15th July, 1995

Strictly from the evidence of this travelogue, Juan Gabriel is a man of moods. He was introduced to us very early on as a singer of synth-pop mariachi; he said goodbye with an extended dance mix; he said hello again with a gospelly march; and now he's doubling down on the mariachi — or rather, on ranchera (mariachi is a specific form that generally includes charro costumes), digging into the 1940s and 50s and 60s heyday of classic Mexican music.

In a sense this is a culmination of all the backward-looking pop we've been seeing over the course of the past few years, from Gloria Estefan's exploration of Cuban traditionalism and Luis Miguel's homages to the greats of Latin music to exercises by Selena and Los Bukis in modernized classicism. Even though Juan Gabriel's visits to the top spot tend to be brief these days (this was only there for a week), he's still something of a key figure in Latin Pop, and his embrace of traditional ranchera music on El México Que Nos Se Fue ("the Mexico that left us," or rather, "that got away from us") is another confirmation that the mood of Latin Pop (as measured by US airplay, anyway) has changed considerably from where it was ten, or even five, years ago.

"El Palo" is a Gabriel original, but it sounds entirely traditional (except perhaps in the rapid-fire syllable-spitting at the end, which owes more to American funk and soul than the strict rhythm and ornate instrumentation suggest). A "palo" is a stick, and the repeated phrase which gives the song its title, "palo dado, ni Dios lo quita" is a variation on a Spanish-language proverb which means, roughly, "what's done is done" (lit. "stick given, neither does God remove it"). It's a scales-from-the-eyes end-of-relationship song, and if it's performed in a rather breathless rush as the guitars and guitarróns and vihuelas and harps propel us forward, while the glossy, feathery strings swirl above and around and the horns break in like spotlights to show the track, it's still an old pop theme, and an old romantic-poetry theme before that.

But if the instrumentation, the lyric, and the melodymaking are all traditional ranchera, Juan Gabriel's voice is not. He doesn't have the burnished tones of a Vicente Fernández or a Pedro Infante: his voice is high and thin and cracked (a bit like David Bowie's, in fact), and the sobbing wrench in his voice doesn't sound stylized in the traditional method of ranchera, but real. He's still unpredictable, even when writing and singing what might be the most predictable form of music there is. The signature sounds, harmonic structures, and cries (the grito mexicano, again!) of classic Mexican music are as immediately recognizable as any traditional music anywhere; the flexibility of the form is less noted by outside listeners, but Juan Gabriel makes it sound immediate even while sounding old.



3rd June, 1995

Los Bukis are back! It's been a while since we've heard from them, and in the meantime they've undergone a name change. Marco Antonio Solís, who was always the frontman, songwriter, face, and leader of the band, is billed up front now; the next time we see him, he'll have left behind the Bukis brand entirely.

But if the band was ever more than a collection of guys who played behind Solís, this is a great note for them to go out on. Listening back to their appearances in this travelogue, they've been more consistent than I think I gave them credit for at the time; back to back, their songs form a sort of interlocking pattern of trad-inflected Mexican pop, moving from the synth-heavy production of the 80s to the rhythm-centric production of the 90s. Of course, there were solid rhythms on their earlier songs, and there are synths here. Maybe the real difference is that the trad is just a little more inflected than previously.

The song is a bolero, and Solís gives it the rich, full vocal that bolero tradition demands — and I'm pleasantly surprised. This is the first time I've been impressed by his singing; not that he's Luis Miguel all of a sudden, but especially on the middle eight, where he has to make a difficult leap alone, he acquits himself so well that you can see exactly why he felt that the band wasn't necessary any more. Still, the sensitive arrangement and tasteful guitar and percussion figures enhance the pleasure, and if this isn't quite in the Gloria Estefan range of superbly evocative traditionalism, it's dreamy enough to do.



15th April, 1995

And like that, she's gone.

On March 31st, after an argument with a former employee and president of her fan club, Selena turned to leave the Days Inn room where they had agreed to meet and was shot deep in the right shoulder. She died of blood loss just over an hour later in a Corpus Christi hospital.

