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.
Now I don’t know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However, what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they’re doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what’s slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band’s sincerity.
Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening “48 Roses” about hope in the face of hardship, “The Great Provider” (which has the wonderful line “faith isn’t magic it’s just keeping my foot in the door”) or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don’t think he’s good enough for her in “Norteno Lights,” the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, they work with the lyrics to help tell the song’s story. Instead of the swelling strings we’re used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.
Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It’s a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there’s less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands, it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think it’s the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I’ve only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.
Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that’s remarkably good for a group of punks–it’s a remarkably good album, period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song’s lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band’s web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time, which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band – what more could you ask for?