The Narcocorrido Backlash

For more than a century, corridos have been a staple of popular Mexican music. With a waltz-like rhythm and lyrics focused on legends, romances, heroes, and villains of the rural frontier, corridos are a traditional storytelling genre. But in recent years, a subgenre called the “narcocorrido” has exploded in popularity, and its stories focus on the real-life exploits of drug traffickers and crime bosses. It’s the Mexican version of gangsta rap — graphic lyrics put to an accordion-driven beat.

This week, the Los Angeles Times had an interesting article on the backlash against narcocorridos in Tijuana. Whereas previous efforts to ban the music by local and national officials have failed, this movement seems to be bubbling up from music fans who have grown tired of a genre that celebrates the people terrorizing their community. According to the accordion player of Los Linces Boys, a band that grew famous for playing narcocorridos:

“Things are changing… It’s not like in the past, when people would hear corridos and shoot their guns in the air… Now, people would rather grab their girlfriends, squeeze close on the dance floor and kiss.”

Narcocorridos have become big sellers on both sides of the border, so it’s probably too soon to tell if this backlash will have lasting significance. I definitely recommend the LA Times article, though, as a good introduction to one of the darker, and certainly more dangerous, genres associated with the accordion.

Quick Links: Jazz, Idi Amin, and… Insurance?

Five Questions: Bradley Jaye Williams

Bradley Jaye WilliamsHang on tight — it’s another edition of “Five Questions”, our interview series with noteworthy accordion personalities from around the globe.

Few accordionists can cross genres as comfortably as Bradley Jaye Williams. Born in Michigan, Williams moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and then to Austin, where his music career really took off, playing with the likes of Flaco Jimenez and Mingo Saldivar. He currently plays in three bands: an authentic Texas-style conjunto called Conjunto Los Pinkys, a Cajun/Zydeco dance band known as The Gulf Coast Playboys, and The Fabulous Polkasonics, a combo that plays Polish-American “honky style” polkas, waltzes, and obereks.

When and why did you first start playing the accordion?

In 1986, I started playing the 2-row button accordion while living in a tiny studio apartment in Berkeley, California. My neighbors listened to me struggle with “La Cucaracha” and “La Nopalera” for a few months! Why did I start playing? I love accordion music! It was the natural thing to do. It felt right. To me, the accordion was always cool and it’s at the heart of many styles of dance music I love. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan around all kinds of music… Motown, country, Dixieland, jazz, rock n’ roll and polka music… mainly the Polish-American and German music of Marv Herzog and Lawrence Welk (of course).

Living in the Bay Area in my 20’s, I experienced the music of Flaco Jimenez and it really struck a chord with me. Here was good old polka music being chopped and customized in a new and different way. I loved it. Ultimately, I think I was drawn to the international and cross-cultural appeal of accordion music and polka… the songs, customs, dance, food and pure FUN we all share. Of course, there is also something very compelling about the accordion itself: a magnificent machine…beautifully designed…and a challenge to play.

Quick Links: Lone Star Edition

Today’s links are sponsored by the great state of Texas, home of Flaco Jimenez, Brave Combo, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

Be a Big Squeeze!

Texas Folklife has extended the deadline for its second annual Big Squeeze contest until next Friday, April 19. The contest is open to accordion players under 25 who will compete for a $500 prize and a day of recording time at the historic SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston. Four semi-finalists will be chosen to perform live on May 11 at Austin’s new Mexican American Cultural Center. Two finalists will then perform at the 19th annual Accordion Kings & Queens concert featuring Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws and La Tropa F.

Here’s a clip of last year’s winner, Juan Longoria, Jr.:

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Les Blank and the Accordion

Les BlankDocumentary filmmaker Les Blank offers glimpses into the lives and music of passionate people on the periphery of American society. Over the past forty years, he’s covered a wide variety of ethnic cultures, from rural Louisiana French musicians to Mexican-Americans in border towns to polka nuts in the Midwest. And these aren’t stilted, Travel Channel-esque accounts; his films are warm and intimate, deftly capturing the context (food, faces, scenery) from which the music originates.

Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise his films are a treasure trove for accordion lovers. Several of his films focus on Cajun and Creole musicians in Louisiana, following legends like Bois Sec Ardoin (Dry Wood), Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper), and the Savoys (Marc & Ann). His 1989 documentary, J’ai Été Au Bal / I Went to the Dance is considered the definitive film on the history of dance music in French Southwest Louisiana.

Chulas Fronteras was one of the first films to document traditional conjunto music, including rare footage of artists like Lydia Mendoza and Santiago Jimenez Sr. (The film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” enough to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.) The clip below comes from his 1984 polka documentary, In Heaven There Is No Beer (1984); it features a colorful performance of “Who Stole the Kiszka?” by Walt Solek and his band.

You can easily lose an afternoon watching clips of Blank’s films on YouTube or at UC Berkeley’s Media Resource Center and — my apologies to your boss — I highly recommend it. Or you can order the full-length films directly from Les Blank’s website.

Sturr, Simien, Tigres Win Grammys

Okay, I promise this will be the last Grammy post (at least until next year). No big surprises, but here’s a quick rundown of the accordion-related winners from tonight’s ceremony:

  • Best Polka Album: Come Share the Wine by Jimmy Sturr
    Surprise, surprise. This gives Sturr 17 wins in the 23 years that the polka category has existed. Maybe the Grammys need a system like some county fairs I know, where if you win for several years in a row, you’re taken off the ballot and given permanent “hall of fame” status.
  • Best Zydeco or Cajun Album: Live! Worldwide by Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience
    It’s fitting that the person who campaigned for this category’s creation would win its first-ever award. There were a lot of deserving albums nominated, though, and I’m sorry I didn’t finish my Cajun/Zydeco Grammy preview in time. (I’ll explain why very soon!)
  • Best Norteño Album: Detalles Y Emociones by Los Tigres del Norte
    Already recipients of a lifetime achievement award at the Latin Grammys, the Norteño legends collect this particular award for the second year in a row.

Check the full list of winners and let me know if there’s anyone (carrying an accordion) I missed.

Quick Links: Young Accordionists Edition

This edition of “Quick Links” is focused entirely on the future — some young accordionists making their mark on the music world.

  • Kalei Dodson
    Kalei is a 9-year-old up-and-coming conjunto accordionist who has already played with the likes of Joel Guzman, Los Padrinos, Los Texmaniacs, and more. Check out a video of Kalei jamming at home.
  • Phillip Nadvesnik
    Phillip is a young accordionist and polka enthusiast from Melbourne, Australia, who even runs his own online polka radio show. Again, check YouTube for videos of Philip in action.
  • Hunter Hayes
    Hunter is a 16-year-old Cajun singer/songwriter/accordionist. Hunter is probably best known for this performance with Hank Williams Jr. back when he was just five years old.

New Hohner Accordions for 2008

Gilbert Reyes of Reyes Accordions recently shared some photos of the new diatonic accordions that Hohner will unveil at the NAMM Show later this month. These three new “Xtreme” models have 34 buttons (the standard Corona has 31) and include reed switches — three on the Tex-Mex Corona II Xtreme and five on the norteño and vallenato tuned Corona III Xtremes. They certainly seem designed to compete with Gabbanelli accordions, which have long been popular in the Conjunto/Tejano scene.

Hohner Corona II Xtreme (red)Hohner Corona II Xtreme

Ramon Ayala, El Rey Del Acordeon

Ramon AyalaWhether your Cinco de Mayo plans involve joining the crowds at a local festival or simply enjoying a Corona at home, you’ll need a suitable soundtrack. Might I suggest something from the catalog of norteño accordion legend, Ramón Ayala?

Known as “El Rey del Acordeon”, Ayala is a superstar on both sides of the border and through his distinctive accordion playing and songwriting, has set the standard for norteño music. In his forty year career, he has led two of norteño’s most successful conjuntos: first, Los Relampagos Del Norte (“Lightning Bolts of the North”) with singer Cornelio Reyna, and his current group, Los Bravos del Norte.

Here’s a classic track off his greatest hits collection, Antologia de un Rey:

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