To the Live Burros


North America’s most seriously batshit mainstream genre is currently the regional Mexican style known as Duranguense. You may think you know of something equally loopy, and we can certainly rumble, but be advised that your genre will have to top the following:

1. Though Duranguense originated in Chicago, its practitioners have ties to the great state of Durango, and therefore dress like dapper cowboys—except Chi-town’s Banda Lamento Show, who sport high-plains-drifter ponchos and keep for a mascot a little boy riding a burro.

2. Market saturation is a hallmark of all regional Mexican, but Duranguensers really know how to soak you. Forget one album a year; more typical is the aforementioned Lamento Show, whose ’05 output includes two studio albums, one compilation, and a split comp with the equally prolific Alacranes Musical. In addition, you can get more than 50 multi-artist comps, including DJ mixes and a Selena tribute. Call it striking while the iron’s hot, or running rampant over an untapped frontier—as you might imagine, there are a lot of overlapping songs among all these units.

3. Adding to the confusing overlap, these bands rarely perform original material, which helps explain their fecundity. Most Duranguense songs have been previously released by banda or norteño acts, or less often, Latin pop stars. If you don’t speak Spanish, wading through song titles to distinguish familiar tunes from originals can feel like wading through a swamp.

4. Essentially playing stripped-down banda (their Grammy category), Duranguense groups usually contain two vocalists, one a yelping MC; two keyboard players, one bent on replicating banda’s oompah brass parts; three saxes; a drummer; and a devotee of tambora, a bass drum with a cymbal on top. This is somewhat fewer members than, say, Banda el Recodo, but it’s still plenty to keep in a touring band; the missing brass section doesn’t decrease per diem expenses so much as increase the groups’ speed and agility.

5. As a rule, the players are excellent. The Terrazas sisters, front ladies of the popular Horóscopos de Durango, trade off instruments like the Band, switching between vocals, tambora, keyboards, trumpet, and sax. Throughout their
En Vivo Gira Mexico 2005 DVD, Marisol Terrazas stands stock still and smiles in concentration. Her fingers fly over the keyboard, left hand hitting ornate tuba lines, right hand alternating with spot-on horn jabs. Which reminds me:

6. These bands have gotten big playing almost exclusively polkas. Genre leaders Grupo Montéz de Durango have gone gold with their ’05 studio album,
Y Sigue La Mata Dando, which should handily end up one of the five bestselling Latin CDs of the year. Their music consists of straight-up polka beats framing songs from the extensive norteño/mariachi repertoire, with few additional flourishes save a keyboard intro here and some bona fide pop chords there.

That’s the big problem with Montéz: Though they can convey memorable hit melodies like “Esperanzas” and “Adios Amor Te Vas,” one Montéz polka sounds pretty much like another, especially if your ears aren’t used to assigning beauty or rockingness to the predominantly I-V chord patterns. Believe me, even for a good German, mentally distinguishing polka melodies is about as much fun as cataloguing Lutheran chorales. And outside their exciting live performances and a couple singles, the overall sounds of Montéz and Los Horóscopos are too clean and sensible to sustain much interest. Their extra-musical trappings are spectacular, but their dance tunes merely get the job done.

Lamento Show and Alacranes Musical, though, seem to realize they’re operating in a field that’s completely nuts, and they ratchet up their music’s crazy factor appropriately. On their split CD Piquetes y Lamentos—Grandes Exitos, no polka is complete without some spirited goody to set it apart, whether it’s the staged rock intro that kicks off the smokin’ Lamento instrumental “Rockerochero,” or the eight bars of techno beats and electronically pitched vocals that interrupt Alacranes’s “Solo Los Tontos.” Alacranes basslines are often absurdly baroque, synthesized tubas striking and stinging like their namesake scorpions. On most of these songs, tambora and auxiliary percussion are lead instruments, providing lunatic fills and thrills that absolutely kill.

Succeeding in a different way is fabulous diva Diana Reyes, whose album La Reina Del Pasito Duranguense is disco pop to a polka beat. Diana’s songs, taken from popsters like Gisselle and La 5a Estación, work chordal variations on U.S. chart pop’s Magic (I-vi-IV-V) Changes, and her pink bejeweled cowgirl getups and ample fingernails apply the lessons of Latin freestyle. Compared to Lamento Show, her backing band is anonymously competent, but Diana’s voice is rapturous. She sounds vaguely like Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, but less throaty, less given to improvisational asides, and more frayed, as though she just finished a concert or a long breakup. All the songs are catchy, and the arresting “Se Fue” (“It Went Away”) will break your heart, even if you don’t understand a word. Diana sings the melody with dry eyes and a catch in her throat, and the chords signify pain in a way any pop fan can understand. A heartbreaking polka—that may be the craziest pop phenomenon you’ve come across all year!