In the early days of the recording industry, record labels were often omnivorous, filling gaps in their markets by selling any music they could get their hands on. This made them cosmopolitan… and sometimes deeply weird.
Take Musart Records, one of the first labels in Mexico, founded in 1948 and still going strong. Throughout its 80-plus years of mostly independent existence, Discos Musart has pressed and released everything, not just Mexican music. Thanks to foreign distribution deals, the Musart name has appeared on albums from salsa to Sepultura, a whole mess of Eurodance, and even the early Beatles catalog.
Musart’s reputation, however, is built upon its catalog of what we now call “regional Mexican” music, a mezcla of national genres like mariachi, banda, corridos, norteño, and cumbia. In the United States, regional Mexican is the most popular Spanish-language radio format; its stations routinely score top 10 Nielsen ratings in major markets like L.A. and Chicago. Its audience has existed for decades. Back when Musart was selling Beatles songs to Mexican fans, it was also marketing Mexican music to expats living in El Norte. In the mid-’60s, at the height of Beatlemania, horse-riding singer Antonio Aguilar and his wife Flor Silvestre were packing wistful crowds into L.A.’s Million Dollar Theatre with their legendary “charrerías” (musical rodeos). Aguilar and Silvestre, of course, also recorded for Musart.
Musart was founded by Eduardo C. Baptista Covarrubias, a recording industry veteran, having previously started the Peerless label with the German-born Gustavo Klinkwort Noehrenberg. (If any pair of record label honchos has had better names, please let us know in the comments.) Musart has remained a Baptista family business, and an ambitious one. It’s bought up other successful labels like Balboa and Panart. Its Musart Tower was a long-time Mexico City landmark and a proudly modern facility, combining practical necessities like silently air-conditioned studios with large helpings of sophisticated glitz. “The photo-art department is on the seventh floor,” wrote the building’s architect in a 1970 article in Billboard. “Cocktails, on the eighth floor.”
All of which is to say: Despite its reputation for down-home folklore and singing on horses, regional Mexican is a music biz like any other, and an absolutely modern one at that. Its artists innovate, chase and set trends, and speak to their audiences in familiar ways they haven’t heard before. Over the decades, Musart has captured most of those trends and helped set a few of them in motion. Here are some of Musart’s greatest songs, as good a place as any to start exploring regional Mexican through the decades.
The Rancheros And Rancheras
Though the Million Dollar Theatre hosted a slew of Mexican acts, from the prolific singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez to Sinaloan brass band Banda el Recodo, no one put on a bigger spectacle than Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre. The Zacatecans and their two children played to El Norte’s growing immigrant communities with horses, a mariachi ensemble, and – according to a 1966 L.A. Times review – the music of “Ernesto Hill Olvera, sightless organ virtuoso with an extraordinary sense of timing (not unlike George Shearing’s)…” Talk about fun for the whole family.
Aguilar covered the gamut of Mexico’s regional styles. Like US country music, the ranchera songs appeal to their tradition-holding audience through both lyrics and melodies, usually three-chord polkas or waltzes that rise and resolve in predictable ways. Think “folksy”; but, like other folk music, ranchera contains a world of variety and strangeness. Aguilar’s stomping “Un Puño de Tierra” (“A Fistful of Earth”) is, according to lifelong charrería attender Gustavo Arellano, “one of those great existential roars of fatalism that makes being a Mexican man so much fun.”
Aguilar also sang plenty of corridos on Musart, story-songs about criminals and other shaggy dog types that loom large in Mexican mythology. His banda ode to the drug runner Lamberto Quintero was a surprise hit on LA radio in 1984, when banda and corridos weren’t yet commercial forces.
(Aguilar recorded many songs on Musart twice, once with a mariachi string band and once with a brass banda featuring a “tambora,” or bass drum with a cymbal on top; so when you see an album titled “Con Tambora,” that means he’s singing with a banda.)
Aguilar and Silvestre’s sons, Antonio Jr. and Pepe, continued in the family business. Pepe’s career has ranged especially wide, from rock to ranchera to the vast swaths of easy listening that lurk between. His gorgeous pop song “Por Mujeres Como Tú” blends mariachi, subtle synth twinkles, and Aguilar’s measured croon into music that feels impossibly smooth.
For all ranchera’s outsize machismo, it’s also been the most fruitful regional genre for women to assert themselves. Lucha Villa, Yolanda del Río, and especially Paquita la del Barrio have blended acting careers with intense vocal performances. Paquita’s specialty is emasculating men in song; check out the nonstop vitriol of “Rata de Dos Patas,” which folded norteño accordion into mariachi’s sound decades before the current wave of so-called “mariacheño” acts.
More popular among wayward youth is the lush and jaunty “No Te Pases de Vivo,” which boasts not one but two unofficial dirty titles, “Chinga Tu Madre Inútil” and “No Te Hagas el Pendejo.” Ask your Spanish teacher, I dare you.
