Not Your Abuela's Music: A Deep Dive Into Mexican Regional Music : Alt.Latino The music of your parents and grandparents is now part of a music industry trend that may soon overtake the popularity of reggaetón.

Not Your Abuela's Music: A Deep Dive Into Mexican Regional Music

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When I was a teenager, I spent a summer playing drums with my uncle's accordion conjunto. That's a small musical group that includes guitar, bass, drums and, of course, an accordion. We played standard Mexican bar music - cumbias, boleros, corridos, lots of corridos. You know, nowadays the record industry would refer to my uncle's band as regional Mexican music. In fact, it now has its own Grammy and Latin Grammy categories. There is an entire radio industry built around it. It is quickly outpacing reggaeton as the most streamed genre of Spanish language music, and yet it is barely noticed outside of the millions of fans who call it their own. It's like it's hiding in plain sight.

From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. And this week on this Cinco de Mayo, we're going to take a deep dive into Mexican regional music. What does it sound like? Who listens to it? And how is it that it gets more popular year by year?


JOSE E SANCHEZ JR: (Singing) Que no digan que no estuve en la casa de esa mujer. Alzo mi copa en la mano para brindar por el fulano porque el pobre nunca supo lo que hizo esa mujer.

CONTRERAS: Let's start with some definitions.

ALICIA ZERTUCHE: The name says it all.

CONTRERAS: Alicia Zertuche used to program all the Latin music for the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. She has extensive experience with the Spanish language music industry.

ZERTUCHE: If you really dissect the name of what the meaning is, it's telling you it's music from Mexico, from various regions of Mexico. You have the music that is predominant from Durango, which is Duranguense. A lot of the music from Sinaloa is predominantly banda.

CONTRERAS: OK, here's another expert, Jorge Hernández from a little band called Los Tigres del Norte.


LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing) Cuando me vine de mi tierra en El Salvador con la intención de...

JORGE HERNANDEZ: Different regions like Veracruz, they have arpa. And south, like, Chiapas, they have the marimba and for Jalisco, mariachi.

ZERTUCHE: When you hear music from up north, they call it Norteño.

HERNANDEZ: The Norteño - the regional Norteño music is very into our veins. It's like beautiful flowers, they come from land.

CONTRERAS: For those of you who don't know, Los Tigres del Norte have been playing Mexican regional music for 50 years. In fact, that would be long before the genre even had an official name. Now, his poetic description of Norteño music speaks to the popularity of the accordion-based music of northern Mexico among all genres of Mexican regional music. And now let's check out one of the biggest hits for Los Tigres del Norte. This is called "La Jaula De Oro" or "The Golden Cage," and it tells the story of a Mexican immigrant who brought his young family to the U.S. for a better life with a hope of someday returning to Mexico. But his family gets acclimated to life in the U.S. and eventually doesn't want to return to Mexico. As a result, the protagonist is trapped in a cage that is lined with gold.


LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing) Aquí estoy establecido en los Estados Unidos. Diez años pasaron ya en que crucé de mojado, y papeles no he arreglado. Sigo siendo un ilegal...

CONTRERAS: To get an idea of just who listens to this popular form of Mexican regional music, let's spend time with another expert. Francisco Toscano, welcome to ALT.LATINO. Thank you for joining us.

FRANCISCO TOSCANO: Thank you, Felix, for inviting me. It's an honor.

CONTRERAS: Francisco Toscano is originally from Mexico and is hired by record companies to research trends and development about all forms of Latin music. He recently wrote an in-depth look at Mexican regional music for the music industry website Chart Metric. Francisco, how do you define Mexican regional music, and who listens to it?

