We’re all familiar with the characteristic thumping tubas, wheezy accordions, rambunctious horns and dolorous vocals of Spanish-language radio. Whether it’s emanating from the car next to us at a traffic light or wafting through the air from the nearest jobsite, the music demands that we throw back our heads and let out a traditional grito norteño!
The uninitiated, on the other hand, just roll up their car windows or walk briskly in the other direction.
These listeners are generally unfamiliar with the complexity of this musical tradition, so they often leverage the same criticism against it as that targeted at genres like reggae and smooth jazz: It all sounds the same. But as any reggae fan will be quick to point out (though the smooth jazz enthusiast might be harder pressed), this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The most popular Spanish-language radio music in the United States and Mexico is known as Regional Mexican.
Under this category fall many subgenres, such as Norteño (rural Mexican folk, with accordion, strings and drums); Tejano (Norteño-style infused with American rock and blues); Ranchera (originally one singer with a guitar, often ballad-centric or political); Banda (a polka derivative, heavy on the brass); Grupera (Norteño-influenced, with electric instruments like guitar and keyboard, popular in the 1980s); Duranguense (a recent, very popular movement, like Norteño but faster, featuring synthesizers and strong percussive parts); and many, many more.
Intrigued? You can find all of these genres on the three very different (well, somewhat different) FM stations that broadcast in the Santa Fe area. Here’s a breakdown:
Name: Radio Oso
Format: Regional Mexican
Owner: Richard L Garcia Broadcasting
Despite their bold name (Bear Radio), these are the little guys. They’re owned not by a huge media conglomerate, but rather a small local broadcaster. Their Regional Mexican format incorporates mainly Norteñas, with contemporary hits in the Grupero and Duranguense categories, and the occasional foray into Mexican rap. Listen to Radio Oso if you want to know what’s popular on the charts (Espinoza Paz, Calibre 50), but also like hearing selections made by a living DJ instead of a machine.
Format: adult hits
Entravision, owned by Univision, supports at least four or five other sibling Radio José stations across the country. One might expect a lack of character in their programming, but, surprisingly, José avoids playing the same top hits on rotation over and over. This might be due to their Adult Hits format, which emphasizes classics from the days of yore (primarily the 1960s-1990s). Listen to José if you like nostalgic Mexican music that features heavily reverbed organs, electric guitars and synths. In my opinion, this is some of the most musical and interesting stuff that can be found on the radio. If you’re a fan of Grupera, or legendary bands like Los Tigres Del Norte (the Norteño equivalent of the Beatles), this is the station for you.
Name: La Jefa
Format: Regional Mexican
In terms of listeners, La Jefa (the Chief) is the top-rated Spanish-language station in New Mexico, and they know it. Their motto is “¡Aquiiiiii Manda!” (The Chief rules here). La Jefa’s top-10 format caters to a younger demographic. This is what the kids like. The bombastic and modern programming is offset by the occasional love ballad. Expect to hear groups like Intocable (Tejano) and El Trono de México (Duranguense). Over and over again.
So, next time you hear a few lines of Ranchera or Grupera, actually take a minute to listen. Even if you’re not convinced by its musical merits, there are several other reasons this music is significant.
Like American country, much of it is narrative in form, spinning cultural tales of heartache and lost love. Other songs are socially conscious, bringing attention to the plight of the immigrant and documenting the ravages of the drug war (and, yes, sometimes aggrandizing the cartel lifestyle).
Finally, the form as a whole is diffusing at an increasing rate into the cultural fabric of the US by crossing language and societal borders and interacting with local musical traditions.
If you can’t find at least one song on these stations that makes you want to howl out a sustained grito, don’t worry, there’s always the AM dial…but that’s another story.
Enjoy a playlist of aforementioned artists here. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org