It’s easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. The former is about all black leather, short-cropped hair, and three chord angry music; the latter includes flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes. These two genres appear to be worlds apart; in fact, the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it’s not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi music or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.
First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called “La Bamba” or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their bossa novas, rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic- influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector Wall of Sound songs from the 1960s and you’ll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish- influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge, I’d like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana, or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s, who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like “Spanish Stroll.” When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band’s lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe.”
One shouldn’t be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music – they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it’s really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx’s excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn’t the easiest music to play, and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren’t overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American, as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century), others essential to the Mariachi sound aren’t as well known. Such instruments include the huge oversized base known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label, I’m not only convinced of the sincerity of the band’s effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their lineup to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys’ Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music’s more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What’s so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song “48 Roses,” which shows their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn’t some camp joke at the expense of the music; these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.