22nd March, 2003

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Juan Gabriel has made his swan song as a performer on the chart, but his songs remain. "Una Vez Más" (Once more) was a song on his 1982 album Cosas de Enamorados (Lovers' things), and its swoony romanticism, a fragile soft-rock ballad in the original, is an unusual if ultimately congruent fit for a sound which we have only met once before on this travelogue: conjunto chihuahuense.

Mexican conjunto is a style of norteño focused on relatively small combos of musicians with formalized instrumental setups. The style of conjunto played in the state of Chihuahua is almost unique in that a saxophone is typically added to the accordion as the primary carrier of melody in the conjunto, which is otherwise almost all rhythm: electric bass, drums, and the plucking bajo sexto.

As if to underscore the importance of the saxophonist to the Chihuahua sound, the only member of Conjunto Primavera to have remained constant since the band was founded in 1978 to the present day is saxophonist and leader Juan Domínguez. Singer Tony Melendez, whose buttery, reverb-drenched pipes place "Una Vez Más" in the classic midcentury pop tradition, was Primavera's second lead singer starting in 1988, and under his voice the band became more than just a local success, slowly gaining ground over the 90s until they scored an unlikely #1 in the midst of the world-straddling pop stars of 2003.

Compare them to the rowdier Rieleros del Norte, the only previous chihuahuense combo to appear here, three whole years ago, and there's a mellowness and classiness to Primavera's sound that isn't wholly due to the cover. Juan Gabriel was writing in a self-consciously classicist pop mode, but the intense intimacy of his vocals is smoothed out in a much more self-possessed cover: even though the lyric is a drama of longing and renunciation, Melendez' voice only shows any strain on the middle eight, where the key shifts into the stratosphere. 

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