Ramon Ayala
Ramon Ayala
Elena de la Cruz

Ramón Ayala - House of Blues - Feb. 15, 2013

It came as no surprise that on Friday night, a plebeian crowd congregated at the House of Blues in Anaheim to unwind, get inebriated, and sing along to the tunes of Ramón Ayala, the King of the Accordion. Historically, musica norteña/conjunto norteño--combining strings, percussion and the accordion--has been the sound of Mexico's working class, the common folk, especially men. In generations past, it was played exclusively at bars in the motherland, as men drowned their sorrows of love lost, or from juke boxes in SanTana cantinas, as immigrants reflected on their mortality. And although the venues and generations have changed, it is evident the timeless themes of Ayala's songs resonate for his fans just the same.

Ayala burst onto the scene in the '60s, playing the Mexican cantina circuit as part of numerous musical groups, most memorably Los Relampagos de Norte (the Lightning Bolts of the North) alongside Cornelio Reyna. A few years later, the group broke up for reasons never fully understood, and from the '70s onward, Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte set the bar for norteño music. His is a norteño of love and despair, and drinking (the first two often the catalyst for the latter). This three-night gig at the HOB was heralded as Una Noche Romántica con Ramón Ayala (A Romantic Night With Ramón Ayala) to tie into Valentine's Day . . . because there's no better way to say ,"I love you" than to serenade your lady in the presence of a music king while enjoying a couple of Coronas. Ayala's music was initially near-exclusive to the cantina venue, a place a man would never, ever, ever take his respectable girlfriend or wife; these places were reserved for mistresses and waitresses--often one and the same--so respectable ladies were limited to listening to the flutter of Ayala's accordion on vinyl tracks as their husbands cured hangovers.

But last Friday 's crowd cemented the social changes that time has gifted Mexicans and their offspring. Not only were most people speaking English as they waited for Ayala to taken the stage, but the crowd reflected a real diversity in age and in composition: elderly men with their wives, near-40-year-old couples desperately holding onto their youth, twentysomething women dancing on their own without the need of a man to show them a good time, and openly gay pairs embracing each other without fear of harassment. All differences were transcended by Ayala's mastery in uniting all through the human experience he chronicles in his music. 

Ramón was greeted by an adoring crowd as he took stage in his Midas-gold coat, black tejana (Stetson) and a huge Virgen de Guadalupe padlock pendant hanging from his neck by a massive gold chain. He and his musicians quickly jumped into the first song, "Tristes Recuerdos" ("Sad Memories"), a tune about an unforgettable love, followed by "Tragos de Amargo Licor"  (Bitter  Drinks of Liquor), as women and men alike gulped down whatever beer they had left as they clumsily sang along, reminiscing about lost love.

Quite frankly, the entire night was a karaoke session, and by the look in Ayala's eyes, he treasured every minute of it. Midway through the show, he dedicated "Me Caiste del Cielo" ("You're Heaven-sent")--one of Reyna's best-known hits--to his now-deceased compa, followed up by the immortal and tear-jerking "Un Puño de Tierra" ("A Fistful of Dirt"), a manifesto about human mortality. Interestingly enough, before the song began, it was announced this was a very special dedication from Juan Rivera, who was backstage, to his sister Jenni (R.I.P.), who was a huge Ramón Ayala fan. Of course, this made the crowd go crazy, and they sang along with even more bravado and gulped their refilled cups of cerveza with unparalleled sentiment. And this exactly is King Ayala's Midas touch: the invaluable craft of taking his fans from the heights of heaven in one song and 6 feet under in the next, all at the touch of his accordion.

Critical Bias: God, a man playing an accordion is sexy.

Crowd: Diverse. Re-read the third paragraph.

Overheard: A lot of English being spoken. Take that, Pete Wilson!

Random Notebook Dump:

Chick fight! Toward the end of the concert, one of the HOB security guards I had befriended said to me, "Dude, you just missed a girl fight outside!" and so I curiously stepped outside. When Downtown Disney security staff saw me with pen and paper, one of them stepped in front of me and firmly said, "What are you doing?" When they saw I had a camera, they gathered around me. Umm, okay, I was just being nosy and was going to laugh at the drunken, Lycra-dressed fembot being spoken to by police, but now I'll write about your Gestapo-ish behavior at the order of the Mouse. P.S. Come on, Latina ladies! We're better than that! No fighting one another. Now, slapping your man because he was flirting with another woman? Acceptable.

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