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to durango style On Friday and Saturday nights in the Treasure and Magic Valleys, music keeps culture alive. by Nathaniel Hoffman
That gringo writers are surprised at the vibrancy of Mexican music reflects a continued disregard for the cultural and other contributions of the state’s largest minority.
rom the busy boulevard outside the Santa Gertrudis rodeo grounds, one can only glimpse the considerable action inside. The crooning of Banda Cuisillos—a Mexican big band that fancies feathered indigenous garb and romantic songs backed by trumpets, tuba, trombone, and synthesizers—drifts over the village. Bright spotlights cut through ample dust, casting a stark, romantic light over the scene. For hours we’ve watched people pouring into town from the surrounding ranchos of rural Michoacán State in Central Mexico, from Zacapu in the south to Villa Jiménez in the
© E. Guerrero
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north. Their trucks are packed: four or five to the cab plus beds full of young and old, men and women, all dressed to the nines in cowboy hats, boots, good belts. They hit up the taquerias and then the liquor stores along Main Street before paying one hundred pesos (about eight dollars) plus a small charitable donation (un kilo de ayuda) to enjoy bull riding and music from four o’clock in the afternoon into the early morning hours. Violinist Henry Olvera performs My host, a friend from the neighboring village of with Boise’s Mariachi Sol de La Virgen, lived in Nampa for years. His brother still Acapulco. Opposite and previdoes. A truck with Idaho plates drives by slowly, tailing ous: Burley-born recording star a minivan from Illinois. A Mustang from California musEdgar Guerrero, a graduate of cles down the street. The ranchos of MiBoise State University, won choacán are ground zero for the massive hearts as a talent-show contestnorthward ant on Mexican television. labor migration that began in earnest in the 1980s. The migration accelerated in the 1990s, following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement that dragged down prices of Mexican agricultural commodities. Nearly everyone here has either been to the United States or has family or friends there. And that includes the band. Banda Cuisillos won a Latin Grammy in 2002 and has sold hundreds of thousands of albums in the United States. In 2008 the group played the Caldwell, Idaho, rodeo grounds, known locally by some Spanish speakers as the “jaripeo en Caldwell.” I recall posters for the show—the band dresses up like Native Americans and is hard to miss—but there is little archival record of the event save two short YouTube clips posted by reynita1621. The clips show a scene reminiscent of the Gertrudis show: Latinos from Marsing, Nampa, Boise, maybe Burley and Rupert
© Claudio Beagarie
© E. Guerrero
would have streamed into Caldwell wearing their country duds. Very few Anglos—if any—would have attended. Outside of the sizable Spanish-speaking population in Idaho’s Treasure and Magic Valleys, there is very little awareness of the rocking Mexican music scene here. Frequent shows are promoted mostly on Spanish radio with only occasional mention in the English-language press.
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Raices De Mi Tierra
“There’s a huge industry of Mexican music and Latin music in the United States that is completely outside of the mainstream, that doesn’t cross over,” said Juan Díes, a musician and ethnomusicologist from Chicago. Díes interviewed dozens of Latino artists and musicians in Idaho in 2007 under the Mosaico Latino project, funded by the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. He found a vibrant Latino folk art culture in Idaho with second- and third-generation Lati-
nos—with roots in Texas, Mexico, and even Bolivia and Peru—carrying on the musical traditions of their parents and grandparents. But there is also a very strong regional Mexican influence, dominated by first-generation migrants, that draws big name norteño bands through the state every year. “Almost all of the top-tier regional Mexican groups have come through the Treasure and Magic Valleys,” said Ben Reed, “El Chupacabras,” whose popular morning talk show on La Fantástica, KFTA AM 970 in Burley, is now being broadcast live from Playa del Carmen, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Reed took his show to Mexico after his Mexican fiancée was denied entry to the United States and deported in 2007, a month before their planned wedding in Idaho. I spoke to Reed in 2009 for a story about Latin music that ran in the Boise Weekly, where I was news editor at the time, and recently visited him in Playa del Carmen. While Boise Weekly purports to have its finger on the pulse of music and arts in southwest Idaho, the extremely vibrant Latino dance scene surprised us.
