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.

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