The song opens with a fanfare for three trumpets before the rest of the band crashes in. Two alto horns seem to joust with a sousaphone as three trombones start up a complicated rhythm. Most of the crashing comes from the percussion section, a snare drum and a bass drum topped by cymbals; meanwhile, four clarinets bide their time, waiting to take up a different tune once the percussion settles down. The overall effect of the song, a standard of northwestern Mexico called “El Sinaloense,” is not unlike watching a three-ring circus, or the motion of ants. Trying to grasp it all at once is overwhelming. You can focus on one element at a time, a single melody or the overarching rhythmic pulse, but something more interesting will forever vie for attention at the corner of your eye. Turn and marvel before it disappears.
This is the joy of banda music, the brass band style from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. In this case, “El Sinaloense” is the theme song of Banda El Recodo de Cruz Lizárraga, one of the longest running popular musical ensembles in the world. In 1938 the late clarinetist Cruz Lizárraga started playing with the banda, which served the villagers of El Recodo, a small town near the coastal city of Mazatlán. Back then the banda was just one of many village brass bands in Sinaloa, ignored outside their home state and viewed with suspicion by neighbors who considered musicians drunken ne’er-do-wells. Now, eight decades and countless personnel changes later, Banda El Recodo is a widely respected and wealthy institution that has managed to become commercially relevant outside its home country. The banda regularly releases hit singles, its 17 members spend most weekends playing concerts across the U.S. and Mexico, and its most recent album Raíces (“roots” or “origins”) earned the band its fourth Grammy nomination. Despite its longevity, the banda and its music are thoroughly modern.
Yet Raíces is an album of old songs, most of them instrumentals. It opens with “El Sinaloense,” a song the banda has been playing since at least its first recording session in 1954. The album’s hoariest artifact is “Diana Ranchera,” a medley of several martial themes punctuated by thrilling snare drum solos; it may date back to the Mexican Revolution. The band also tackles “Palillos Chinos,” a kitschy mambo about chopsticks, and “Corazón de Texas,” a polka that sounds remarkably similar to “Deep In the Heart of Texas” despite their different composers. The hit single, a waltz called “Mujer Mujer” (“Woman, Woman”), was one of Mexico’s top ten radio songs for much of the past summer. Previously performed by accordion-led norteño bands, “Mujer” is one of the two songs on Raíces to feature the band’s singers, both good-looking muchachos with stylish haircuts. In these and other songs the age of the material disappears, leaving us with the perpetually fresh sound of young men reveling in their precision and dexterity.
Banda El Recodo is not alone in these pursuits. Since the turn of the millennium, bandas fronted by singers have grown increasingly popular in both the United States and Mexico, with an industry of songwriters, producers, record labels, and concert bookers at their disposal. Enjoyed largely by immigrants from Mexico and their descendants, regional Mexican music—an industry term denoting banda, norteño, and other less popular local styles like mariachi and Tejano—has long been the dominant Latin music genre in this country. Regional Mexican radio stations attract as many American listeners as do contemporary R&B or alternative rock formats. (We have two such stations in the Chicago area.) Most bandas record newly composed pop songs, not the classics of Raíces, but they hold an arsenal of traditional tunes at the ready when they play concerts. The romantic Banda Sinaloense MS, for example, made the sixth biggest Latin music album of 2016. Fans have played Banda MS’s smooth easy listening ballad “Solo Con Verte” (“Just to See You”) more than 300 million times on Youtube. Yet the group still keeps a rip-roaring arrangement of “El Sinaloense” in its collective hip pocket, ready to fire up concert audiences lulled into a stupor by “Solo Con Verte.”
In the ’50s, when Banda El Recodo was first recording for the RCA Victor company, the keen-eyed Don Cruz Lizárraga seemed to foresee all this success. As the ethnomusicologist Helena Simonett tells it, Lizárraga wanted to get his band in front of the swanky upper class audiences of Mazatlán. One of his first schemes was to make the band start wearing uniforms. These days, flashy matching suits are the hallmark of any respectable banda; but back then, the musicians pitched a fit. “They started a hellish row with many protests,” said Lizárraga in a 1980 interview. “They thought I was foolish or insane. They couldn’t picture [banda] musicians in uniforms” (Simonett, p.169). Lizárraga won the argument, and soon his group was playing lucrative dances in the big city.
Although many of Lizárraga’s innovations have stuck, most proved controversial among his peers and long-time fans. To accommodate Mazatlán society, Banda El Recodo had to expand its repertoire beyond the noisy three-chord standards of the Sinaloan villages. Lizárraga started adapting music with sophisticated harmonies and more sedate rhythms, often songs that originated with American big bands. Eventually the banda hired a regular singer—it was the first to do so—and began playing concerts across Mexico and in the United States. It also played private concerts for more questionable audiences: narcos, the drug traffickers who came to dominate regions of Sinaloa during the ’70s. These private shows were no secret; in fact, the iconic band sometimes finds itself mentioned in the lyrics of narcocorridos, story songs about the drug trade told from the narcos’ points of view. After Lizárraga hired the rough-voiced singer Julio Preciado to front the band in the ’90s, Banda El Recodo wrote and recorded a few narcocorridos of its own.