Later, while researching this article, I came across another clip from the Boise Weekly dated May 1994, in which another gringo writer, Cory Wees, ventured into the local Mexican music scene and came back with Columbus-like tales of discovery and a newfound love for brass instruments and accordion licks. In 1994 Wees wrote: “On any given weekend there is a choice of four or five venues where crowds gather to see Hispanic bands—sometimes several in one night—and dance to a vast variety of ‘Mexican’ music. A bailar!” Fifteen years later I wrote, quite coincidentally: “This just might be the biggest party in Southwest Idaho this Friday night ... Any weekend night, the Treasure Valley is rife with regional Mexican dances.” That gringo writers are surprised at the vibrancy of Mexican music in Idaho every fifteen years or so reflects a continued disregard for the cultural and other contributions of the state’s largest minority on the part of the media, academia, government, and mainstream society. It also explains in part why there is little formal historical record of Mexican music in Idaho until the late 1950s, when a few photographs were taken of guitar players at public fiestas. We know that Mexicans and their descendants lived and worked in Idaho even before it became a territory in 1863, but there is no preserved record of their musical traditions. Gary Eller, a retired nuclear scientist and musician, has collected more than one thousand pre-radio era songs related to Idaho for the Idaho Songs Project, but has not come across Touring dance troupes and bands any from the Spanish-speaking community. “I believe they have been lost along the way,” Eller said. link Idaho to the Mexican homeThe Mexicans, including miners, ranchers, and land. Right: Latin Grammy-winner mule drivers, surely brought songs with them. Eller Banda Cuisillos packed the Caldcomposed a ballad for muleteer Miguel Soto, who well Night Rodeo Grounds. Oppowas murdered in the Boise Foothills after selling off site: Folclórico dancers in masks his team. Eller performed the song recently at a Corpreserve a Mayan legend. rido Music Concert at Boise State that commemorated more than 150 years of Mexican presence in Idaho. “At Cottonwood near Boise he camped one final night / cooked some bacon and some beans for the day / when a no good rotten outlaw shot him in the head / he took the gold and quickly stole away,” Eller sang at the September 2010 concert.
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One phenomenon that Eller notes is the habit among Mexican (and Basque) musicians to sing about the old country rather than composing songs about their current state of affairs. “The Irish, on the other hand, the moment they go somewhere they are complaining about the new life,” Eller said. Caldwell restaurateur and songwriter Gerardo “Lalo” Barca, whom Díes interviewed in the 2007 Mosaico Latino project, corroboIn Idaho the mariachi is emrated this phenomenon. Barca told Díes that he really wanted to return to Mexico (his wife and kids would not let him) and that all of his musical inspirablematic of the festive Mexican tion came from Mexico. sound. Typically the ensemble Díes: ¿Algo que te ha inspirado aquí? (Has something inspired you includes violins, trumpets, a here?) classical guitar, a five-string guiBarca: No tengo de aquí. (There is nothing for tar-like vihuela, and a bass-like me here.) guitarrón. Below: a mariachi’s On the other hand, a 1981 recording for the Idaho Commission on the Arts guitar. Opposite: silver-studded “Soy Mexicano: Traditional Mexican mariachis in the traditional American Music from Southern Idaho” dress of the Mexican charro. project, extols the beauty of Nampa and her
women. “Nampa, Nampa, Idaho / Tu tienes tu parque cubierto de flores / Nidito de amor (You have your park covered in flowers / Little nest of love),” Nampa resident Santos Hernández sang in the bolero style for the album.
