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Chasing the wild Mexican song and not keeping up.

My fast education in Mexican regional music and where it is going in the USA

When I moved to Mexico almost two years ago I did not expect my  musical education to be as demanding  as it has been.  After all, I came from Los Angeles, which was Mexico until 1848 and its population is 50% Latino  and 35% Mexican.  East Los Angeles is crammed with Mexican  and fusion bands,  so I already had a good education in sub and sub-sub- genres

What I wasn’t prepared for was the huge number of Mexican regional music forms, and the complex evolution going on with these forms. From the outside, genres like mariachi, Banda, Norteño etc. look to be timeless classics, changing very little.  Not so!  Mexican music is expanding like wildfire around the world and Mexican regional music is changing daily.

There ae many, many regional Mexican music genres,  but I focused on five just to stay sane:  Mariachi, Banda, Norteño , Corridos, and Groupero.

 Everyone knows Mariachi – it is the global symbol of Mexico, along with the traje de charro – the sombrero-toped uniform worn by Mariachis.  Classical Mariachi is alive and well – the best known classical Mariachi singer, Vincent Fernandez,  has 1.9 million Pandora followers, 3.6 billion YouTube views, and 4 million Spotify followers, despite  his 80 years

But it is evolving rapidly.  Young  Mariachi superstar Christian Nodal, who combines Mariachi, Norteño, Latin pop and ballads into the new Mariacheno sound, has garnered gold and platinum records and 5.3 followers on Spotify.  Mexican-American bands like Mariachi Morrissey and the Brooklyn-based Flor de Toloache, blend Mariachi with  rock, rap, hip hop, ballads and other music forms for a winning sound – in the Case of Flo de Toloache, a Latin Grammy  statue and a Grammy nomination.

Banda – a genre from Sinaloa state and sometimes looked down on by Latin music fans – emerged in the 19th century with a lot of Eastern European instruments and sound with brass instrument including tubas.  Originally instrumental, banda bands feature male and now some female singers. Banda is evolving rapidly and spreading internationally with its  leading band, BandaMS,  pushing the genre through collaborations with folks like Snoop Dog and Becky G and racking up 177 million views a month on YouTube and 8 million followers on Spotify.

Norteño is a  regional Mexican  genre that actually includes many  subgenres, but  usually features an accordion and the bajo sexto  – Mexican 12-string guitar.  What most people say about Norteño is that it sounds like a polka, which is true since it derived from polkas and waltzes and uses polka brass. A hot Norteño band is Los Tucanes, which passed a  million views on YouTube this year and a million followers on Spotify.

Corridosare often thought of as a subgenre of Norteño but they are so popular they deserve their own genre.  They date back to the early 1800s, and they are used to describe social topics – war, revolution, stories of artists and local people, and sometimes narcos. The iconic corrido band, which even many Americans have heard of, is Los Tigres del Norte from San Jose, California (originally from Mexico).  The Tigers have been playing for 52 years, won five  Grammys and have amassed 2 billion YT views  – over 600 million last year alone, 4.9 million Spotify followers and 1.9 billion Pandora streams.  And coming up behind them are a posse of Corrido stars, including MarcaMP who is bringing pop and Trap Corrido to the fore with 3.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify with similar numbers on Pandora and deezer.

Finally, I am learning about Grupero, a 70’s era electronic mashup of rock, Latin Pop, Cumbia and Mariachi.  I wouldn’t call it a genre because it is such a blend, but there are so many bands with electric guitars, electronic percussion, electric basses, and multiple synthesizers doing it, that it is its own thing.  Grupero reached its peak in the 90’s with bands like Los Baby’s,  Los Pastereles Verdes, Los Temerarios, and  Bukis, which disbanded in 1995 and  still streams to 1.6 million listeners  a month on Pandora  and receives 55 million monthly  YT views.  Not bad for a gone band playing a 90’s genre.

So what does this all mean?  Where is Mexican music going besides increasingly on the charts in the US? 

The Grammy’s Jennifer Velez put that question to the Mexican Institute of Sound, aka Camilo Laura, and  he said that the perception that Mariachi and Mexican regional music is for old people is wrong.  He said that in its way  the original Mariachi was very punk rock and rebellious  and he has put that spirit of rebellion in his music, especially is new album Distrito Federal.

He also said that when he thinks of the future of Mexican music he thinks of Banda and Corridos.  He pointed out that there are corridos turnbados – street and party DJ’s – and people like the popular Natanael Cano creating new approaches to it.  He feels that it would be a shame if Banda and Corridos were thought of as for old people when they are  alive and changing.  He sees Banda especially as the future.

 The numbers seem to bear him out, but my experience in clubs in Guadalajara – admittedly not a scientific  sample by any means and may be far different from his Mexico City music – is that Mexican bands are  playing with post-rock – a music with new instrument combinations like the band Melti leading with an electric violin pairing off with a synth, or the driving dream rock of a band like Wohl, or Yanin’s hot Corridos with an accordion and standup bass backed by  Spanish guitar and drums, or the bilingual Mexican country rock of Mexico City’s  Mexican-American band The Mexican Standoff, or Nancy Sanchez’s revolutionary combo with the rapper Olmeca in La Gran Civilizacion not to mention the hard to define but easy to love  Mexrrissey.

Wherever Mexican music goes and how it invades American music like cumbia did, I will scramble to follow it, write about it, and play it on my radio show. But no matter how fast I run, I suspect that I  will never really catch up.

Patrick O’Heffernan, host, Music Sin Fronteras



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (414 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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