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By Alex Distefano
Manic Hispanic Covers
Americans recording Mexican songs: The bueno, the bad and the muy ugly
Mexican artists have recorded English-language songs for decades, but the opposite is rare. American musicians have historically treated Mexican music like Mexicans, and when they do bother to cover a classic, they tend to butcher the songs worse than Antonio Villaraigosa's Spanish. In honor of Manic Hispanic's annual Chicano-fied punk show on Cinco de Mayo, we present our favorite American covers of Mexican songs, plus a couple of efforts that deserve deportation. And for the purposes of continuity, wabs such as Linda Ronstadt and El Chicano don't count, nor do semi-Spanish tracks such as "Que Sera, Sera" and "Spanish Bombs."
•Anything by Nat King Cole: The man was class personified, even when he recorded three albums in Spanish during the 1950s and 1960s. Although he wasn't fluent in español and had to pronounce every line phonetically, Cole still earned the love of Latin America, not just because of his earnest effort tackling Mexican and Latin American standards, but because his backing bands always rocked—witness the rollicking rumba on "Ay Cosita Linda."
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•Carl Stallings: The legendary Warner Bros. cartoon composer was more responsible than anyone for popularizing Juventino Rosas' "Sobre las Olas" ("Over the Waves"), a slow waltz that Stallings sped up whenever a cartoon needed to show people getting seasick—think any adventures with Bugs Bunny on a ship and turning green. Trust us, you've heard this song—and if you haven't, you probably eat puppies for dinner.
•The Breeders: How this alt-rock supergroup came across "Regálame Esta Noche" ("Give Me This Night") is a testament to their genius—and perhaps to their hispanic rhythm section of Jose Medeles and Mando Lopez. This wistful bolero—made famous by Mexican ranchera icon Javier Solis—is treated nicely by Kim Deal, even though her Spanish is a bit too gabacha. And since we're tangentially discussing the Pixies, special mention goes to their "Vamos," which starts with Dominican-tinged Spanish and launches into some pro-immigrant moshing afterward.
•The Simpsons: You only catch a snippet of them singing "La Bamba" in full mariachi outfits (to pay off a dinner) in the episode when Homer becomes Mr. Burns' prank monkey, but it's a hoot. Even better, though, is this exchange:
Marge: "When did this happen? When did we become the bottom rung of society?"
Homer: "I think it was when that cold snap killed off all the hobos."
•Neil Diamond: Speaking of "La Bamba," he recorded a horrid version for his 1966 debut album, The Feel of Neil Diamond. It's not his butchered pronunciation that offends—most Mexicans can't even properly speak the language of Cervantes. No, the problem is in the music—out-of-place handclaps, wimpy backing vocals and a piano riff stolen from Ray Barretto's "El Watusi." Hey, Neil: that intoxicating beat is Cuban, not Mexican—learn to differentiate your spics!
•The Ventures: Besides "La Bamba," "Perfidia" is probably the most-covered Mexican song by Americans, a melancholy remembrance written by Alberto Dominguez in 1939, sung by any major Latin American artist since, and attempted stateside by everyone from Glenn Miller to Jimmy Dorsey and ska gal Phyllis Dillon's rocksteady English take. The best version, however, is by surf-rock gods the Ventures, whose twangy reverbs add melancholy to the group's trademark relentless chug.
•Ted Kennedy: The Know Nothing nation nearly exploded when clips of the Massachusetts senator singing in Spanish on El Piolín's show hit the Internet and when he sang again at various campaign stops for Barack Obama. They theorized Ted was drunk, that he was butchering some romantic serenade, but the lovable liberal lush actually did a pretty good job with "¡Ay Jalisco, No Te Rajes!" ("Jalisco, Don't Chicken Out!"), a mariachi song immortalized by Javier Solis and made popular in los Estados Unidos when it appeared in Disney's 1944 propaganda effort, The Three Caballeros.
•Big Walter Horton and Ronnie Earl: All you hear about nowadays is that Mexicans and blacks hate each other. Both sides should shut up and listen to the cross-cultural love that surfaces when these two blues legends do an awesome version of "La Cucaracha," a rendition so great I dare say it's the greatest "La Cucaracha" not played out of a car horn.