The first possible reference to a Mexican musician in Idaho that historians have found is a dubious one at best. A 1904 brief in the Twin Falls News about a Thanksgiving dance mentions a Miss Jones and Mexican Joe, of Rock Creek, who played “popular pieces” between sets by the Twin Falls orchestra. The newspaper informs us that “Miss Jones played the violin, while
Mexican Joe performed on the guitar. The harmony of the two instruments was perfect and the selections were enjoyed by all present. Both were musicians of considerable talent, their rendition of popular pieces being fully up to the standard of excellence.”
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It is not until the 1950s, after Mexican Americans from Texas took to the migrant trail, that the beginnings of an alternative musical history of Idaho can be reconstructed with certainty. In his 1994 Boise Weekly piece, Wees spoke with Magdaleno Garcia, who had played the bars and dancehalls of southwest Idaho since the early 1960s. Originally from Texas, Garcia settled in Nampa after working the fields as a seasonal laborer. According to Wees, Garcia pointed to a photo of himself that hung on the wall of his garage and began: “Here’s a picture of me playing at El Charro in 1965. I was ... I don’t know ... 19. The first night we played there the place was filled. We had Kjamie2002/Picasa people from Homedale, from Oregon, from all over the place. There was another place that wanted us to play on the Traveling guitar-playing balother side of town, and since we were the only group around, our pay ladeers from Texas invented just kept going up, up, up.” Garcia also has pictures of himself with Ramon Ayala in Boise’s the tejano sound. Pictured: conJulia Davis Park, and of Oscar Hernández and Esteban “Steve” Jordan, testants at the 2008 Tejano big names in conjunto music from both sides of the border who came to Music Awards. Opposite: TeIdaho in the 1960s and 1970s. jano’s La Diferenzia, a touring That’s also when Juan Manuel Barco began playing the Northwest band from the 1990s. circuit with his family band, Los Guzmanes. Barco’s family followed the crops across the Midwest and South for many years, but he eventually settled in Seattle. “There were so many places we played: rodeo grounds, big places, grange halls,” Barco recalled.
The center of the tejano scene for Barco was the Baile Grande (Big Dance) in Sunnyside, Washington, a takeoff on the Baile Grande in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where the conjunto sound was born. But he recalls playing shows in Nampa and Caldwell as well as
the Puerta Negra in Sunnyside and in small towns across Washington and Oregon. Norteño music, which comes from the northern border states in Mexico, and tejano music have similar instrumentation and sounds but are distinct genres. Barco says that norteño musicians play the bajo sexto, a type of twelve-string guitar, differently, strumming upward instead of downward
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and using fewer strings. Early tejano music was heavily influenced by blues and country and was played slower, making it more danceable, Barco said. Southeast Idaho was also home to a vibrant conjunto circuit in the 1960s and ‘70s, recalls Ramona Awes, sixty-two, who grew up in Pocatello. Her mother was from Colorado but had also grown up in Pocatello, and her father was from northern Nevada. Awes was raised on traditional Mexican ballads as well as the varsoviana polkas her grandparents learned in New Mexico. But Pocatello was full of tejanos and Awes started going to hear the music at the Memorial Building and the Terrace, which is now a dance studio in Pocatello. She recalls one group from Ogden, Utah—four brothers who billed themselves as the Mexican Beatles. Awes said her parents were involved in Mexican American civic clubs that often put on fiestas, including the Mexican Independence Day dance at the Memorial Building. After high school, Awes sang with Angela Luckey and Joe García. The trio, which performed classical Mexican songs at weddings and baptisms, still plays from time to time. Conjunto music continued to be heard in southwest Idaho into the early 1990s—Wees found some musicians still playing conjunto in 1994. But it was already being supplanted by norteño, to meet the tastes of more recent immigrants from Mexico and the new dance styles they brought with them. The 1981 Soy Mexicano recordings are heavy with country-style ranchera and norteño selections, and one cumbia, with its more tropical, simple dance rhythm, recorded live at the Rupert Independence Day festival, though the cumbia is given Texan or New Mexican origin. Ausencio “Don Chencho” Quezada, who has organized a Mother’s Day concert in Nampa for twenty-
