The Takeaway: When Accordions and Sombreros Collide

Los Tigres del Norte
Los Tigres del Norte
Wall of Voodoo once sang, “I was born on Mexican radio”, and I have listened to an extraordinary amount of Spanish-language radio, particularly in California, which is not my birthplace but certainly closer to “home” than Chicago.

There was a time in the mid 00s where I could actually rattle off the names of the most popular ranchera groups on the jukebox at my favorite burrito joint in San Francisco, El Farolito on 24th Street at Alabama. Los Tigres del Norte was my all-time favorite norteño group—they’re basically the Bon Jovi of ranchera—but it was ten years ago. That’s all I got. Don’t ask for more. The video is of my favorite LTdN song, “Contrabando y Traicion (Camelia La Texana)” which roughly translates to “Smuggling Contraband and Being Betrayed By This Chick From Texas”. I super ♥ this jam.

Other than Bob and Ron’s Record Club Radio Archive, I generally don’t listen to radio stations that I can’t program myself, and it’s been that way since I don’t know when. These days, why would you? From as far back as the mid 90s, the only time I listened to the radio was in the car. The last time I went back to the U.S., I rented cars in L.A. and S.F. and of course, I listened to the radio. That’s how I roll: one hand on the wheel, the other with a finger on the Seek (or Scan) button. For the duration of the trip, I would constantly cycle through the stations, stopping only at Spanish-language stations which played ranchera music. Since I was doing a lot of driving, I was hearing a lot of ranchera.

I've heard and loved many of these jams.
I’ve heard and loved many of these jams.

You know, in my mind, as long as I lived there, California was Northern Mexico with American characteristics; might as well listen to what the natives are grooving to, right?

Because driving in the U.S. tends to be a solitary experience, very few people know that I once nursed a ranchera habit—until now. In fact, the only two people who knew were my band mates in Henry Miller Sextet, Chris Lanier and Matthew Tucker. This is because whenever we played an out-of-town show or went on one of our mini-tours, whoever was driving the van also had control of the tunes. When it was my turn to drive, you knew two things were gonna happen and one of those things was that if ranchera was available, that’s what we were going to listen to for however long that station stayed in broadcast/wavelength range, or until the infamously grumpy Matt Tucker reached his limit and breached the driver-as-DJ rule by saying, “Chris, enough with the fucking mariachi music. It’s not funny anymore.” That’s funny, cuz it sure was funny to me.

Anyway, a lot of folks probably think ranchera and mariachi are essentially the same thing, but they’re not.

Ranchera is a genre of the traditional Mexican music originally sung by only one performer with a guitar. It dates to the years of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. It later became closely associated with the mariachi groups which evolved in Jalisco. Ranchera today is also played by norteño or banda. Drawing on rural traditional folk music, ranchera developed as a symbol of a new national consciousness in reaction to the aristocratic tastes of the period. Traditional rancheras are about love, patriotism or nature. Rhythms can be in 3/4, 2/4 or 4/4, reflecting the tempo of, respectively, the waltz, the polka, and the bolero.

This a mariachi band. They may play some ranchera, if you ask nicely.
This a mariachi band. They may play some ranchera, if you ask nicely.

Mariachi is an ensemble that consists of guitarrón, vihuela, guitar, violins and trumpets—no accordions. This folk ensemble performs ranchera, son de mariachi, huapango de mariachi, polka, corrido, and other musical forms. It originated in the southern part of the state of Jalisco during the 19th century. The city of Guadalajara in Jalisco is known as the “Capital of Mariachi”. The style is now popular throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States, and is considered representative of Mexican music and culture. This style of music is played by a group consisting of five or more musicians that wear charro suits. The golden age of mariachi was in the 1950s, when the ranchera style was common in movies.

– The preceding two paragraphs were poached almost verbatim from Wikipedia.

