Hermanos Carrillo con Chikilin y su Tuba.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to first TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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