one years, recalls Los Tigres del Norte, a major norteño band, playing the Milla Siete Bar on Chinden Boulevard in Boise in 1974 or 1975. Ramon Ayala, a norteño superstar who appealed to tejanos as well, also passed through the Treasure Valley for many years. Ana Maria Schachtell came to Idaho in 1974, from Chihuahua, Mexico, after spending a few years in California where she listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Schachtell grew up singing classical music in school choirs in Chihuahua and Júarez and boleros at home with her father, who played the guitar. She viewed norteño music as more folksy—“cantina” music played primarily in the bars. (Later, Schachtell would hire a norteño band to play at her wedding.) When she arrived in Idaho and sought out Mexican culture for her kids, she fell into the tejano scene. “I’ll be darned they were playing what I thought was norteño—but it was tejano—they were tejanos,” Schachtell said. “We started going to their dances.” Schachtell, whose husband is German, recognized the music and dance. German and Bohemian immigrants had brought the accordion to south Texas and northern Mexico in the late nineteenth century, and Mexican musicians quickly At least eight Spanish language adopted the sound as radio stations compete for Idaho their own. markets. Connie “La Indomable” Schachtell’s introducSanchez spins Latin music for tion to tejano music KWEI Boise 99.5 FM. Opposite: was through the growing number of Jorge Hernández, frontman for Mexican American civic groups that were forming at Los Tigres del Norte. the time. She recalls dances at the Boise Center on the Grove following the annual Hispanic Issues Training Conference. In the mid-1980s, Schachtell noticed a change in the lineup for the conference and in the sound on Spanish radio. “I suddenly realized, whenever they were hiring bands, even for the conference ... little by little the local bands were playing more norteño music, depending more
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Ramón Hernández/River City Attractions, Inc
on Mexican musicians,” Schachtell said. Barco confirms this trend.“Tejano music is dying or dead in lots of places,” he said. “You don’t hear it in Seattle anymore, only banda, grupera, duranguense—all the Mexican styles.” Today that transition is nearly complete in Idaho as well. The tejano sound is rarely heard in Idaho anymore, but the state is firmly planted on the regional Mexican band circuit. Benjamin Reed, El Chupacabras, an Anglo who speaks perfect radio Spanish—rapid trills, staccato-yetsmooth annunciation, and exaggerated adjectives—has been an active voice in the immigrant rights movement in the Magic Valley in recent years (he calls himself “gabacho by birth, Mexican by adoption”). Reed said there is an informal Mexican regional music circuit that includes Salt Lake City, the Treasure Valley, the Magic Valley and Idaho Falls, and larger cities like Denver or Las Vegas. It is reminiscent of the big band days, Reed said, when Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman played dance halls (salones) in towns large and small across the heartland. In southwest Idaho, these salones concentrate in Caldwell, where the Caldwell Events Center and nearby La Tropicana alternate hosting the bigname bands. Smaller shows have been held at the Mardi Gras in downtown Boise. Banda el Recodo, perhaps the most famous of the norteño bandas, packed the Idaho Center. These concerts are often organized by the owners of Tacos Michoacán or Chapala restaurants, and promoted on local Spanish radio stations and on loud, colorful posters plastered in taquerias and Mexican stores across the valley. Other major venues for Mexican regional music include El Dorado 2000 in Burley, El Sombrero Mexican restaurant in Jerome, Las Pulgas in Idaho Falls, and the rodeo grounds that appear in most small towns in southern Idaho, including the Filer fairgrounds.