One of the reasons I like ranchera music is that it genuinely makes me laugh. Inside, mostly. Sometimes I laugh out loud, but it’s pretty rare. You gotta hit me with a real solid, “Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” before you get a chuckle. What I have always found so amusing is that for the most part, the Mexican music I’ve ever listened to is just German polkas and waltzes in Spanish and sombreros. It’s basically a bunch of guys with accordions and oversized acoustic guitars banging out “Ay Dios Mio” to the tune of “Beer Barrel Polka”. That’s fucking hilarious to me. So I have a certain eccentricity about appreciating music from cultures other than my own; I seek out the incongruous. Since I’m half German (genetically) and raised in a German family, the music of my ancestry is in my blood. However, I despise traditional polkas with a deep-seated passion, and waltzes are only tolerable if they’re accompanying a cartoon.

This is a polka band who I hope never to hear play.
This is a polka band who I hope never to hear play.

The angle I took on Mexican music is that I could think long and hard and still not come up with two more superficially disparate cultures than Germany and Mexico. Other than a penchant for cerveza and a love of futbol, they have nothing in common. Of course, in terms of ethnography, an isolated tribe in the Amazon has less in common with just about every other civilization on Earth. However, I look at Germany and Mexico as being in the same ballpark. That modern ranchera could be rooted in German music always seemed anomalous and again, incongruous. And I always wondered, “How the fuck did that happen?” ‘Cuz I know that Germany never invaded, occupied, or even aligned with Mexico at any time in history—except for that one time in 1917 that the Germans secretly proposed an alliance with Mexico against the U.S., which was intercepted by British intelligence and the deal never got done. At any rate, I know a bunch of Nazi krauts scurried off to Brazil after World War II, but that’s got nothing to do with Mexico. Germans go to Cabo, Cancun, and Acapulco to catch some rays and scarf down menudo—it’s a tourist destination, not a former colony.

Of course, like anything else, if you dig a little deeper, you might find something. With a series of 26 keystrokes and the Wizard of Google, I found my answer on About.com.

Question: Does Mexican Music Have German Roots?

I was listening to a radio station with an eclectic selection of music and I heard what I thought was a terrific German polka band. And then I found out that the band wasn’t German at all, but Mexican. Is it just coincidence that so much Mexican music sounds like German oom-pah-pah?

Cervesa or bier? You decide.
Cervesa or bier? You decide.

Answer: It’s no coincidence at all. The story of the Mexican style of music you’re talking about had its origins in central Texas around 1830 when a few immigrants established the first German settlement. The word about Texas spread back home, and within a few years formal efforts were under way to help Germans establish themselves in what would become known as the German Belt.

At the time — and even now, to a certain extent — the Río Grande marked more of a political and geographical divide than a cultural one, and the musical styles of the immigrants became popular among those of Mexican heritage. One of the most important musical instruments of the Germans’ musical style, the accordion, became especially popular and was frequently used in dance music such as waltzes and polkas.

Today, various overlapping styles of music that descended in part from the German music include tejano (from the Spanish name for Texas, Tejas), conjunto (which features the accordion along with the bajo sexto, similar to a 12-string guitar), Tex-Mex, quebradita (heavy on the horns), banda (similar to the polka), ranchera, norteño and various mixtures of the above. The musical style also has influenced music from other parts of Mexico, such as the mariachi music of the Guadalajara area. Such musical styles are especially popular in northern Mexico and in places of the United States where there is a large immigrant population of Mexican heritage. Incidentally, the music is nearly always performed in Spanish, even by Mexican-Americans who speak primarily English. (Native Texan and crossover artist Selena sang in Spanish as a girl long before she could speak Spanish, which she learned to market herself better in Mexico.)

This guy is the God of ranchera.
This guy is the God of ranchera.

So common is the tejano-style genre that in the United States it is often erroneously viewed as synonymous with Mexican music (or even with Spanish-language music). In fact, though, Mexican music these days is incredibly diverse. Although you’ll hear tejano on Mexico City radio stations, you’ll also hear Mexican-produced rock o rap en español as well as the same English-language hits you can hear across the border to the north. Spanish-language versions of songs by international performers such as Enrique Iglesias and Shakira are also quite popular.

And there’s the Takeaway: now you know how accordions and sombreros came to co-exist in the world of popular music.

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