The immense and immediate public grief that followed was the occasion of most Anglophone music fans' first hearing of her. Tom Brokaw called her "the Madonna of Mexico" on the evening news, but he was wrong. She was the Madonna of America — of that portion of America which, just as free and proud and God-fearing as any other, has worked harder, lived on less, and built more (at least west of the Mississippi). Mexico? Please. Selena was from Texas.

(Which isn't to say she wasn't proud of her Mexican heritage, same as anyone can be of their Irish or Italian or whatever. Just noting acts of erasure where I see them.)

And by now hopefully you'll have clicked play and wondered why I haven't yet mentioned the song. It's a great song even if you don't know Spanish, and you recognized that guitar line right away. But although it was her first number one after her death, it was the fourth single from Amor Prohibido, and so even if the imagery was kind of apt (see below), there was always going to be a feeling of exhaustion to whatever song took this place.

But the fact that it's a rewrite of perhaps the most buoyant, sparkling song of ache and loss ever written (even if Chrissy Hynde's new-wave Kinksisms have little in common with Selena's skanking cumbia) very nearly lifts it above mere fourth-single roteness and into something grander, more eloquent: a self-eulogy. The Spanish lyric, written by Ricky Vela, takes its lead from the opening line of the original — "I found a picture of you" — and sticks to the image. Selena sings "tengo fotos y recuerdos" ("I [only] have photos and memories") over the title melody, and while her background singers gamely imitate the "ooh ahh" chants which Hynde had borrowed from Sam Cooke, the chain-gang metaphor is lost in translation. Still, the rising "oh-oh-a-oh-ohhh" and the descending, patient guitar figures of the original remain, and in any language it's a beautiful song.

We will see Selena from this deck only once more; we barely got to know her, and already she's slipping out of sight. It would probably be too much to say she changed everything. But she changed enough; the rest of this travelogue will be that much better for all the ways she pushed Latin Pop forward.



8th April, 1995

When the Hot Latin chart goes norteño, it goes norteño all the way. Forget the politesse of Bronco's string arrangement, or La Mafia's own concessions to electronic modernism — this is the raw stuff, accordion and rhythm section and a singer gritando puro campesino. It's a rare example of a live hit, always unusual outside of 70s AOR, and the fact that it was only on the top of the chart for a week detracts nothing from the fact that hey, it was at the top of the chart at all.

But it's not just the crowd noise that makes this the rawest, most rock & roll record we've encountered yet in our journey. The stiff polka-descended rhythms might not sound very raucous, but the accordion positively shreds, and the gritos aren't a million miles away from Joe Strummer's Peter Pan crows on "London Calling," or from cowboy whoops presaging heavy sales at the saloon and a gunfight in the morning. Sure, people who aren't used to norteño might mutter "Chicken Dance" to themselves, and the lyrics are very nearly simple enough to be a playground chant, but there's a magnificent energy to the song, an organic looseness that suggests that maybe more Latin Pop should have been released to radio from concert recordings.

"Toma Mi Amor" means "take my love," but the verb "tomar" ("take") is also used to mean "drink" — and La Mafia doesn't hesitate to let the suggestiveness bubble up to the surface. It's a bar-band singalong from South Texas, where bar bands are just as likely to be brown as white, and their crowds are composed of shitkickers, hard-working alcoholics, and horndogs either way.



11th February, 1995

It’s been building up steam for a while now. The tejano pop of Álvaro Torres and La Mafia broke the ground; the unashamedly rustic cumbia rhythms of Selena laid the foundation; and even Luis Miguel’s revisiting the style in his immaculately polished manner helped to get people used to the idea. But Bronco is the first actual norteño outfit, unmediated through the gloss and synths of contemporary pop, to hit the top of the Latin chart since it began. In Anglophone pop terms, it’s like a country-blues singer suddenly hitting the top of the charts in 1995 — and not being a one-off either, but making the top spot safe for roots acts ever after.

But norteño is pop in a way that blues and even traditional country are not (at least not anymore). Partly this has to do with the shifting demographics of the Latin Pop audience in the 1990s; where from the beginning of the chart in 1986 it had been driven by urban, middle-class Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the East and North and Mexican-Americans who had long lived in the American West, beginning in the mid-90s the boom in immigration of poor Mexicans and Central and South Americans to the U.S. pushed Latin Pop towards including more diverse voices: poor people’s music, in fact.