TOSCANO: Regional Mexican music is any music genre that was born first in Mexico. Second, that includes elements not only from American populations here, but also from the immigrants that arrived into those territories all across the country. And third, that is speak about the lives that they were living where they grew up. These music genres arise from people working in the fields, hardworking people who are not necessarily living in the cities. And because of that, in Spanish, one word that is used to describe these genres are géneros raíz, or root genres. Why? Because they're born in the heart of our nation, and they're rooted in tradition. They're rooted in traditional values as well. They describe the way of life of the people who live there. Those are very important characteristics of Mexican regional music as it is in country music and genres elsewhere.

CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey.

TOSCANO: It is important when we speak about regional Mexican and regional music in general that it's a music genre that is based on tradition, and it's based on identity. So a part of the artists that our abuelitas used to listen to that we grew up with are still relevant in the current regional Mexican music landscape. But as we've seen in the research that we've done in the last couple of months, there are new generations making these music genres their own and putting their own imprint on the music they're putting out there. And that is showing in the amount of music consumption that we're seeing today.

You cannot be Mexican and not having been influenced by this kind of music, all of it. And it's incredible the reach that it has because probably you can classify yourself, as a Mexican, as a fan of rock music, as a fan of pop, as a fan of hip-hop. But when you go and review the hits of regional Mexican artists, I guarantee that at least 80% of them, you know them, and you've heard them, and you know a part of their lyrics. So the influence that this kind of music has on us, it's tremendous.

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. And this week, we're doing a deep dive into Mexican regional music.

Now, let's get a little geeky with some numbers. Now, take notes. There will be a quiz at the end of the podcast. Like other forms of Latin music, Mexican regional has also been impacted by the popularity of streaming. While other Latin music genres were first out of the gate in terms of popularity on streaming services among fans, according to Francisco Toscano's research, Mexican regional is catching up at a very fast pace. In a series of articles he wrote with Jason Joven for the industry website Chartmetric, they point to three streaming services that are driving the growth for all Mexican music genres - Deezer, Spotify and Apple Music. They all have dedicated specialized playlists devoted to what Chartmetric refers to as traditional and emerging Mexican music genres.

OK, set aside that idea of emerging genres for a minute because there's a curious development that we'll get to in a bit. Toscano and Joven also report that other social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud play a very important role and that their business model of offering content for free with subscriptions optional tends to be the source of choice among rural lower-income fans, while the subscription services of Spotify and Apple are more attractive to higher-income fans who live in cities. In fact, they report that on YouTube alone, the number of people listening to Mexican regional grew faster than English genres like rap, rock, country and pop by a whopping 30% last year. And just who are these fans listening to? According to Toscano's research, there is a curious mix of new and old. There are newcomers like Christian Nodal...


CHRISTIAN NODAL: (Singing) Si no encontraste la felicidad, no es causualidad.

CONTRERAS: ...The iconic mariachi singer Vicente Fernández...


VICENTE FERNÁNDEZ: (Singing) Voz de la guitarra mía...

CONTRERAS: ...Chente's son, Alejandro Fernández...


ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ: (Singing) Sé muy bien que te vas, y no piensas hablar.

CONTRERAS: ...And a group that plays traditional banda music with brass and tubas, a band called Banda MS de Sergio Lizárraga.


SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Every time you leave, there's only one thing that I know. What's that? Baby, yo te extraño. Maybe me das la culpa.

CONTRERAS: Your ears are not playing tricks on you. That was Snoop Dogg performing with Banda MS on their breakaway hit from a year ago, "Qué Maldición." OK, Francisco Toscano, please explain.

TOSCANO: I think Snoop Dogg was specially capable to understand this music because he's from LA. Every artist that is from Los Angeles, I think, has been exposed to regional Mexican music in a great deal. And it's not only about Snoop Dogg and Banda MS because that's - as far as I've heard - I cannot really confirm this, but I know that this is an opportunity that Snoop Dogg didn't really think much about doing. He accepted in a heartbeat - I don't know if he proposed or if it was Banda MS - because he likes it. And he was able to recognize the elements in common that regional Mexican music and his music have.