Edgar Guerrero began his musical career in Glenns Ferry in 1990 or ’91, when he was twelve, during what he calls the “romantic era” of Mexican music. Grupo Camino, as the band was known, played in Wells, Nevada; Marsing; the Tijuana Bar in Mountain Home; and all the spots in between. His older band mates would often have to convince the bar owners to let their underage accordionist in. They played Banda el Recodo rocked the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and then he’d go back to middle school on Monday morning with almost no sleep. When Guerrero entered Boise State Idaho Center in 2007. Opposite: through the College Assistance Migrant Program in 1997, he hooked up with accordion virtuoso Esteban Grupo Karibe, which was playing a more tropical sound, and they took off, lo"Steve" Jordan; Boise’s Spanishcally at least, adding sonidero, or DJ elements and hip hop beats, to the music. language La Poderosa 100.7 I “discovered” Grupo Karibe in 2001 when I wrote a bilingual culture colFM. umn for the Idaho Press-Tribune in Nampa. I spelled the band’s name wrong in the article and it’s clear from rereading it that I had never heard the music. But, in my defense, I did go hear the band twice after publication—at the Mardi Gras ballroom in Boise and at a wedding in Mountain Home—and then booked them for my own wedding in 2003. We gave Guerrero sheet music for “Hava Nagila,” gave him directions to the Pioneer Lodge at Bogus Basin, and crossed our fingers. It was their first gabacho gig and it may have been the first norteño/Jewish wedding ever. (There was a fifteen-minute mariachi hora followed by a break-dance-off paying homage to the B'more vs. Jersey Bar Mitzvah rivalry.)
Banda el Recodo
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But Guerrero was destined for even bigger things. In 2005 he took fifth place in La Academia, Mexico's version of American Idol. Guerrero was locked up in a house with a group of musicians for six months. Their only contact with the outside world was a weekly concert they performed each Sunday that was beamed into Latino living rooms across North America on the Azteca network. Guerrero has since moved toward Spanish rock and cut an album called Del Norte al Rock (From Norteño to Rock). His agent said he's signed with Universal for a new album, which he is now finishing up. These days, Guerrero is a DJ on 100.7 FM La Poderosa, a Spanish-language radio station in Boise where he plays faster, racier music, including the narcocorridos, or drug-culture infused ballads that have long been banned from radio stations in Mexico and were further targeted by the ruling National Action Party in January 2010. “I go with it,” Guerrero said. “It’s what I do. As a musician we always have to play what the audience wants.” Corridos have gotten a bad reputation of late, but are a mainstay of the tradition of Mexican music in Idaho. In 2007, to coincide with the Mosaico Latino project, the Western Folklife Center held a corrido contest in Nampa; a New York Times reporter covered the event, leading the story off this way: “Watching television coverage of immigration marches, José F. García got mad. He got frustrated. He got his button accordion. In short order, Mr. García squeezed out the beginnings of a corrido, a kind of Mexican folk ballad that tells a story, often with a moral, and sang out the lyrics that came to
g Won Mel
him: ‘Now they are putting up barriers in front of us so we don’t return; but that is not going to block us from crossing into the United States, We leap them like deer, we go under them like moles.’” The Nampa event also inspired a lengthy National Public Radio story about the use of corridos in telling the story of the historic immigration reform marches that swept the country the year before. At the more recent Corrido Concert at Boise State, songs explored historical events including the 1920 shooting of Pedro Rodríguez in Burley, a 1935 pea picker strike in Driggs, a Mexican Air Force squadron that trained in Pocatello in 1944, and a 2008 incident at Minico High School where a teacher trashed a Mexican flag on Cinco de Mayo. The latest dance to hit Idaho is called duranguense. It’s not Texan or Mexican per se, but comes out of a suburb of Chicago, where young Latino musicians have developed a new sound. I first heard it at Limelight, a nightclub hidden in an office park in Meridian that hosted a wellattended Mexican regional night every week for several years. Jesús "Mr. Chuy" Ruíz, the DJ there, introduced me to Patrulla 81 in 2009, a scene I described this way in the Juan Díes/Idaho Commission on the Arts Boise Weekly: Then Chuy, who sees the young crowd growing antsy, transitions back to the new wave with Patrulla 81's "Eres Divina." Pioneers of the duCorrido balladeer Gerardo ranguense sound—which is all the rage at quinceañeras (coming-of“Lalo” Barca. Opposite: Latin age celebrations for Mexican girls turning 15) and weddings from rock radio logo; mariachi Dely Mountain Home to Nyssa, Ore., and beyond—Patrulla 81 started Delgado; a mariachi’s vihuela. recording in Chicago after a prior music career in the Mexican state of Durango. Turning up the tempo and the synthesizer and downplaying los metales, the brass section that dominated the popular Mexican banda formula that took off on both sides of the border throughout the 1990s, duranguense is both a music and dance style infused with a decidedly urbancountry sensibility.