(The reason for this mid-90s boom in immigration? Conservative pundits pretend to be baffled and blame the inherent criminality of brown skin, but I’ll drop a hint: it begins with N and ends with AFTA.)

Those horns, descanting brightly in muted chords, are the first sign: this is traditional Mexican music. José Guadalupe Esparza's high, emotional vocal style is another —— and then the whoop, half laugh, half sob, entirely artificial, the grito mexicano that more than any other sound defines norteño as something particular and vulgar and sets on edge the teeth of listeners for whom the music codes as poverty, as ignorance, as hickface, as hidebound fakery set to a grossly inelegant march (exactly the reaction I had as a child to the honky tonk whine of country, incidentally), for whom norteño is the music of abuelos, of campesinos, of the patria they want nothing to do with. It is firmly itself, not Americanized, not assimilated, not conducive to being remixed or anglicized. There have still been no norteño hits in English (unless "Ring of Fire" counts), almost alone among global pop musics, because once the blues barrier was broken back in the 20s another sound of Otherized Poverty, with which all Americans are familiar second-hand but never first, had to rise to take its place.

But this is still pop-norteño, those lush strings particularly taking the place of what would, a year earlier, be synthesizers. And I'm not entirely convinced they're not; but it's the mid-90s and gestures towards "authenticity" of any stripe are appreciated more than the sonic novelty and futurism that peaked once in the 80s but will peak higher still in years to come.

The song? It's a traditional-sounding lament (though written by Esparza) — "Please Don't Forget Me" would be a rough translation of the title's sentiment, and the rest can be extrapolated from it. It's the fact of the song, more than the song itself, that excites me. So much more is to come.



21st January, 1995

La Mafia's previous appearances in these pages have been piano ballads, tasteful — of their kind — and even excessively polite, as though they had put on their good suits in order to enter the charts and were reluctant to turn around for fear something might break. But something happened between then and now; even though their previous single was off the same album, it's highly unlikely this one would have made it to the top if it weren't for the gravitational force exerted by the high-mass formation of a new star.

Tejano, the specifically Texan homebrew of cumbia, norteño, and American r&b and pop, was the new sound of Latin radio, and the way La Mafia presses hard on cumbia's Caribbean beat, skanking hard at reggae tempos, may be the funkiest sound we've had to date. As well as one of the tackiest — speaking as someone who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, there are class and taste implications in the cheap keyboard sounds and drum-machine presets La Mafia use here that still trigger hot floods of embarrassment deep in my subconscious. But I'm learning to own it, to even rejoice in it (the unlikely reappearance of similar off-brand synth textures on the radio in 2011 is some help here), and the groove bounces enough to forgive anything.

Or maybe I'm just overidentifying with the lyrics. "Me Duele Estar Solo" means "it hurts to be alone," and the fact that the self-pitying lyrics are sung with such a smooth, carefree delivery over a very sunny bounce only appeals even more to someone who prefers to wrap unflattering self-pity in a breezy irony that dares anyone else to feel sorry for me. (I didn't say I succeed.) If it's a little hard to imagine raising a maudlin glass to the chorus, that's only because bopping to the rhythm might spill the beer.



17th December, 1994

We close out 1994 appropriately, with the woman who owned 1994 top-to-bottom. It's her fourth number one of the year, and on first listen it's her least modern. It sounds like it could have been recorded in the sixties or even earlier, all tight-strummed guitars and a mini-orchestra pumping film-cue trills in on every bar. The lush r&b of "Dondequiera Que Estés," the skanking cumbia of "Amor Prohibido" and "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" are nowhere to be found here; Ana Gabriel, or even Rocío Dúrcal, could just as easily have recorded this.

Which is partly the point. Latin music is just as much invested in understanding itself as existing in continuity with grand old traditions as country music is; understandably so, given the socially conservative makeup of both core audiences. Selena is very much a way into the future, but she knows that her novelty exists on sufferance: without explicit nods, explicit ties to the past, she remains on unstable ground, as easily dropped as any other novelty. And of course she loves the grand old traditions herself; listen to how enthusiastically she rips into the traditional sobbing ranchera style of singing. Juicy melodramatics no know expiration date.

