More Than a Single Voice


Quick. What comes to mind when you hear the words “Latin music”?

Ricky Martin aside, in Southern California, probably Mexican regional forms such as mariachi, banda and norten~o. But in Miami it would probably be the Cuban son, or the Puerto Rican take on it, known as salsa, or Haitian compa. In Texas, the cumbia stylings of tejano might be served up as “Latin music,” while in New York the category would include Dominican merengue, rap, and rock en espanol.

Truth is, there are as many genres of “Latin music” as there are of “American” music. And at Sunday’s 10th annual Bud Light Cinco de Mayo Festival at the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte, attended by 120,000 people, the diversity of Latin music was more apparent than in past years, as acts from several nations performed in a wide range of styles.

In the past, this most Mexican of holidays has generally been celebrated with uniformly Mexican sounds. But as the Latino population in the U.S. becomes more diverse--and as roughly 30 million multiracial people with roots in two dozen nations are increasingly united through the “Latino” label--musical tastes, and even Latino identity, are opening up.


In the Los Angeles area, where Mexican roots still dominate the Latino population, the presence at Whittier Narrows of merengue, rock and cumbia represented more than just a good time. It represented a slow shift in the way this area’s Latinos look at themselves.

The show’s opening act, a local tejano group called Cindy y Los Cholos, performed the mixture of American pop, country, Central American cumbia and ranchera music that Selena made famous.


The second group was the energetic Los Tiranos del Norte, a norten~o band from Mexico whose nostalgic, doo-wop harmonies are anchored by accordion riffs and polka beats. Norten~o, like tejano, has its roots in Mexican conjunto music, which developed in the Southwest at the turn of the century. Conjunto and its offshoots strongly reflect the presence of German, Czech and Polish immigrants who worked the railroads in the area.


The third act featured Mexican pop singer Graciela Beltran fronting a rowdy banda group. Banda, a relative newcomer to the Mexican music scene, takes the trumpets of mariachi and the tubas of polka to the extreme, mixing them with other blaring brass instruments and a pounding bass drum. The result sounds like the circus coming to town, and many at the festival said banda was a taste they had yet to acquire.

Young Colombian trio singers Los Tri-O took the stage next, performing traditional acoustic standards made famous by Mexican groups such as Los Panchos, but wearing stylish white linen suits in their trademark modern twist on the old genre.

They, in turn, were followed by Juan Luis Guerra, a legendary Dominican songwriter and singer whose merengue and bachata songs are at once brainy and danceable. Interestingly, the definitive merengue mambos played by alto and tenor saxophones were historically the domain of the accordion, brought to Hispanola by French and German immigrants, while the double-headed tambora drum is a West African relic.

Puerto Rican singer Mayra sang disco medleys in Spanish and was followed by the most popular act of the day, Colombian rock singer and songwriter Shakira, who includes Arabic lyrics in some songs. Shakira was then followed by Rocio Durcal, Spain’s reigning queen of ballads, whose entrance was heralded by the release of hundreds of live doves.

Toward the back of the gigantic field, Dulce Solis, 24, of Long Beach, sat on a blanket with her two young sons and her parents, admiring the lineup. She said she has been coming to this and other Cinco de Mayo celebrations with her family in the Los Angeles area most of her life, and that this year the music seemed different.

“It’s more active,” Solis said. “It used to be just slow music and mariachis, stuff our parents liked. This time you have everybody dancing. It feels younger.”

Pio Ferro, programming director for KLVE-FM (107.5), one of three radio station sponsors of the festival, explained why he and other organizers chose the diverse lineup.

“There a demand for different kinds of music,” Ferro said. “There’s a lot of crossover in styles now that you didn’t have before.”


The diversity was not lost on Iselsa Hache, who with her cousin Miguel DeFrias stood in the crowd waving an enormous Dominican flag.

“I feel like every day [Latinos in Los Angeles] are learning more about different types of music and people,” said Hache, who also said it used to be hard to find merengue on local radio. Now, Saturday nights on KLVE are devoted to tropical genres.

“An all-tropical station still wouldn’t survive here,” said Ferro. “But in a few years, who knows?”