If you want to take it and widen the scope of these kind of collaborations between Anglo artists and Latin artists, we only need to see to the Black Eyed Peas' latest album, you know? What they're doing - they're including a lot of Latin artists in the collaborations that they did in their latest release that they did with Epic. One of them was Shakira, for instance. However, is from Los Angeles. Taboo - he's a Mexican American. So for them, even though they're Anglo artists, and they became famous doing music in English and urban music in English, in their upbringing, I'm pretty sure they were listening to the artists that we listen to as well in Los Angeles or in Southern California in general. So for them, it was organic up to a certain point to do these kind of collaborations.


BLACK EYED PEAS: (Rapping) I want a girl like Shakira. Esa latina está rica. I want to find me a chica que sepa vivir y que viva la vida.

TOSCANO: I believe that these kind of collaborations that we're seeing - it's only the beginning because this growth of popularity in regional Mexican music is just starting. I mean, I've seen this wave coming since at least a year and a half ago. But it's now that everybody's getting to see this tsunami because this is the way it looks now - like a tsunami that nobody saw it coming, but it has really been brewing there for at least a year and a half.


BANDA MS: (Singing) Es que no sabes cuánto duele el amor. No sabes cuánto duele en el corazón.

CONTRERAS: "Qué Maldición" brings us to trap corrido. No, it's really a thing. That is, it's a genuine hybrid that is a result of African American and Latino or Latinx communities living side by side in large urban centers throughout the southwest. They mingle in nightclubs, when they visit the southwest version of neighborhood bodegas to buy that quick gallon of milk, when they hear each other's music blaring from cars as they pass through shared neighborhoods. In fact, this is exactly the kind of cultural crossover found more than 50 years ago on the East Coast when the same kind of cross-cultural mashup led to the creation of boogaloo, that layering of soul music over Afro Caribbean beats.


PETE RODRÍGUEZ: (Singing) Here and now let's get this straight. Boogaloo, baby - I made it great.

CONTRERAS: And right now trap corrido is catching on on both sides of the border.

TOSCANO: Now it's - this phenomenon - it's starting to spread to Mexico now. One of the biggest tracks that we have right now in the world - not only in Mexico or in the Latin world - is a track that is a mix of mariacheño with Christian Nodal and hip-hop with Gera MX. "Botella Tras Botella" the track is called. And this track wouldn't have been possible - or this fusion of tracks wouldn't have been possible if we wouldn't have started in the streets of LA, in the streets of Houston, in the streets of San Antonio, you know?

CONTRERAS: Los Angeles Times cultural reporter Suzy Exposito recently reported that "Botella Tras Botella" could become a viral hit and a bona fide song of the summer for 2021.


NODAL: (Singing) Botella tras botella, ando tomando para olvidarme de ella. De ella, de ella nomás hablo en todas mis pedas. A mis compas bien hartos traigo ya. Me dicen, güey, ya la tienes que superar. Pero yo no puedo. Para ser sinceros, yo ni quiero.

CONTRERAS: Francisco Toscano says trap and corridos work well together because essentially, they're both forms of contemporary folk music.

TOSCANO: Of course because a big part of the Mexican diaspora lives in those states but also because corridos and trap have both the purpose of, first, identity and, second, portraying the lives of the people who live there. Both are music from the streets. And since they had both the same purpose of documenting life and documenting how you see yourself in your community, those genres that are very dissimilar in origin collided. And they're now taking a new shape with trap corrido and corridos tumbados.

CONTRERAS: OK, let's think about that for a second - the idea of identity so fundamentally reflected in your musical choices. Here's Alicia Zertuche again.

