From ‘La Bamba’ to ‘Adiós Amor’: How Regional Mexican Music Stays Relevant
As Latin urban music continues to pervade the contemporary pop stratosphere — with the commercial growth of reggaeton and trap en español outpacing that of any other genre — it’s worth noting that regional Mexican music is also gaining speed. While it is true that the south-of-the-border genre has remained an enduring force within Spanish-speaking communities between the U.S. and Mexico for decades, its impact is arguably much bigger than what today’s Latin pop charts reflect.
“Through new forms of technology and social media, [regional Mexican music] is reaching unprecedented places. It is an evolution that’s been a long time coming,” boasts Jorge Hernández. He is the frontman and accordionist of Los Tigres del Norte, one of the most revered norteño acts to date. Hernández, along with his band of brothers and cousin, immigrated to San José, California from Sinaloa, Mexico, shortly before forming the group in the late Sixties. Since then Los Tigres have perfected the art of the corrido — a narrative, poetic kind of ballad — that illustrates socio-political tensions or historic events relating to the immigrant experience and working-class populations, particularly along the southern border of the U.S.
The group made national headlines when they broke Cardi B’s all-time attendance record at Texas’ Houston Rodeo in March. Months prior, the band became the first norteño act to headline the prestigious Hollywood Bowl. “Our younger [genre] colleagues now have the opportunity to display their music, and to give the audience what they want,” Hernández adds. “We’ve invested hard work and discipline to give [the genre] the boom that it needed to achieve this result.”
In the last year alone, regional Mexican music — an umbrella term comprising Mexican folk genres like mariachi, cumbia, norteño, banda, ranchera and more — has experienced many triumphs in U.S. pop culture. Last month the legendary banda group Los Tucanes de Tijuana made history as Coachella’s first ever norteño act, drawing in multi-generational fest-goers by the thousands. As a festival long-renowned for showcasing top-tier pop, indie, and rock acts, Coachella’s latest lineup not only boasted more Latinx acts than ever — 17 acts total — but heralded an eclectic future in Latin music, where both urbano and regional Mexican artists have ample room to shine.
“Thirty years ago, we visited [the city of] Coachella for the first time,” says Mario Quintero Lara, frontman of Los Tucanes. “We came knocking on doors, and we managed to play a few nightclubs, but we never imagined reaching a festival like Coachella […] I think that with trap and reggaeton, the doors are opening for more styles within the genre of Latin music, and that more regional music will be entering these types of festivals.” The honor was matched by the city’s mayor, Steven Hernández, who granted them an official key to the city.
The regional Mexican legends, who helped kick off the norteño explosion of the Nineties and early aughts, caught massive hype again in 2018 — largely thanks to their 1995 polka-flavored hit song “La Chona,” which went viral via an internet dance challenge. “Regional Mexican music is growing with new social media platforms,” adds Quintero. “It’s giving our genre more exposure that it did not have before.” In turn, their YouTube channel received a significant streaming boost with multiple music videos reaching views by the millions.
In a similar fashion, cumbieros Los Ángeles Azules, who began their career three decades ago, took Coachella’s main stage in 2018 — and kicked off one gigantic Mexican cumbia party, where a shirtless Justin Bieber was spotted dancing to their set. Their 2014 collaboration with Ximena Sariñana, “Mis Sentimientos,” went on to become regional Mexican music’s most watched video of all time; four years later, the video placed the band in YouTube’s elite Billion View Club. Then in January, the cumbia masterminds scored their first Number One in nearly two decades with “Nunca Es Suficiente,” featuring Natalia Lafourcade — a video that boasts over half a billion YouTube views to date.
Regional Mexican music’s success in streaming platforms also means reaching a newfound popularity amongst Zoomers and Millennials. In 2016, streaming services accounted for 74 percent of Latin music revenue, and it dramatically increased by 18 percent last year. While urban heavyweights like J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Ozuna, and Karol G may have dominated streaming services, so do regional Mexican music superstars — such as the three-billion stream band Banda MS, or veteran Mexican pop star Luis Miguel, who has racked up over 1.22 billion views on YouTube.
