Yesterday, conjunto norteño legend Ramón Ayala began a three-day gig at the House of Blues in Anaheim, and if he didn't repeat a single song during his stay, Ayala would've probably only gone through 1/10 of his songbook. It's his 50th anniversary performing, but he's not some moldy oldies act wheezing through tours for some godforsaken reason–Ayala is probably more vital now than ever, especially given his music will have the Casa de Blues swaying like no other act in its history. At the very least, Ayala is more beloved than any of his regional Mexican peers, as he's the one most like our dads: not cartoonishly macho like Vicente Fernández, but proud of who he is: eternally wearing a mustache, tejana, and the most fabulous Mexi-mullet of all time.
"Imagine starting a genre and being able to stay relevant nearly 40 years later without missing a beat," as I put it back in 2007. "Mix Jelly Roll Morton with Johnny Cash, and you have Ayala." The genre, of course, is conjunto norteño (the one with the accordion, for clueless gabachos), and almost all of his songs (whether in his solo act backed by Los Bravos del Norte or alongside Cornelio Reyna in their pioneering group Los Relámpagos del Norte–the Lightning Bolts of the North, the greatest group name EVER) are standards, played incessantly by Mexicans and covered by contemporaries like a previous generation did to the songs of Irving Berlin.
I could've easily done the 20 best songs, but top 10 lists are more fun! Behold, then, my choices…
10. "Cuando Yo Era Un Jovencito"
Most of Ayala's fans might scratch their heads at this choice, but this remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Cotton Fields" (itself, a remake of Leadbelly's original) shows Ayala's genius and ties him directly to the borderlands of Texas where he grew up and originally became famous. Out there, exchanges of ideas across culture don't have the same xenophobic nastiness it does here in California, which is the reason why Polish and Czech immigrants could transmit their polkas to the Mexis up there, and the Mexis assimilated it easily. Treat this song, then, as a testament to Ayala's ease jumping across borders (whether physical, musical, or cultural), and a great rollick of a smile. And if you think this is a bizarre song for a Mexican to cover, don't forget Ayala also covered "Things" by Bobby Darin.
9. "El Federal de Caminos"
So you know how people are starting to compose corridos in honor of Christopher Dorner? That's what Mexicans do: write songs that chronicle the tales of bad men, and Ayala performed one of the most famous examples with "The Highway Patrolman," the true tale of a federal gunned down by bad men in Zacatecas. This is one of the hardest-charging songs in Ayala's canon, and it's so badass you still hear men blast it while driving down Bristol.
8. "La Casa de Madera"
If conjunto norteño singers aren't praising men, whether good or bad, or singing of love (wait for it…), then they're praising the pastoral life (just check out the picture above that goes with "Federal de Caminos," where Los Bravos del Norte are leaning on the branch of a tree). This is Ayala's second-most famous paean to the rancho life, singing about the simple "House of Wood" that stands as a metaphor for love. Quick ¡Ask a Mexican!: why do all Mexican music videos have to have a blonde in them?
7. "Chaparra de Mi Amor"
But Ayala is most famous for his perpetual happiness and his sweet love songs that generations of Mexicans can hum. Take this example, "Short Gal of My Love." "I love you, I love you/I adore you, I miss you," Ayala's group sings (he never sang lead, always was backup). Simple enough, no? But to dismiss Ayala's themes as Carpenters nonsense misses the point. Pay attention to that accordion, its complex scales and lightning-quick reflexes. There's a reason why one of the most popular Mexican memes around is Ayala mocked up as an "Accordion Hero," and it's not because every Mexican household owned a copy of Guitar Hero at one point in the past decade.
6. "Vestida de Color de Rosa"
But Ayala's sweetest love song is this one: "Dressed in Pink." No explanation needed.
5. "Un Rinconcito En El Cielo"
"A Little Corner in Heaven" has been getting increasing traction over the years, and it's no real mystery. Its long accordion trills, subject matters, and the eternal longing for the pie in the sky makes it a song perfect for weddings, quinceañeras, or just your regular ol' carne asada Sundays.
4. "Bonita Finca de Adobe"
Ayala's most famous pastoral and opening accordion riff, "Pretty Adobe Home" is an ode to–yes–his pretty adobe home, more specifically a man talking to his home about taking care of his wife and the loves within. And if it doesn't? "You, her, and the cheating man/I'll burn down with fresh wood." Yes, us Mexicans are weird like that.
3. "Ya No Llores"
50 years ago, "Don't Cry Anymore" was the song that made Ayala and Reyna famous, that thundered out of radios like their name and that initial breathless rush of the duo in the song, then still teenagers revolutionizing Mexican music. Back then, norteño was the domain of cantinas and households; afterwards, it would become part of the great Mexican songbook. Even early on, Ayala's mastery of the accordion just wowed, and the template for all future Ayala songs was set: just an accordion, a bajo sexto, lurking drums, and the metronomic bass. This is one of the few Relámpagos songs that Ayala continues to trot out to this day–hey, maybe I should do a list of just Relámpagos songs…
2. "Tragos Amargos"
My Tex-Mex friends say this is the song that ends all of their parties, and it's a great concluding dirge: a bitter, painfully slow waltz announcing to the world a man's sadness because of a woman, and his immediate rectification of said situation by "Bitter Gulps" of booze.
1. "Un Puño de Tierra"
Okay, everyone else in the world will say "Tragos Amargos" is Ayala's best song, and I don't necessarily disagree–but this is my list, damnit, and this is my favorite Ayala song because it's one of my favorite songs, period. First made famous by Antonio Aguilar, this is a Sartrean examination of life, with the beautifully existential chorus–and I'm not even going to print the Spanish original, since all Mexis know it by heart–"The day that I die/I'm not going to take anything/Let's give joy to joy/Life ends quickly/What happened in this world/Only the memories remain/Once dead, I'm going to take/Only a fistful of dirt." GANGSTA!!! And yet it's wholly an Ayala take–more a humble acceptance of life than Aguilar's defiant tone. This one will be played for sure, so buy your tickets now and check out the legend this weekend. And expect a review on Monday…