But the song only sounds old; it was written by Ricky Vela, who was in love with Selena's sister Suzette, after she married, and it's not in the old florid poetic style of traditional bolero ranchero. The vivid images of traditional romántico are left behind as the lyrics deal only in direct emotions; this is a song about how loss of love shatters a person's conception of self, and Vela baldly states it. The opening lines, "no me queda más/que perderme en un abismo de tristeza y lágrimas" translate to "I have nothing left/but to lost myself in an abyss of sadness and tears." It's mopey stuff, for sure; but Selena's vibrant performance, and the refusal of the music to get maudlin, rescues it. Which isn't to say that the song isn't better-written than Selena's previous number ones (not that great writing is everything) — Vela's Spanish is much less basic than A. B. Quintanilla's.

Selena has conquered her world. Dance, ballads, funk, traditional music; she can do it all. Naturally, her sights are set higher still; there's a whole other market out there still to conquer. 1995, and all it will bring, waits right around the corner. No spoilers.



26th November, 1994

Again, before listening to Luis Miguel's version, I highly recommend that you hear the original, recorded by its composer José Alfredo Jiménez in 1963. Jiménez was one of the great ranchera composers and performers in the 50s and 60s, a self-taught songwriter of proletariat origins who contributed immensely to the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, producing a body of work that few songwriters anywhere have equaled in scope and quality.

This particular song takes a bolero form (the punctuated guitar rhythm is what gives it away), making it even dreamier and more classically-minded than usual for ranchera, and ranchera is usually one of the more dreamy and traditional Latin genres. Luis Miguel plays up the classicism, holding the power of his voice mostly in check throughout. As I've had occasion to point out again and again, he's a singer of consummate skill: here, the quality of power held in reserve mirrors the lyric.

"La Media Vuelta" translates literally as "The Half-Turn," and it's a term borrowed from the art of bullfighting; the media vuelta is a method of sticking the bull that requires perfect agility and timing — like a dance, which is the other use of the stock phrase. The singer of "La Media Vuelta" is renouncing his love for her own good; all the power in the relationship lies on his side, as he admits when he says "yo soy tu dueño" (a tricky phrase which translates as "I am your lord and master," but connotes something like "you're so in love with me that you'll do whatever I say"). The sentiments are horrific from a feminist point of view — dude's just dictating to her regardless of her own wishes, can't they sit down and talk this out? — but as a representation of a certain floridly Romantic scenario (it's all a bit Mr. Rochester), it's an effective character portrait. He's aware of the damage he's doing, but power is its own reward.



19th November, 1994

Already Selena has begun changing the landscape of Latin Pop. Los Rehenes, a zacatecano band (from the central Mexican state of Zacatecas) which had had some local popularity on an independent label, suddenly zooms to the top of the charts not because they're anything special, necessarily — lots of local regional dance-and-corrido bands could have done as well — but because they're working the cumbia beat with modern electronic flourishes: those drum-machine fills are almost identical to the ones on "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom."

Which isn't entirely fair to Javier and Roberto Torres and their bandmates. Their sound, both classic and modern, was what the moment demanded as Selena opened up an appetite for tejano and related music in the U.S. Latin market, and they could write. "Ni El Primero, Ni El Último" means "neither the first nor the last," and the shrugging fatalism and class-consciousness of the lyric — he's not the first to strike out in love, he's not alone in being despised for his poverty, he doesn't offer the sun and the moon because they're not his to give — is charming and refreshing after the steady diet of extravagant emotionalism which the past eight years of baladas románticas have fed us, punctuated occasionally by silly dance songs.

This is in fact the closest we have come yet to the Mexican version of what country music has traditionally been in the United States: the place where showmanship meets heartbreak, where lower-class solidarity meets pop tunefulness, and wry grins and cowboy hats go hand in hand. It's not quite puro regional, it's slickly produced and major-label poppy, with that pumped-out keyboard hook and those juddering post-industrial fills, but we can see regional from here. We'll see more of it.