A couple of weeks ago, I was in Houston to do a book signing for my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Afterward, I went with friends and fans to enjoy some awesome Tex-Mex at El Real Tex-Mex, and among those who attended were two colleagues/pals from our sister paper, the Houston Press: John Nova Lomax (who's descended from the great Lomax family of American folk-music scholars) and badass writer-photographer Marco Torres.
Get reporters in the same room, and we'll eventually talk shop. John talked about some cover stories he was working on; Marco said he was going to do a listicle of the 10 most over-played songs at a Mexican wedding.
“Awesome!” I said. “Is 'Arriba Pichátaro' on the list?”
“Never heard of it,” Marco said.
Then I remembered–I was in Texas, and I'm from California.
See, gabachos: Mexicans in the United States come from different parts of Mexico. Don't believe me? Just turn on the radio. While Southern California is chockablock with banda sinaloense, Chalino Sanchez wannabes, rancheras, sierreño, sonidero, and conjunto norteño (and the mashing of them all), the Texas airwaves play a different style–and I'm not referring to Tex-Mex groups. There, grupero, tribal, and northern Mexico-style cumbias rule, the provenance of northern Mexico, where most of the Lone Star State's Mexis originate (and if you go to New York, it's sonidero, and pasito duranguense in Chicago–but that's another listicle). The Mexicans of Southern California, on the other hand, mostly come from central Mexico (Jalisco, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Mexico City) and the south, with very few folks from Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and the like.
As a result, weddings in the two states are going to sound different. I've never been to a Texas Mexi wedding, but having been to a lifetime of Southern California ones, I know the most overplayed ones. So I told Marco I'd do my list after his,
but because he's a lazy Mexican, I'm beating him to it. and you can read it here (and it's a goodie!) There will be some crossover between Marcos' list and mine (“Juana la Cubana,” for sure), but listen to this list, and you'll be amazed at how rote your Mexican co-worker's wedding will sound compared to yours. Now, do your list, Marco!
10. “El Rey”
Mariachi rules all Mexican weddings in the United States, because those pinche Jaliscans have successfully brainwashed the world into believe it's the most Mexican of all song forms. As if! But those of us who aren't from the Texas of Mexico relegate the mariachi to the dinner portion of a reception, the better to ignore it or request songs. By this point, of course, the cousins are already into their eighth Bud, with a couple of tequila shots thrown in, so one of them will request this Vicente Fernández lament-boast so they can all hold each other and sway and cry the memorable refrain in unison–no homo!
9. “Capullo y Sorullo“
More so than American weddings, Mexicans hire a live band to provide the main musical entertainment. But they'll also hire a DJ to spin in between tandas (sets), and a sympathetic DJ will always rely on cumbias (the shuffling genre of Colombia that has long been popular in Mexico) in order to allow those who can't dance to banda or conjunto (i.e., the token gabachos, chinitos, pochos in the crowd), and the undisputed champ of the genre is La Sonora Dinamita, the legendary Colombian group that probably has more hits per ratio than any group in history not named the Beatles and who produced the most danceable music EVER. I could've picked any Sonora song here, really, but the nod goes to “Capullo y Sorullo,” a fine overview of their trademarks: a jaunty rhythm, a coy female voice, banter between her and a sotto male singer, and playful lyrics, this time about tale of a black man wondering why one of his children is black but the eight others black. Dig the video that has nothing at all to do with the song's content!
8. “Sopa de Caracol”
Fuck Zumba: get America dancing to punta, the frenetic genre from Honduras, and our obesity problem is over. But the genre only produced two true crossover hits for Mexico: “Esa Chica Me Vacila” (“That Girl Teases Me,” a hit for Banda Vallarta Show in the quebradita days of the 1990s; it was a remake of the punta smash “Ella Me Vacila” by Grupo Kazzabe, which was a remake of a Nicaraguan song, which was a remake of whatever they play in Panama, which was a Spanish version of a 1991 Trinidadian soca smash called “She's a Teaser”–phew!), and this one (“Conch Soup,” referring to a beloved Honduran dish–and I'm not talking about sea snail soup), a huge hit for Banda Blanca. It's easy to see why it's so popular at weddings: danceable, with a break where everyone can chant together at the break and swing their hips. However, no way in hell did punta's dance style (as seen in this video, it's sex standing up) cross over: the last time a sexy dance made it into Mexican wedding halls was the Lambada, and moms still talk about how the devil infiltrated Mexican culture ever since.