At the 2018 Latin Grammys, Miguel garnered the coveted Album of the Year award for his 2017’s mariachi-steeped ¡México Por Siempre! Although Juan Gabriel had previously (and posthumously) won the category in 2016 for his pan-Latin LP, Los Dúo 2, Miguel’s México became the first traditional ranchera album to receive the honor. “This symbolizes that either regional Mexican music is investing more in developing bolder arrangements and nicer orchestrations, or that people are just starting to recognize that,” Latin Recording Academy CEO/President Gabriel Abaroa Jr. told Rolling Stone in a 2018 interview.
There’s another, oft-understated component: nearly all Hispanics love radio. Nielsen reported that 98 percent of the population, counting those 12 years old and up, tune in each week. It just so happens that regional Mexican music is the top U.S. Hispanic radio format, boasting 16.2 percent of audience shares. Three of the top five top-billing Hispanic radio stations chiefly play regional Mexican music, collectively making just under $60 million in revenue.
The rise of original Netflix series like Narcos and La Reina del Sur, which focus on drug lord notoriety — much of what corridos and narcocorridos often narrate — also show the regional genre’s formidable presence in U.S. pop culture through its soundtracks. The Narcos theme song “Tuyo,” performed by Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante, debuted at Number 40 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart, and landed at Number Five on Latin Digital Songs. It’s a song that takes cues from balada grupera, a regional romantic genre that originated in rural Mexico during the late Sixties. Both series also welcomed back the music of film-noir era ranchera originators, like Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran, into the spotlight.
Then, it was finally this year when Ritchie Valens’ 1958 song, “La Bamba” — a formative son jarocho-inspired song that laid the groundwork for both rock ‘n’ roll and crossover Latin pop — was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
“Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry played music [drawing] from their own lives, and Ritchie Valens was doing something similar,” says Matt Barton, recorded sound curator for the Library of Congress. “He was not the first rock ‘n’ roll artist with a Mexican background, nor the first [in the U.S.] to record a song in Spanish. So why is does ‘La Bamba’ break through? Because he created a synthesis of both the rock and [regional] Mexican music he grew with.” Shortly after its release, “La Bamba” became the first Spanish-language song to break the Top 40; and in 1987, jarocho-influenced rockers Los Lobos’ remake beat that record at Number One. It became the first Spanish-language track in the U.S. to ever hit that milestone.
Yet as veteran acts keep pushing the traditional style forward, a cluster of fresh-faced musicians are also taking the art form to extraordinary realms. Take 20-year-old Sonora sensation Christian Nodal: a 2018 Latin Grammy-winner and fixture on the Hot Latin Songs chart, Nodal has out-streamed some of America’s biggest rock stars, most notably with his 2017 breakout single “Adiós Amor.” There’s also Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho — whose frontman passed away in 2015 at age 22 — that brought rural norteño styles like sierreño and campirano to the masses through songs like “Hablemos,” which has raked in over 434 million YouTube views.
Then there’s millennial singer Mon Laferte, who has turned her tropical folk concoctions into massive radio-friendly pop hits. “I’m not a purist, and I don’t make traditional Mexican music, nor traditional salsa. But I try to take cues from it and bring into the present,” the Mexico City-based Chilean tells Rolling Stone. “I feel it’s worth it to remember this music. It’d be sad if it was forgotten because it’s very rich, and the public would be missing out […] This reflects a change in the world, that the world is changing positively — that language isn’t a problem anymore.”
“Our lives are plastered in our songs which detail what we’ve suffered, what we’ve fought for, and where we’ve failed,” says Hernández of Los Tigres. “Sometimes we fall in love, other times we win or lose. But we are here, fighting for our ideals through our music.”
Just like country music has done for Anglo-Americans, regional Mexican music too details the lives, traditions, and experiences of countless Mexican diasporic communities. Whether they’re bleak narcocorridos depicting tales of border-crossing hardships, or heartrending baladas in praise of the people of color who keep cities running, these songs tell the story of immigrant America — and non-Latinxs are more than welcome to tune in.
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