Music in Global America


Header image: Chris Goldberg on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0


Mexican Americans are Americans of full or partial Mexican descent. Some members of the community prefer to call themselves Chicanos. As of July 2016, Mexican Americans made up 11.2% of the United States' population, as 36.3 million U.S. residents identified as being of full or partial Mexican ancestry. As of July 2016, Mexican Americans comprised 63.2% of all Hispanics and Latinos in the United States. Over 60% of all Mexican Americans reside in the states of California and Texas.[3] As of 2016 Mexicans make up 53% of total percent population of Latin foreign-born. Mexicans are also the largest foreign born population, account for 27% of the total foreign born population. Of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States 56% are from Mexico. ["Mexican Americans," Wikipedia]


Norteño, also called música norteña, is a popular-music genre of Northern Mexico that developed in the late nineteenth century as a mix of regional Mexican music and the folk music of German, Polish, and Czech migrant workers and immigrants to Mexico. Norteño is closely associated with the music for polka (a Czech folk dance), waltz (a descendant of German folk dance) and corridos, ballads about love, everyday life, crime, and social problems. 

The accordion and bajo sexto are norteño's most characteristic instruments. 

The type of accordion played in norteño is the diatonic button accordion (DBA) — diatonic because it can only produce the notes of the diatonic scale. The player operates the instrument by pressing buttons that allow interior reeds to vibrate as the bellows part of the instrument is pushed and pulled. (The buttons on the right-hand panel produce the melody, those on the left-hand panel produce supporting chords.) The DBA is favored in norteño because it is relatively lightweight, nimble in operation, and because its bellows construction allows for an emphatically rhythmic style of playing dance music.

The bajo sexto (literally, "bass sixth") is a member of the guitar family. The name refers to the low-pitched range of the bajo sexto (an octave lower than guitar), and to the six pairs (or courses) of strings. 

The bajo sexto, like many string instruments built by Mexican artisans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was modeled on early types of Spanish guitars. The bajo sexto reached its full development in the nineteenth century and migrated northwards, where it became a popular instrument for weddings and dances. By 1930 the bajo sexto joined the accordion in the initial pairing that was to give rise to conjunto (literally, group or ensemble). Flaco Jimenez of San Antonio, Texas is a major figure in norteño, having earned six Grammys over a sixty-year career.

Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca play "Margarita", "La Paloma," and "Cada Vez Que Cae La Tarde"
A conjunto norteño is a Mexican folk ensemble that adds snare drum and a bass instrument to the DBA/bajo sexto pair. The instrument may be string bass, or tololoche as in this video by Norteños de Río Bravo, or electric bass guitar as in this clip from a corrido by Los Tigres del Norte. A more recent substitute bass instrument is tuba, as in this corrido by Calibre 50. Cuban tumbadoras (conga drums) and bongó are also included in some modern conjuntos, such as "Sufro como Yo Sufri" by La Leyenda (2018).

Conjunto became popular within the transnational Mexican communities of the borderlands primarily through local radio stations in the "golden age" of the conjunto in the 1940s and early 1950s. Also, some conjuntos from Mexico — Los Alegres de Terán (active 1948-2007), Los Huricanes del Norte (1969-present), Los Rieleros del Norte (active 1984-present) — relocated to the United States.
From the rural areas of its origin norteño achieved popularity in urban centers and eventually in many Latin American countries. 

Other popular norteño artists include Ramón Ayala, Intocable, and Los Tucanes de Tijuana. 

Through the late twentieth century the norteña style remained conservative and stable with minor refinements in electronic sound quality and recording techniques. This era is probably best represented by the style of accordionist Ruben Naranjo from the Corpus Christi area, who died in 1998. Música norteña has also had its own category for many years in the Grammy awards, and a perennial winner in the early 2000s was the long-popular group of Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte. [Dan W. Dickey, "Musica Tejana," Texas State Historical Society]


European immigrants in Mexico fled to Texas during the chaos and war that was set in motion by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). In Texas the dance music of the new European refugees mixed with the songs of Mexican Americans in a music that would eventually be called Tejano ("Texan") or Tex-Mex. Lydia Mendoza of Houston began her long illustrious career by recording one of the first Spanish-language
songs, "Mal Hombre", for RCA's ethnic market in 1934. Narciso Martínez, who was raised in the small Texas town of La Paloma, brought a new virtuosity to accordion playing. Martínez, the "father of tejano conjunto," started to record in the 1930s when local radio stations began to broadcast norteño and tejano. 
By the mid 1950s tejano conjunto, influenced by Big Band music, expanded into larger ensembles — bandas and orquestas — that included various wind instruments and the standard jazz drum set.

Oscar Martínez's banda was made up of the instrumentation that established the template— two trumpets, alto and tenor saxophones, guitar, bass, and drums. This type of banda peaked in the 1970s. [Brittanica]

Martinez' song "El Tejano Enamorado," featured on his 1965 album "El Gallo Copeton," hit the radio before Martinez knew anything about the industry or what royalties were. It became popular with musicians across the country and has been recorded by more than 40 artists. He also has his own English version, "The Texas Playboy."

Martinez has written and published a book, "Tejano Music Talk," and hosts a Tejano music program each Sunday on local radio station Majic 104.9 FM. He also recently released a new single, a love song to his hometown called "The Corpus Christi Rose," and continues to create his own series of original paintings. [Michael Zamora, "Preserving Tejano's History," San Angelo Standard-Times, November 2011]

A third type of ensemble, grupo, originated in the 1960s. Grupos replaced the instrumentation of tejano conjunto with keyboards and synthesizers, while largely embracing the traditional repertoire. The most famous performer of the period is Selena, who became an international celebrity before being murdered in 1995. 


Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., "Nativism, Immigration, and the Latinization of America," in Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, September 2011. Available online through Brooklyn College Library.



Cathy Ragland, "Introduction" in Musica Norteña: Mexican Americans Creating a Nation between Nations, Temple University Press 2009. Available through JSTORR

Handbook of Texas Online, Dan W. Dickey, "MUSICA NORTENA"

Allmusic - Norteno

Alejandro L. Madrid (ed.), Transnational Encounters: Music and Permance at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Oxford University Press, 2011

Guadalupe San Miguel, Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century, Texas A&M International University, 2002.

Raimiro Burr, The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music, Billboard Books, 1999.


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