The Shaman of Happiness

When gabachos start railing about the evils of Mexicans, the man they have in mind is Ramón Ayala. I mean, look at him! Fat. Mustachioed. Sideburns. A magnificent Mexi-mullet. Wearing a Stetson. Smiling. Ayala plays the circus music otherwise known as conjunto norteño, the Mexican version of polka that sounds much cheesier. Constantly happy. Mex to the max, ¿qué no?

What's worse for these racist gabachos, however, is that Ayala is wealthy—fabulously wealthy—and one of the most important North American musicians of the past 50 years. Imagine starting a genre and being able to stay relevant nearly 40 years later without missing a beat. Mix Jelly Roll Morton with Johnny Cash, and you have Ayala. He's El Rey del Acordeón—The King of the Accordion—a man renowned worldwide for his mastery of the buttoned instrument; a shaman of happiness, a tubby Mexican who stirs up millions with a simple three-chord progression and an infectious smile; a superstar equally adept at playing massive venues or small clubs like JC Fandango, where he performs this Friday.

Ayala first achieved fame as half of the duo Los Relámpagos del Norte (the Lighting Bolts of the North). It was the simplest of bands: Ayala on the accordion and backup vocals, and Cornelio Reyna on lead and the bajo sexto (a deep-toned, 12-stringed guitar used as rhythm in conjunto norteño). Sometimes they used a drum or bass; most of the time, Reyna and Ayala played as a twosome. This setup would spawn modern-day conjunto norteño, bumping the genre from the cantinas and family gatherings where it originated and into the stadiums and arenas where mega-groups such as Los Tigres del Norte and Los Rieleros del Norte now perform.

But when the 18-year-old Ayala first paired up with Reyna, all he cared about was doing something more interesting and fun than shining shoes for a living. Los Relámpagos' hits came fast: “Ya No Llores” (“Don't Cry Anymore”), “Por El Amor de Mi Madre” (“For the Love of My Mother”) and “Te Vas Angel Mío” (“You Leave, Angel of Mine”) are just the most famous. No matter the tempo, each carried a distinctive beat—reedy, nasal lyrics; a metronomic bass and rhythm guitar; and Ayala's accordion, seemingly animated by Disney. Ayala made his squeeze box sigh, scream, smile or gallop; these early tracks evoke the rough, arid terrain of northern Mexico with every 10-second trill.

But their success waned, and Los Relámpagos broke up in 1971 after an eight-year career. Reyna tried and failed to make it as a ranchera singer, but Ayala simply continued the Relámpagos format, quickly regrouping as Los Bravos del Norte (The Brave Men of the North). Again, Ayala was content to pass off the lead vocals to others—first to Antonio Sauceda, then to Eliseo Robles and a succession of others. It didn't matter: Ayala's songs quickly became a soundtrack for the borderlands, where norteño music reigns (other Mexican regions, while appreciative of Ayala, still prefer their own native styles). He tackled all topics, from pastorals (“Bonita Finca de Adobe,” “Pretty Adobe Home”) to love (“Vestida de Color de Rosa,” “Dressed in Pink”—and no, this isn't a rip-off of Pretty in Pink). Ayala also helped popularize the narcocorrido, the violent subgenre of Mexico's centuries-old folk music that deals with drugs and guns. “El Federal de Caminos” dealt with the real-life murder of a Mexican federal agent in the state of Zacatecas.

Ayala records at a furious pace: He released his 100th album a couple of years ago and continues to record about three albums per year, all studded with musical golden nuggets. What distinguishes Ayala from his contemporaries is an easygoing, rollicking style—never too aggressive, always focused on the positive. This ethos even extends to Ayala's English-language remakes of dour classics—his version of Leadbelly's “Cotton Fields” (renamed “Cuando Yo Era un Jovencito,” “When I was a Little Bitty Boy”) and Bobby Darin's “Things” are almost antithetical to each tune's lyrics. And this is why Mexicans in the States adore the man—happiness must trump everything else. Indeed, go to any Mexican party, and one of his classics will invariably come into rotation; the youngsters and old folks will pair up, and the night becomes pregnant with the simple beauty of life.


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