ZERTUCHE: Regional Mexican music is something that you have a personal attachment to because it reminds you of home. It's part of your culture. I don't think that it is a genre of music that you are turned on to. It's not something that somebody has to sell you on. It's not something that, you know, they have to constantly push through all of the mainstream avenues for you to consume it. You look for it. You look for it on the radio dial. People are still consuming it through traditional media. And it is also one of the most consumed genres of music in the streaming platforms, except it's not something that is spoken about very much. Like, everybody's like, yes. Right now reggaeton is the most consumed, and it is mainstream. But if we're going to talk about some of the genres of music that are most consumed in the United States, regional Mexican music is at the very top. And it is one of the most consumed genres of music. And, yes, you know, labels continue to sign those artists. And, yes, they are pushing them, you know, through those traditional avenues. The audience is diverse. And they continue to find it. They look for it. They consume it.

CONTRERAS: Which also reflects a very basic business reality for Mexican regional artists.

ZERTUCHE: You know, if you were to look at a tour for an artist, if you were to compare that tour to a tour possibly 10 years ago of that same artist, you will see how he's performing in more markets and performing in larger venues.

CONTRERAS: And what brings the fans out to those venues big and small? We put a call out to listeners to tell us what they like about Mexican regional music, and here are some of the things you wrote to us. It is music my parents listened to when I was growing up. We listened to mariachis. We watched Ballet Folklórico dancers. We listened to the corridos about life in the country, about the Mexican Revolution, heartbreak songs to drink away your troubles and also to confront the curse of machismo as we stared it down.


SANCHEZ: (Singing) Ya se le hizo de acostumbre. Ya se le hizo de acostumbre. Se casó ella otra vez.

CONTRERAS: Someone else wrote, Mexican regional music means familiarity and a sense of belonging. Every Mexican has heard these songs at least once and have felt the deep nostalgia within the melody, a reminder of el suelo mexicano. No matter where you are, there is a paisano singing these songs and a paisano to sing along.


CONTRERAS: And finally, someone else sent this (ph). It's a part of everyday life. Growing up, my dad used to blare banda music when he was working on his car. He would play Los Bukis and Rigo Tovar when he was just hanging around the house. And when he was in the mood to just listen to music for the simple joy of it, he would listen to Pedro Infante or baladas by artists like Javier Solís. So for me, the listener writes, music is a friend that cheers me up when I'm feeling down, motivates me when I need that extra push. It lulls me to sleep when my mind won't shut up. It reminds me about an essential part of life.

Let's hear a little bit of the master accordionist Flaco Jiménez with a bolero called "Poquita Fe."


CONTRERAS: OK, I want to go back to Los Tigres for a minute because amidst all of this talk about new trends and cultural hybrids, there is a lot to learn from an incredibly successful 50-year run. For decades, the band has made a habit of meeting directly with their fans after their shows. And during these informal meet-and-greets, the audience members share their stories of heartbreak, successes, tragedies and joys. And the band, in turn, takes some of those stories and turns them into songs. Because of that, the band has a fiercely loyal fan base because those fans often hear their own lives in the lyrics of the songs.

HERNANDEZ: We listen people. They send letters to us. They give it to us in the performance. So what we do - we've been doing this for years and years. And we take a look to the problems, to the communities. We can be connected with the community. Guess what we do? Town by town, by city, by state, by country, we always try to be connected with each other. When you do what the people want you to do, you stay here for a long time in this business. And when you don't do that - disappear in two, three years. Nobody knows who you are. And this is the name of the game for everybody (laughter), not only for me.

CONTRERAS: Mexican regional, regional Mexican, corridos, norteños, banda, Mariachi, son jarocho, duranguense, trap corridos or corridos tumbados - whatever you choose to call it, when you listen to it, you're tapping into history, to a shared sense of identity and even into the future because even as tradition evolves, the music reflects the shared experiences of people who call Mexico their literal or cultural home.

My thanks again to Francisco Toscano, Alicia Zertuche and Jorge Hernández from Los Tigres del Norte. Also shout out to Anamaria Sayre for the sound design of this week's show. You've been listening to ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras. Thank you for listening. And please be safe, folks.


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