Reliving History of Mexican, Tejano Music


Los Lobos brought Mexican American and Mexican music styles to U.S. listeners, but it hasn’t been easy for most pop fans to step beyond Los Lobos’ 1988 Spanish-language album, “La Pistola y El Corazon.”

One reason is that almost all the artists working in those styles record for Mexican or Texan labels with limited distribution and visibility. The main exception among U.S. companies is Berkeley-based Arhoolie Records, which has been recording Mexican and tejano musicians since the 1960s. Here’s a selected guide to historical Mexican American and Mexican music.

*** 1/2 Flaco Jimenez, “Flaco’s First,” Arhoolie. The accordion maestro is the norten~o (Tex-Mex) musician best known to international audiences, thanks to his work with Ry Cooder and the Texas Tornadoes. This collection features the cream of his first studio recordings with the Los Caminantes quintet in San Antonio between 1956 and 1958.

The sound quality is rough in spots, but Jimenez had already developed a fluid, accomplished instrumental style. Vocal duets by Jimenez and Henry Zimmerle complement Roberto Cadena’s singing, while the liner notes and photos provide an intriguing snapshot of the mid-'50s San Antonio scene. (Jimenez’s “Buena Suerte,” due this month from Arista Texas, finds Flaco 40 years later still offering those fluid accordion runs on a collection of straight-up norten~o, backed by his working band without any pop-star guest turns.)

*** 1/2 Various artists, “Mexico-American Border Music--Vol. 1.” Arhoolie/Folklyric. This wide-ranging introduction spans the years 1928 to ’58 and, like almost all Arhoolie packages, boasts 70-plus minutes of music and informative liner notes. It includes influential pioneer artists, from Los Madrugadores and Los Alegres de Teran to Lydia Mendoza and Santiago Jimenez, and the music ranges from early banda to ranchera ballads to accordion-driven norten~o. Los Lobos fans will recognize Los Dennen~os’ “Cancion Mixteca,” the lyrics to Orchestra Pajaro Azul’s 1934 version of “La Cucaracha” will surprise, and Los Norten~os de Nuevo Laredo’s “El Chicano” brings things to a rousing close.


**** Las Hermanas Mendoza, “Juanita Y Maria,” Arhoolie. Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz considers the Mendoza family to be the tejano equivalent of the Carter Family in U.S. country music, and these duets recorded in Los Angeles between 1946 and 1952 for the Azteca label won’t hurt his argument. Nothing fancy--just two beautiful, intertwined voices singing ballads and up-tempo material backed by guitar and acoustic bass. The results are irresistible. (Strachwitz also helped compile “Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography,” published by Arte Publico Press.)

*** Los Camperos De Valles, “The Muse,” Corason/Rounder. The muse on this collection is Serapio Nieto, reportedly a master of the improvised lyrics that are an integral part of the son huasteco style. Nieto’s depiction of doctors on the three-part “El Enfermo y El Doctor” will raise some smiles, and his sentiments about women on “La Presumida” will raise some eyebrows. Musically, son huasteco doesn’t vary much, but the two guitars have a vigorous rhythmic snap.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).