From the outside, Leonardo’s looks like any other anonymous building in the inner city, but the glittering scene inside the club is alive with young dancers moving to the pulsating beat of a band.
This music isn’t either the techno-rock or rap sounds associated with L.A. youth in the ‘90s. The lyrics are in Spanish and the sound-- banda --has propelled one radio station to the top of the ratings in Los Angeles.
This craze has been steadily gaining momentum for the last three or four years, attracting hundreds of thousands to dance halls all over the West Coast and the Southwest.
And just last month, radio stations in Los Angeles found that the top spot in the winter Arbitron ratings had been captured for the second quarter in a row by KLAX-FM (97.9)--a station whose musical format switched to banda last August.
The station had taken over the No. 1 ratings position last December, but many in the industry considered it some kind of fluke. Among the doubters: radio bad boy Howard Stern, who had previously been on top.
No one’s doubting anymore.
After the latest ratings, KLAX, fondly referred to by its listeners as La Equis (pronounced La EH-kees and meaning “The X”), sent flowers to runner-up Stern, along with a playful note reading, “Thanks for helping us remain No. 1.”
KLAX attributes its success to the adoption of a banda -dominated format. The station had been previously operated as KSKQ-FM and featured a broad Latino musical sound.
“We were expecting success, but not to this degree,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, KLAX’s general manager. “This sound had been playing on the radio for only two or three years but sporadically. When one of my competitors was once asked to play banda, he said, ‘What? You want me to play for illiterates?’
“That’s an arrogant position. He’s underrating the value and sensibilities of his audience. . . . This music has developed into a social movement.”
Banda is not new.
In some ways, the music’s evolution parallels that of country music in the United States--long burdened by the stereotype that it is only for blue-collar audiences. Just as country has undergone an enormous demographics change from the days when it was dismissed as “hillbilly” music, banda now cuts across sociological lines.
The music resulted chiefly from the large wave of German immigration to the U.S.-Mexico border region during the latter half of the 19th Century. Along with breweries, the Germans brought brass marching bands.
Unlike such other Mexican styles as the guitar-heavy ranchera and the accordion-based nortena, banda kept the German instrumentation, adding only a Mexican sensibility. Instead of marching music, it became dancing music.
Traditional Mexican banda consists of about 15 pieces: a tuba to hold up the bass rhythm line, trumpets, clarinets, trombones and either the original tamborazo (bass drum) or conventional bass and snare drums and cymbals.
Today’s bandas add a vocalist who sings retooled rancheras or nortenas and new songs whose lyrics describe everyday realities. Techno- banda , an inevitable development, replaces the tuba with an electric bass guitar and reproduces the brass sound on synthesizer.
How did this old-time country music suddenly become the hip new thing, outstripping the popularity of other border music favorites such as nortena and ranchera and even wooing cosmopolitan youth away from rocanrol ?
About four years ago, Antonio Aguilar, a popular Mexican actor and singer who usually recorded mariachis or nortenas, had a huge banda hit called “Tristes Recuerdos” (“Sad Memories”). The record’s success was a key in igniting the craze that’s in full bloom at Leonardo’s.
At the club, the banda musicians--known as Hermanos Ventura--play energetically on the stage as young dancers swirl across the large dance floor.
The dancers are costumed ranchero- style, in jeans, cowboy boots, vests and, for many, 10-gallon hats as they execute the athletic turns and backward bends of la quebradita (“the little break”), a dance sensation that has helped fuel banda’s popularity. The dance is a rollicking blend of polka, country two-step, lambada and even flamenco.
This club, near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 28th Street, is not the only Leonardo’s. There are 12 other clubs under the same name and ownership, stretching from Orange to Ventura counties.
“Until about six months ago, I used to go to English clubs--techno, disco, funk,” says 19-year-old Carlos Rodriguez, a student at Cal State L.A., as he waits for his friends in front of Leonardo’s. “Then I started listening to banda, and now I just go to Mexican clubs.”
That’s the focus for young Latinos who have formed more than 300 banda fan clubs. The club members attach themselves to a favorite band, adopt radio personalities as symbolic godfathers and organize dances--sometimes neglecting to inform the city of their plans to close down the block for their party.
“The first club to be founded--and the biggest--is Casimira’s, which has approximately 700 members,” says Fidel Fausto, KLAX’s programming director and one of its most popular deejays.
As Fausto talks, five Latino teen-agers from Hollywood High School wait to meet their padrino (godfather) in order to start their own club.
“We asked permission to leave school for a while,” says Jorge Ochoa, 17. Jose Gonzalez, 16, says there is no banda in his native Guatemala, “but this is my music now.”
Leading Spanish-language music retail outlets, like the Ritmo Latino chain, report a surge in banda sales. Latin pop charts indicate that the three top banda sellers are Banda Machos, Vallarta Show and Super Bandidos. Other popular groups are Banda Movil, Banda R-15, Tecnobanda, Banda Jinetes and ranchera singer Antonio de Jesus, who recently released a banda album, “Soy Ranchero.”
Banda may be a simple, dance-driven music, but it’s threatening to burst out of its Mexican-American boundaries.
“Anglo accounts, like Tower Records, are definitely looking into Latin music,” says Gustavo Fernandez, national director of sales for the WEA Latina record company. “They’re realizing that’s a market they haven’t tapped yet. They’re into World Music, yet right under their noses is this huge population of Mexicans.”
While banda has yet to exert any noticeable influence on either Mexican or American rock, as have nortena and ranchera in the music of Los Lobos and the Texas Tornados, it may eventually.
On May 9, KLAX and leading Mexican-American record company Fonovisa (owned by Mexican television giant Televisa) are promoting a concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena featuring 16 major Mexican groups, most of them bandas. KLAX’s Rodriguez predicts a sellout.
But is banda’s current success just a fad or a sign of cultural reawakening?
Rodriguez believes the music’s success represents the latter. For years, the Latino audience around the world was caught up, like everybody else, in the rock ‘n’ roll of England and the United States. But today, he says, outside influences have diminished.
“People are now turning to their own thing,” he declares, “something more authentic . . . something that is more theirs.”