7. “Víbora de la Mar“
Sometimes, a song is overplayed because it's mandatory, and this is the case with “The Sea Snake.” Originally a children's chant, it eventually became adapted to weddings as a game: Men and women take turns gathering in a line, holding hands, and racing through the reception area, picking up more people as they go along under an arch formed by the bride and groom standing on chairs holding hands (or with the groom holding the bride's train) until they “capture” someone. Think of it as “London Bridge is Falling Down” transformed into a bizarre fertility rite. Best part of this spectacle: when the drunkest in the line inevitably falls.
6. “Oye Mi Amor”
Being a wedding DJ at a Mexican wedding is unenviable, because you always have to take the tias into consideration. Play something edgy? I remember once going to a reception where the DJ played “Rock Lobster,” and you could almost see all the aunts mumble about the cochinadas taking place before their eyes. But the DJ still needs to play something modern, something “edgy,” so they'll eventually turn to this cliché by rock en español dinosaurs Maná because it's the one rockero song everyone knows. All the young people will cringe, but will gamely dance to it. Want to know how seriously uncool this song is? It's the theme song for a local public radio show, who we won't name to spare them the embarrassment of knowing that what they think is cool is cool only to Mexican tías–and God bless them, but they're about as cool as a fresh bowl of menudo.
5. “Juana la Cubana”
Far more cooler is this song (if I have to translate it for you, go back to Stormfront), which I think will also show up on Marco's list because its writer, Fito Olivares, is from Tamaulipas and makes his base in Houston with his group, La Pura Sabrosura. Even in the slow world of cumbia, “Juana la Cubana” is legendary for its slow synth-and-sax slink–hell, even Curt Pringle could shimmy to this one (he's an evil former mayor of Anaheim, non-political types, who happens to be the whitest man in human history).
4. “Camarón Pelao“
All of the previous songs, however, are mere precursors to what usually predominates at Southern California Mexican weddings: banda sinaloense, the mighty brass band sound of the state of Sinaloa that has wonderfully infiltrated all other Mexican cultures in our region, and the songs standardized by Banda El Recodo, the genre's super-group that has been at it since before Mick Jagger was born–SERIOUSLY. This song (“Peeled Shrimp”–the double entendres just write themselves in Latin music, ¿qué no?) is one of the few that can skip across genres, but it always sounds best in banda, always jumpier, always the easier excuse to let the panzas and chichis fly on the dance floor.
3. “El Sinaloense”
Every Mexican state has its boast song, the tune that proclaims the beauty of its women, the toughness of its men, the brilliance of its towns and natural features. But only this song became a standard, mostly because it's a tour de force that allows the lead singer to stretch out his vocal chords, because it engages the entirety of the banda, from the French horns to the tubas to the clarinets and especially the tambora (bass drum), and because it allows the best dancers to show off with a zapateada–a boot stomper. Besides, if people from Jalisco are the Texans of Mexico, then Sinaloans are the West Virginians–absolutely crazy, wonderful people, with better-looking women. A cliché, sí, but a necessary one.
2. “Arriba Pichátaro”
Yet “El Sinaloense” is not the ultimate song for a banda–that would be this one, which all bandas play, but is a standard of tamborazo (banda's country cousin, originating from Zacatecas) and is a shout-out to a town in Michoacán. Also a zapateada, it's more important as an opportunity for the drummer to strut his stuff ala guitarists with “Freebird” or whatever onanistic solo the kids play nowadays.
[1. “Payaso de Rodeo”
I hope to hell Marco joins me in denouncing this song (“Rodeo Clown”) and placing it at the top of our mutual lists, as the group, Caballo Dorado is from Monterrey (which rules Houston society) and the song is TERRIBLE–hokey nonsense that ditches Mexican traditions in favor of mimicking the Charlie Daniels Band. Nevertheless, the song has become a phenomenon of Mexican weddings in the past decade, even though it dates back to 1997. And if it sounds like a loose ripoff of “Achy Breaky Heart,” you're mistaken: the group that wrote “Payaso de Rodeo” did their own version (“No Rompas Mi Corazón,” “Don't Break My Heart”) in 2000. See, America? You have nothing to worry about regarding the Reconquista: we'll be as pendejo as y'all very soon.