Surveying all these changes in 1994, one frustrated banda fan told Simonett:
“The only thing I lament is that the new bandas are so contaminated. They dress like clowns, like eccentrics. Banda musicians didn’t used to be like that! The garb of the former musician was that of a peasant. But now… it’s the American influence! Those of us who like the original tambora do not accept this clowning. Cruz Lizárraga was the first to popularize the banda, but he also corrupted the banda… Out of the need to survive, they do whatever pays well.” (Simonett, p.220)
In a delicious turn of events, a group of small “technobandas” started getting paid just as well in the early ’90s, briefly achieving the American popularity Lizárraga had dreamed of. These new groups also wore flashy matching suits, adding cowboy hats to the mix, and their sound resembled traditional banda music, only with most of their songs’ horn parts replaced by synthesizers and electric bass. With dramatic irony, the great innovator Cruz Lizárraga grumbled to the magazine Furia Musical, “I even dare to say that the majority [of them] aren’t bandas at all.” But Lizárraga and his acoustic banda remained stubbornly devoted to change. After his death in 1995, Banda El Recodo seized on the decline of the technobandas by working with two up-and-coming Los Angeles producers, twin brothers Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, who go by the professional name Los Twiins. Then recent immigrants in their early 20s, the Valenzuelas had seen their young peers don cowboy costumes and flock to technobanda shows, and they thought acoustic banda could appeal to the same growing audience, hungry for ties to the country of their ancestors.
Along with other banda producers of the time, Los Twiins capitalized on a crucial epiphany: that acoustic bandas could deliver contemporary pop songs just as well as guitar bands or synthesizers. Banda El Recodo’s 2001 single, the lively polka “Y Llegaste Tú,” (“And You Arrived”) blanketed Regional Mexican radio for most of a year by splitting the difference between traditional banda and radio pop. The vocal hooks were front and center, and the different sections of the banda framed those hooks with orderly changes in tone color. The Valenzuelas devoted time to another innovation that surely registered on listeners’ ears. “We put a lot of time in the studio,” Omar Valenzuela told Billboard, “and we’ve learned how to really tune the banda, which maybe wasn’t really done [before]” (Cobo, 2001).
In 2001 the brothers arranged a hit for another act, Rogelio Martinez, that would provide a template for songs like “Solo Con Verte.” Martinez’s “Amame” (“Love Me”) was a romantic ballad that could have come from anywhere, except it was sung in Spanish and played by a brass band. The song used more chords than the typical Sinaloan polka, even modulating to a higher key at the end, and its rhythm wasn’t a polka at all; it was a slow backbeat, with tuba filling the role of the kick drum and trumpet stabs supplementing the snare drum hits. The legato horn line sounded more like the band Chicago than “El Sinaloense.” Was this banda music? Well, yes; what else could you call it? But it was clearly a sign that bandas had arrived someplace new.
Martinez’s previous hit single had been “Y Sigue Siendo Tu,” a cover of “You’re Still the One” by the pop country singer Shania Twain. This was fitting, because at just that moment Twain was inspiring some familiar hand wringing in the country music world. The complaints echoed those leveled at Cruz Lizárraga: Shania Twain was corrupting country music with the sounds of pop, she was just doing whatever paid well, and she dressed funny. But where “Y Sigue” could have been simply a novelty cover song, “Amame” was part of a movement in the making. Even as these songs looked ahead to our current banda pop moment, they also looked back: to Cruz Lizárraga rewriting Glenn Miller charts for his band to play, hoping they could land a long term gig outside El Recodo, playing to people with more disposable income than their friends and neighbors.
Banda El Recodo has released another single since Raíces. “Vale la Pena” (“Worth It”) is a smooth easy listening ballad, newly written, with the banda’s horns creating backbeat rhythms and its singers indulging in melismas worthy of American Idol. It may lack the technical thrills of “El Sinaloense,” but for fans who have heard the song five million times (and counting!) on Youtube, “Vale La Pena” offers a different kind of thrill: hearing the music of secluded Sinaloan villages play to the broader world they know and love. This sound is both old and new, familiar yet uncanny; but it is obscure no longer.
Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.
Banda El Recodo de Cruz Lizárraga. Raíces. Fonovisa B0025278-02. 2016, compact disc.
Cobo, Leila. “Brothers of Banda.” Billboard. October 13, 2001.
Simonett, Helena. Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.