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Music Sin Fronteras. Carnival: food, fun and music – but where are the women?

Mexican county fairs are a music cornucopia, but my local fair seems to have forgotten that women can sing. Ignoring the next Selena

I am looking forward to Carnaval next week in Chapala. Carnaval, which in Mexico is part of a long pre-Lent celeb ration – reminds me of the county fairs I used to go to in California where there were live animals, horse demonstrations, delicious unhealthy food, and music.

Especially music. The fairs in the US have big stages for bands and playing at fairs is a great gig for mid- and even top-level bands in the USA.  So, I was looking forward to the music at the Chapala Carnival, knowing that this would be an opportunity to see good Mexican music close up, with cotton candy and tequila.

The lineup looks promising:  11 bands at the lienzo (bullring) and 8 in the park that bring dozens of people to the stage over 4 days. And these are popular, top-of-the-line bands – a music writer’s dream. But when I looked closer, something very wrong became apparent.

Out of all the people on the two stages over 4 days, there is not one woman.

Every band is pretty much like every other band – a collection of guys in cowboy hats, shiny boots, fringed shirts, and musical instruments playing banda or norteña. They will all play well – very well, but there is not one single woman on stage to break the monotony and add some high-note harmony.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like banda and norteña. I have reviewed many songs and albums by bands like Los Tigres del Norte.  And I understand that Carnaval is a party and banda and norteña is the best party music in the world.  But to book 19 bands with not a single woman seems to me myopic at best and a slight to half of the music fans.

Mexico is the home of some of the best female singers in the world, like Carla Morison, Thalia, Gloria Trevi, Vanessa Zamora, Carolina Ross, Natalia Lafourcade, Lila Downs,  Yahritza y Su Esencia, Adriana Rios, Irene Del Rosario, Angela Aguilar. the Mexican Institute of Jazz (led by 3 women and is really a Mexican rock band), Grupo Emperatriz (female norteňo from Tijuana), and many more including mariachis with or led by women. And of course there are our local bands led by women like Mary’s Island.

Some say that the custom in Mexico is all male banda and norteña bands at Carnaval, especially in the lienzo. After all, it is the bull ring. And it is certainly not my business as an Expat to try to upend Mexican musical customs. But I noticed at a recent holiday celebration in the Plaza in the next county over, Jocotepec, there were women musicians on stage rocking the crowd along with the guys. So maybe there is some flexibility.

Women make up 44% of the audience on Spotify Mexico, although only  23.1% of the music they stream is by  women. The disparity is because there are many more male artists on Spotify than female artists, a situation that tracks back to fewer opportunities for women – like playing at Carnaval – to get their songs in front of audiences.

Mexican regional music is exploding internationally-  an astounding 450% increase in streaming in the past 5 years. Mexican regional bands like Los Ángeles Azules (with two female lead singers) are now appearing at festivals like Coachella,  and there is a Grammy for Mexican Regional music (won by a woman,  Chiquis Rivera). There are new genres of Mexican regional music like corridos tumbados pushing the entire field forward.

Alejandra Olea, Managing Director of Believe Americas, the massive music agency that operates the TuneCore platform, points out that breaking into this explosion has been tough for women, because regional Mexican music is very macho. So, the women super stars and upcoming stars migrate to other genres, leaving local audiences with all-male, less interesting lineups. Essentially, ignoring the next Selena. I hope that begins to change. It will make Carnaval much more interesting.

Patrick O’Heffernan



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (428 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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