Recently the New York Times ran a feature about working-class Mexican immigrants using their cell phones rather than iTunes to buy and listen to music, which, as you can imagine, has sent both music and telecommunications types into a tizzy. The poster children of this new era of regional Mexican cell phone music are the members of Los Pikadientes de Caborca, a ragtag group of musicians from rural Sonora whose song “La Cumbia del Río” went viral via cell phones and eventually landed them a record deal with Sony. The song is fun and bouncy and exactly the kind of thing that one should play through a cell phone, but Mexico is a huge country of almost 110 million people and it’s, you know, right next door. So I figured it was high time that coverage of Mexican music delved a little deeper than business models built on novelty songs.
First a note about my methodology: as the consistently least professional member of the Idolator team I did not turn to charts and statistics for my information; instead, I asked a Mexican friend of mine to give me a list of bands that she likes from her homeland. I invite any knowledgeable readers to please add to the discussion, because obviously I will have missed a lot of great bands.
Let’s begin with the past. Caifanes were huge in the late-’80s Mexican Rock en Español scene. According to Wikipedia they made their debut in 1987 at a club called—and if only all venues could all be named so awesomely—Rockotitlan. Their first album came out in 1988, and had the following singles:
“Mátenme porque me muero” (“Kill Me Because I’m Dying”)
Even if you don’t like the song you can at least learn from the title how to be really melodramatic in Spanish.
So by this point let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: They’re a little bit like The Cure. But they at least have the decency to write good Cure-like songs, and to tell you the truth the more or less blatant ripoff doesn’t really bother me.
“La negra Tomasa”
This is probably the most interesting of theirs that I’ve heard. Basically what they did here was pout all over a cumbia, and that’s certainly an interesting approach if nothing else.
The band lasted until 1995 and their latter-day sound took a turn towards that territory of gauzy mid-’90s radio rock where the Gin Blossoms and Blues Traveler live.
“No dejes que…”
So ineffectual, and yet so pleasing.
The lead singer eventually went on to form the massively popular band Jaguares.
Now turning to present-day Mexico: Natalia Lafourcade, who, according to my friend, is “un poco pija pero es buena” (“a bit of a spoiled rich kid but she’s good”). In this way and many others she is much like Lily Allen: kind of a small cute girl with a good enough voice, “quirky” fashion sense, and really excellent producers. “Azul,” from her most recent album Hu Hu Hu, is exemplary (embedding has been disabled by request, but the trip all the way over to YouTube is worth it).
The other single off her new album, “Ella es bonita,” is also quite winning:
What Lafourcade and her producers seem to have smartly learned from Gwen Stefani is that you really can’t go wrong with a marching band in the background. Both “Azul” and “Ella es bonita” have that super-satisfying cacophonous horn/drum stomp, plus nice little glockenspiel riffs, and the one-two punch totally works on suckers like me.
Comparing her to Lily Allen is perhaps a bit harsh, since it appears from various live videos I’ve seen that she has decent guitar chops. Two singles from her 2005 album Casa stand out in particular:
“Casa” (embedding disabled)
This is a great mixture of bossa nova and pop, and hey… is that a portrait of Salvador Allende on the mantle? Right on.
More or less straight up bossa nova. This song was used in the opening credits of the excellent Mexican film Temporada de patos, which makes it even better. Here’s a live performance:
And for those of you who are not so easily sucked in by evil pop producers there’s Control Machete, a rap group out of Monterrey with an early-’90s West Coast sound.
“Así son mis días”
If ever there was a subject for socially conscious rap it’s immigration and cultural hegemony, so I’m glad to see these tíos doing it.
You may remember this song from the movie Amores perros and/or a Levi’s ad from a while back:
So that concludes the first installment of our musical journey south of the Río Bravo (that’s what they call the Rio Grande in Mexico!). Future installments of this feature to come, but, again, feel free to make suggestions in the comments section.