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banda—Mexican big band music. The singer is backed by trumpets, trombones, synthesizers, drums, and a tuba. bolero—Romantic, slow songs with a distinctive rhythm, which originated in Cuba and spread to the rest of Latin America in the early twentieth century. conjunto—The Texas polka sound developed by Mexican Americans in Texas, influenced by the music of Northern Mexico and Germany. Originally, instruments were only an accordion and a bajo sexto (twelve-string guitar). Later, a drum set was added to the mix. corrido—A Mexican folk ballad that tells a story, often with a moral. The form probably had its origins in the nineteenth century, along the Texas-Mexico border. cumbia—A tropical sound with a simple dance rhythm, cumbia was borrowed from Colombian music but became more popular in Mexico. duranguense—A Mexican norteño offshoot developed by Mexican musicians from the state of Durango living in a suburb of Chicago. The new sound turns up the tempo and the synthesizer and downplays the metales or brass section. Infused with an urban-country sensibility. grupera—A Mexican “super-group” pop style that arose in the 1980s, that combines elements of banda, cumbia, and norteño. mariachi—A singer backed by a combination of guitars, violins, trumpets, a guitarrón (large bass guitar), and a vihuela (small stringed instrument). The singing style is high volume with long sustained notes. Musicians wear embroidered charro costumes and very big hats. The style originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco. narcocorrido—A type of corrido that commemorates people and events related to drug trafficking. norteño—Music of northern Mexico that grew out of the conjunto style of playing. Norteño, ranchera, and tejano styles have influenced each other over the years and have an intertwined history. ranchera—Literally ranch, or country-style music, associated with mariachi in Mexico or with conjunto in Texas. sonidero—The addition of DJ elements and hip hop beats to the classic Mexican musical styles. Spanish rock—Also known as “rock en español,” essentially modern rock music with Spanish lyrics.
While Mexican and Mexican American music and dance styles continue to evolve, the old songs are preserved in remarkable ways. The perseverance of the corrido style is one example. Several mariachi bands, including Mariachi Sol de Acapulco and Mariachi Tleyotltzín, still play at cultural events, in the schools, and even at popular concerts. And at a concert in November 2010 at La Tropicana in Caldwell—a reunion show for Grupo Karibe—a woman named Dely Delgado, dressed in modest mariachi garb, warmed up the crowd with classic Mexican ballads, even taking requests. “Everybody, most of the people there, they were singing with me,” Delgado said. She sang songs from Pedro Infante and Vicente Fernández, including “Acá Entre Nos,” and everyone, from the young kids to grandparents, sang along with her as she walked around the room with a wireless microphone, serenading groups who had packed in around the dance floor waiting for the opening act. She paid homage to Michoacán, Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango, Sinaloa ... all states of Mexico that were heavily represented in the room. The songs were well-known and the four generations of Mexican and Mexican American revelers beamed at their familiarity. Delgado moved to Idaho recently after thirty-three years in Los Angeles, where she says there is a mariachi band on every corner and lots of competition. Delgado knows many songs— she sang for nine hours straight at Garibaldi’s Mexican Restaurant in Twin Falls for Cinco de Mayo without repeating a song. But she transitions easily into the new music as well, taking the stage with a local band or singing duranguense hits, accompanied by a music track. After her performance at the 2010 concert, several young bands took the stage, playing a mix of cumbia, banda, duranguense, and pop music that brought waves of dancers to the large dance floor. “I can do any kind of music,” she said. “Mariachi music, mariachi songs never end. It will never die.”
Matt Relsta b