There exists a world where a sousaphone player stands on a beach, where he is such a rock star that people throw money into the bell of his instrument. A world where that sousaphone player is free to twirl around in his cowboy outfit and ornament his bass lines until they glitter with more complexity than the beautiful engraving decorating his horn.
Elizabeth, are you dreaming?
No. I’ve discovered banda.
Defining banda with words is an exercise in understanding why there is often a rift between musicologists and performers. On the one hand, I can tell you that banda is a style of music from northern Mexico that exploded in popularity in L.A. from the 1990s on, and which uses three clarinets, two trumpets, two valve trombones, two saxophones, one tuba, snare drum, and tambora (big bass drum with a cymbal on top). On the other hand, you can watch this.
Banda comes from the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa and has its roots in the local military bands and brass bands of the nineteenth century, although the style didn’t really coalesce until sometime after 1910. By the 1950s, Banda El Recodo, one of the premier bandas still today, was making recordings; the 1960s saw the addition of vocals to the previously instrumental banda music; and today, bandas like Banda El Recodo and Banda El Limón represent big money with an international touring schedule and music videos you can watch to your heart’s content on YouTube.
But what’s really cool about this music is that, despite a craze for technobanda, which is banda played on synthesizers, and despite the commercialization of some of the bands, the heart of banda is still about a full band with real musicians playing real instruments without any of the feeling of a stuffy, codified recital. In fact, it’s party music. Many Mexican immigrants to the United States consider it a status symbol to be able to hire a live banda to play their private party, and especially to be able to hire a banda equipped with—a live sousaphone player!
(Sidenote: the sousaphone is the same instrument as the tuba, only shaped differently. Worn on the shoulder, the sousaphone is used in marching band. And banda.)
I know, it’s such a bizarre reversal of everything you’ve ever thought about the tuba, you probably think I’m making this up. But one listen to a banda song will make you hear that this is not your average oompah bass line. It’s more like an insane-o bass line, cool enough to make composer Trevor Björklund’s observation believable: “The sousaphone is to many Latino youths what the electric guitar was to me as a teenager: undeniably cool and perhaps somewhat unobtainable. Even a beat-up old Holton is still full of magic.” Indeed, sousaphones are so full of magic thanks to banda they became the target of a spate of thefts from Southern California high schools in 2011 and again in 2012. Valuable equipment like computers and projectors were left entirely untouched, leading to the conclusion that the thieves wanted the instruments for the instruments’ value on the banda scene.
I thought those thefts would be my story here, but when I looked into banda music, I was so swept off my feet by the rich history, the virtuosic playing, and the outright fun of banda music I instantly knew the real meat of the story is with people like these guys.
Los Pikadientes. (The Toothpicks.) Now, if you’re my tuba-professor brother, you’ll immediately say, “Virtuosic playing? Their intonation is terrible!” True. But of all the polished and impressive bands I’ve listened to in my weeks as a banda fan, I have to say Los Pikadientes find their way into my play list more often than any other for the simple reason that it is impossible to be in a sour mood when you listen to them. This is the kind of stuff that makes you want to be in band, that makes you wonder why you spend your life at a writing desk instead of on the beach with a sousaphone and alcohol.
Strictly speaking, Los Pikadientes are not banda music. You might have noticed, for one, that they’re a much smaller group than the typical banda, and they use guitar, an element from sierreña music, or music from the mountains in Sonora, Mexico. They got their start as a radio and YouTube craze, with less than a year of group history before they went viral. Compare that to Banda El Recodo, a true banda, which started in 1938 and continues today under the direction of the sons of the founder, Cruz Lizárraga. Not only is Banda El Recodo a family affair, but the history is quite interesting. At age 20, Cruz Lizárraga used the money he got from selling a sow to buy his first clarinet, with a little monetary help from his aunt to close the gap between pig and purchase. He taught himself to play the instrument by ear, and after only fifteen days of practice, he played his first gig with the local band. From there, he became a driving force behind banda music, shaping everything from the sound to the appearance—it was at his insistence that Banda El Recodo began wearing matching outfits, and hardly a banda today is seen without such accoutrement.
