2019: This post was written in the late 1990s, but much of it holds true today. I still listen to the singers I mention
To most people, Mexican music means mariachis. Or even, for the spectacularly ignorant, Andean Pan-pipes (this sadly came to me recently out of a highly respected London publishing-house).
Mariachis are hard to beat, their music is infectious and the full-on harmonies and volume perfectly match the high-colour and heat of long Mexican afternoons and tequila-fuelled evenings. Their homeland is Jalisco, and a Sunday afternoon in one of Guadalajara‘s big family restaurants gives the best overview. Small groups of musicians (usually a couple of trumpets, a guitar and a violin or two) move from table to table to play pieces chosen and paid for by the diners, some of whom end up shedding a tear or two in sympathy with the more soulful songs. It’s heart-rending stuff.
Next best is Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City where huddles of dazzlingly-besuited violinists, guitarists and trumpeters hang out waiting for commissions, rain or shine. night or day. I once witnessed an elderly couple, hardly well-heeled (above) waltzing to their favourite tunes on a grey and drizzly afternoon. It would have cost them quite a lot – their anniversary?They were oblivious to everything and the scene was amazingly touching. That’s the basis of it – it’s popular music in the true sense.
In 1992 the film El Mariachi, by Robert Rodriguez, gave the itinerant troubadour’s job an extra poignancy as the main protagonist wandered from bar to bar and hotel to hotel. The next step is to get Rodriguez’ fabulous CD, Mexico & Mariachis. Even if it’s much loved by Quentin Tarantino (not necessarily the best reference), it’s still good.
If there’s one problem with mariachi music it’s that it doesn’t always fit the ambiance when you get back home. It’s loud, high on brass and pumps energy so you’ve got to be in buoyant mood or partying hard. Or just wait till you go back to Mexico!
If not then it’s time to shift gear to Lila Downs, the Mexican cult singer whose deep, mesmerising voice just seems to get better and better. With a name like Downs it’s not surprising that she’s actually half American and grew up partly in Minnesota, so there’s some outside influence. Nonetheless her voice touches evocative chords. In particular I love one of her earlier albums, Tree of Life, with its mix of prehispanic sounds and insistent drums from the Valley of Oaxaca.
This is where her mother was born and where Lila Downs spent part of her childhood. It’s a more melancholic Downs compared with her more recent, upbeat stuff. La Linea (Border) is another of my favourites thanks to its prehispanic and Mexican folk instruments. Even better, it’s dedicated to the extraordinary spirit of Mexican migrants seeking new lives over the border. Check out her website here
Oddly, Oaxaca’s other diva with an equally haunting voice, Susana Harp (below) also claims foreign blood, in her case a Lebanese father. Having had nothing like the international exposure of Lila Downs she’s kept a more ‘folky’ authentically Mexican sound as well as finding time to train as a psychologist. Today she’s moved on to become a Senator in Mexican Congress. I still love her first CD, Xquenda, which I bought nearly 20 years ago in Puerto Escondido. This has songs in Zapotec and really highlights her superbly modulated voice, full of mellow harmony.
On to a last find, tragically too late for a living musician, as 27-year old Valentin Elizade (1979-2006) was gunned down in a gangland killing in northern Mexico. His ‘banda’ sound comes straight out of the north and his lyrics romanticise the interlinked worlds of drugs and violence in the border territory. Lyrics aside, the music is fabulous, uplifting, full of energy – real big band stuff with a contemporary twist. Ironically, it rapidly became a hip sound to be played at Mexican bourgeois parties. Too late for Valentin, however, who died in a dramatic spray of 30 or so bullets after singing “To my enemies” at a concert. Horrifically, it was in true Mexican cartel style, said to be the notorious Las Zetas. A Mexican hero who’s left a strong legacy.