Mazatlan Stories and Tips

MAZATALAN MUSICPart I: Country/Northern

Musically, Mazatlan is a major spot on Mexico's musical map. Not as much so as Mexico City or Guadalajara, perhaps, but for a city of our modest size (currently about a quarter of a million souls, another few thousand of the soul-less), and isolation in the wild Northwest, we have produced some major impacts on the national musical character. Not necessarily for the better, as you will see. And perhaps not even agree. But one thing is obvious from the start: Mazatlan throbs with music.

Out in the "Golden Zone" of high-rise beach hotels, there is so much music you get confused. When good bands play at Tony's, people stand outside to listen and waiters circulate, selling drinks to people on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of pulmonías passing: open Volkswagen buggies with huge stereos that turn them into mobile juke boxes, generally blasting the hot song of the moment, "Toda La Vida", replaced by "La Macarena", then "Mambo #5", and on to the next foolishness. The hotel bars, the discos, the bordellos in the Zone and along the miles of Malecón can keep you walking in rhythm from one end to the other. Down in the Old Quarter there are jazz cafes, art music bars, and several conservatories where young people play classical music. It seems as though every block has a record store, you squeeze by little stalls on the sidewalks selling pirated cassettes and CD's with photocopied jackets. The main reason that Mazatlan doesn't have an international reputation as a music Mecca, like Havana, is that the regional music is too crazy and cowboy to suit international tastes.

In a way, Mazatlan's location is ideal to create a vivid palette of Mexican musical styles. It is located in the Northwest, in cow country, gateway to the wild Sierra where the bandits and drug growers play, where a man would feet naked with out his cowboy hat, fancy boots, mustache, pickup truck and sheath knife. This is Norteño country, the home of Banda. We would be as ranchero as Monterey or Ciudad Juarez except that we are also located on the sea, which has always been as big an influence on this city as the countryside around us. Those cowboys sit in their bars drinking Pacífico beer, with the big whale on the quart bottle. So there is also a great deal of port music here, beach music. Which in Mexico means Cúmbia, the lilting Caribbean beats also known as Tropicales.

Mexico's lower classes essentially line up with either one of these musical poles or the other. Pop comes and goes, mariachis and protesta and trova are essentially novelties for the over-educated. Most common people favor either the rancho sound or the tropics. You can almost tell which by the way they dress. The cowboy hats are going to listen to Radio Ranchito and spend their Saturday nights dancing quebradita at places with "Rancho" or "De Norte" in the name, probably with picture of a horse or fighting cock in there somewhere. The more relaxed types in loose, bright-colored clothing and marlin fishing T-shirts are going to be doing cúmbias at some place made out of bamboo and palm thatch with the word "Tropical" somewhere visible.

Cumbia music is not actually of Mexican origin (nor is Salsa, which came from New York). It originated in Columbia, and Colombian cumbias are somehow hotter, slicker and faster than our local variety. The is Caribe music to us, Música Tropicál. If you want to hear to best of it, try a Sonora Dynamita CD, songs like "Oye" and "Saca la Maleta" are timeless. This is sunny, happy music designed to feel good lying on the beach or shuffling around the dance floor or making love under palm trees (or in sandy sheets under a rising moon and rotating fan). I've heard it called "Reggae without guilt"--tropical Caribbean island music racial distinction, and with the easy rhymes and beats of Spanish. It's very popular for dancing because you don't have to know how to dance to it. You just sort of move around, find something to do with your arms. Party music, even among the upper classes. This is the kind of music you will hear in Olas Altas bars like CopaCubana or the Shrimp Bucket, or Golden Zone spots like Alleluya Republic. It is for the part of Mazatlan with that keeps its toes in the water.

Norteño music, on the other hand, has a very definite lower class image. Nobody with a college education listens to it. It's great music for dancing: the basic two-step is simple enough, but you can have a lot of fun with the strutting, spinning, heel-kicking variations. But put it on at a party of the type of people who own cars and wear guayaberas and somebody will just go take it off and scowl at you. A woman I know who loves to dance (and does so very beautifully) told me her family has practically disowned her because she likes to listen to Norteño and dance the quebradita. I'll admit, the quebradita is pretty scandalous, can be a lot more pornographic than Lambada. It's an up between the legs, laying around on each other, hip shaking sort of dance done with flat cowboy expression. You will find low classes places out on Ejercito Mexicano, near the bus station, or even right in the Golden Zone, that feature this music. Look for horseshoes and ropes on the signs outside. You will not look right going there in your beach casuals and sandals: everybody else will have a cowboy hat and boots. Even the girls: there is a sort of Mexicana cowgirl look you see in ranchero joints that I find very sexy. Pert hats, blouses with holes cut for the shoulders to peek through, short skirts or very tight black jeans, shortie high heeled boots. Cute little vaqueritas out to kick up their heels and spin around.

In Mazatlan, ranchero music is a sort of proto-Banda (please see my entry "PART III") but it's still very much a part of the culture, and has produced some of Mazatlan's best-known and best-loved musical stars. Please continue with "PART II" if you are interested in that.

Those interested in Mexican politics and society might enjoy the articles on my Website.

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