The outfits are part of what gave me a little flash of déjà vu to American big bands the first time I watched a video of a live banda performance (this one, Banda El Limón). Banda music videos, on the other hand, don’t have quite the same throwback feeling. Most of them follow a pattern like this: Mexican guy daydreams after sultry under-clad Mexican girl who turns out, after a mini drama, to prove unattainable to the Mexican guy. The music videos are pretty addicting; I watched so many of them in gearing up for writing this that YouTube started giving me Spanish ads. But really, where else are you going to see a sousaphone twirl next to a peck horn? (Hint: this occurs about 50 seconds into the first video I linked you to.)
Never heard of a peck horn? That’s a colloquial term for an alto horn (in banda they’re called “harmonia”), which looks like a tiny euphonium. Many bandas include alto horns, which is another reason to love this music: because the groups descended from brass bands and military bands, some great brass instruments have stuck around in their ranks and see real use. Banda musicians are often good enough that they can switch from one brass instrument to another as needed—perhaps why bandas use valve trombones instead of the standard slide trombone. With this exciting variety of instruments and adept players, you can imagine why subgenres of banda, such as technobanda and Duranguense, a style popular in Chicago, are a little disappointing to listeners like me in their substitution of synthesizers for instruments. Duranguense specifically replaces the tuba with a synthesized bassline. So if, after reading this, you’re inspired to run out and buy some banda music, a handy way to tell whether you’re getting real instruments or not is to look at the album cover. If it shows a band of only a handful of musicians, there’s an increased chance they use synthesizer. But if it’s a full rank of closer to seventeen musicians, you’re likely purchasing the real deal.
Though banda and its subgenres differ in instrumentation and approach, they frequently share songs. There is a set of “standards,” almost like in jazz, and although new songs constantly come into being, it’s fun to hear songs like “Me Gusto Es” recorded by different bands in different decades. Styles of banda songs include cumbias, rancheras, and corridos (ballads). I confess I wasn’t familiar with the differences until I watched a demo video of the new “Mexican Banda Voice and Style” expansion pack for keyboard that Yamaha put out in 2013. Yamaha knows music, so they knew no banda pack would be complete without a setting for gritos, or the yells which crop up in banda music anytime a singer sees fit to sound his barbaric yawp. In any case, the songs tend to be overwhelmingly about love, though some of the ballads tell elaborate stories about things like horse races. Drinking is also a very popular topic in banda music, as is Mexican pride or pride in the band. There is also an entire category of song called narcocorridos, or drug ballads, songs that either speak through the voice of a drug lord or that recount real life occurrences in drug cartels. Infamous cartels have been known to love particular bandas, and some cartels have even commissioned narcocorridos to immortalize their doings.
For as much as I’ve come to admire banda music, I admit that the world of drug cartels and even the more legal world of private parties in L.A. where people hire bandas for quinceanera parties seems rather distant from my WASPish perch here in Columbus, Ohio. I’m not alone; Jacob Garchik, a freelance trombonist and banda super-fan in New York City whom I spoke with recently, cited a similar feeling of geographical distance from the bands and cultural distance imposed by a language barrier. Still, a jukebox full of banda music at a taco joint had him hooked, and he eventually co-founded a banda in New York, Banda de los Muertos. They may be one of the least Mexican bandas ethnically (only one member has Mexican heritage), and they play in some atypical venues for banda (including the Bronx Museum and the Queens Museum in addition to their more frequent gig at the bar Barbès), but Mexicans still come to hear their music and appreciate the band’s renditions of standard instrumental pieces. Of course, Mexicans and Mexican Americans aren’t the only ones enjoying the music, and Jacob finds the fusion of peoples and places around this animating music rewarding.
With groups as diverse as polished acts down to friends hanging out with some beat-up brass, with popularity from Sinaloa to L.A. to Chicago and even New York, with songs celebrating everything from innocent love to gunned-down drug dealers, banda is, as Jacob puts it, “a whole universe of music.” But let’s not forget who’s at the center. Even Jacob sets aside his trombone for the banda in order to take up the sousaphone part.