various artists,
The Rough Guide to
the Music of Mexico

(World Music Network, 2002)

World Music Network's Rough Guide series is a brave attempt to share the diversity of the world's music with those who might otherwise never know what to look for. I've found new musical vistas on every Rough Guide I've heard. But I wasn't expecting to be as surprised by The Rough Guide to the Music of Mexico. After all, I've got no access to Philippine or Indian music. But Mexican music? Half the time, that's all my radio picks up. It's what gets played at the local fairs. Growing up in the southwest end of Texas has perks, and pirate mariachi stations are among them. So I looked forward to hearing the Network's selections and reading their ever excellent research notes but didn't count on hearing anything new.

I was surprised anyway. As always, The Rough Guide doesn't skimp on quantity or diversity. With 20 tracks, the World Music Network seems to have made an effort to collect every style of Mexican music, especially those less known. Even when choosing a well-known style there's a nod to the well known mariachi band here they have found unknown bands, bringing them into a much deserved spotlight.

Astrid Hadad should be more familiar than she is. She has an opera singer's voice for melodramatic, powerful singing, and uses it to great effect in the ranchera styled "Que Puntada." Hadad has talent for satirizing rational Mexican music, and her videos, a mainstay of Link Network's world music show, are packed with visual jokes. In pure audio, she conveys the silliness of her music with her over-the-top, increasingly hysteric performance. Hadad uses traditional styles for parody, but never sounds traditional.

Cafe Tacuba could almost be an American band judging from "Las Flores." Not a modern American band, though; there's a straightforward exuberance to "Las Flores"that would sound more in place in early rock 'n' roll, even with the modern flourishes and very Mexican percussion. Banda El Recodo De Don Cruz Lizarraga bursts into the air with flourish of horns and a riot of drums, suggesting that "El Nino Perdito" must have gotten lost in a circus. It's an intriguing but tiring song, with brief plodding interludes that only give a listener a chance to breathe before the march takes up again. Juan Reynoso's version of "La Torotlita" is relaxingly slow paced by comparison, even with its cantering pace. Both his voice and the steady tempo of the music turn this potentially hectic song into a controlled exultation.

I usually prefer the dance music to slower traditional forms, but the more sedate tracks on Music of Mexico offer plenty of musical interest along with heart wrenching drama. Los Andariegos provide the album's first bilingual song with "La Juanita." Unfortunately for hopeful English speakers, the melancholy ballad is delivered in Spanish and Zapotec. Eugenia Leon delivers a dramatic '70s-style lounge song, "La Tirana," that serves as a reminder Mexican music is not just rural and traditional. Los Maganas deliver a very old fashioned love song, "Peregrina," a trova-style song supposedly inspired by an American journalist. Los Hermanos Molina have voices only the Mexican tradition would encourage, high and humming at once, and those voices give a mournful, ominous tone to "El Pajarillo Jilguero," a symbol song linking a young girl's flight to a bird. These songs and trovas are powerful and poignant enough to send a listener heading for the tequila and the tissues, and looking forward to more.

But the World Music Network has weighted this album toward the positive side, at least in the tunes. Felipe Urban Y Su Danzonera play the tune of hot summer days and cool sweet drinks on "Horchata," a classic of the danzon, or dance bands. An up-tempo song has never been confined to cheerful subjects, as Salon Victoria know. Their ska-heavy "Fandango Allende" honors the murder of the pacifist activist, and the fast beat heightens the anger in the song. Chuchumbe's traditional son jarocho of "La Iguana" seems naive following such a serious subject, but hides plenty of meaning in its simple descriptions, and has a great dancing rhythm, too. Listeners longing for a familiar mariachi band sound by Mariachi Reyes Del Aserradero, and find similarities with their style and the brass band flare of the Banda La Michoacana. Both perform a trumpet heavy, quick strum, traditional piece, with Mariachi Reyes honoring their native country, and Banda La Michoacana a favorite beer.

Though most of the album is focused on the broad traditional heritage of Mexican music, Music of Mexico ends with two more modern songs. Los De Abajo's "Joder" sends whispers of corruption and political manipulation running through an ominous merengue tune. Botellita De Jerez return to a less serious subject in "El Charro Canroll," a humorous, Tejano rock tale of a cowboy in love with rock 'n' roll.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Mexico is one of the World Music Network's more successful compilations, perhaps because Mexican music is so accessible. Each track covers a slightly different trend or tradition, giving the region good musical coverage and making it plain that this is a living musical tradition. This album would serve as an excellent guide to the new fan, and will surely introduce old ones to some wonderful new performers.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 28 June 2003

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