The One-Man Song Factories
Like Juan Gabriel and Dolly Parton, the late Joan Sebastian belongs to the elite club of people who’ve written over a thousand songs. Like Antonio Aguilar, Sebastian also sang on horseback, earning himself the nickname “El Rey del Jaripeo” (“The King of the Rodeo”) and demonstrating his country buena fe. And indeed, a lot of his music sounds country, with bluesy guitar licks and backbeats and a bit of squeezebox thrown in for warmth. Check out the self-deprecating ballad “Un Idiota” if you’re prepared to wander around humming it for the next week.
Sebastian maintained a healthy side career writing and producing for other artists, and exploring those credits is as rewarding as digging through Willie Nelson’s odd byways. His crowning achievement is Vicente Fernández’s late-career masterwork “Estos Celos”; but if you have a soft spot for Highwaymen-era synth country, “Maracas,” a 1988 duet with Alberto Vázquez, is super charming.
At the opposite end of the charm meter was the late Chalino Sánchez, a standoffish guy whose voice had the musicality of a tornado siren, and who once got into a gunfight onstage. Yet he became the pivotal writer of corridos; you can divide the genre into “pre-Chalino” and “post-Chalino.”
Chalino fled to California in the late 70s after shooting the man who’d raped his sister in Sinaloa. (It’s worth noting that three of these enormously important musicians – Chalino, Sebastian, and Antonio Aguilar – lived without papers in the US for a time.) After working odd jobs, he started writing corridos on commission. People would pay him a fee, and he’d record a cassette about their exploits; or, if they didn’t have any exploits, he’d write about how they kept it real. “Martín Félix,” a narrative-free statement of Sinaloan pride, gives you an idea.
Chalino started selling his cassettes at the same L.A. swap meets frequented by the nascent rappers N.W.A. It was a hugely successful move, and Chalino was eventually earning thousands of dollars for each corrido commission. In 1992, he was tragically murdered, but his legend was secure. Young Mexican-Americans who’d been into gangsta rap started wearing cowboy hats and blasting corridos. Even though narcocorridos don’t sound like rap, Chalino laid bare connections that have been embraced by nearly every corridero who’s followed him, from underground sensations to Gerardo Ortíz, the genre’s biggest star. Young men singing about real-life drug lords, foregrounding their hustle and swagger, have become inescapable in regional Mexican music. “Contrabando en la Frontera,” about a pot deal gone bad for a customs official, shows off Chalino’s bars.
Back in the 1940s, cumbia had come from South America to Mexico, where it developed a reputation for being humble and unpretentious, maybe even a little square. Yet the rhythm’s flexibility allowed it to morph into whatever local players and audiences demanded. Play a cumbia slow and it’s almost like praying — see the long-running Mexico City band Los Ángeles Azules — but play it fast enough and it’ll whip into a merengue beat, or even a polka.
In the early 60s, the Jalisco-born guitarist Mike Laure scored a bunch of irresistible cumbia hits with his band los Cometas. Inspired by Bill Haley’s Comets and the Colombian big band Sonora Dinamita, Laure’s song “La Banda Borracha” features horns, call-and-response vocals, and kitschy staged dialogue. “Tiburón a la Vista” introduces a novel pick-up line for the beach: “Come hang with me so you don’t get eaten by sharks!”
The Brass Bands (And The Fake Brass Bands)
At some point in their careers, most of the aforementioned singers recorded with bandas, the northern-Mexican brass-and-clarinet sexdectets that were once a staple of Sinaloan village squares. Only in the past 30 years have bandas started scoring pop hits under their own names. Half the songs on today’s regional Mexican stations are smooth brass ballads, including those of Banda los Recoditos, who released some mid-’90s albums on Musart. On “Llorar, Llorar,” you can hear the brass becoming a delivery device for assembly-line pop. Instead of oompahs, the various horn sections join forces to create power ballad backbeats.
The bigger story in 90s banda was the rise of technobandas, essentially synth-pop groups who imitated the banda sound with a fraction of the personnel. Groups like Vaquero’s Musical and Mi Banda el Mexicano were controversial among old-school banda leaders — “I even dare to say that the majority aren’t bandas at all,” grumbled the founder of the legendary Banda el Recodo — but in hindsight, they made ace novelty music that holds up better than much of the era’s serious stuff. Mi Banda el Mexicano’s remake of Tony Ronald’s K-Tel classic “Ayúdame” would fit well on a 90s pop playlist, nestled between “How Bizarre” and “Barbie Girl.”
Today the brass pendulum has swung back to big groups of live horns, but most of them smartly cut their maudlin romanticism with novelty tunes. “De la Noche a la Mañana,” by the Apache-honoring Banda Cuisillos, threatens to turn into 80s hi-NRG at any moment; and Grupo Laberinto’s recent remake of Junior Klan’s cumbia classic “Dale El Biberón” — not to be confused with Mike Laure’s cumbia classic of the same name — shows how old jokes, babysitting tactics, and dance moves persist across generations.
Think we’ve missed one of the best songs on Musart Records? Let us know in the comments section below.