Musica Mexicana in the 21st century

Confession: I am an addict. I have discovered modern Mexican music, and I am in love.

While I cannot be sure, I am guessing that you are thinking one of the following things:

  1. I have heard mariachi music in Mexican restaurants or ranchero on the radio. You have fallen in love with that??
  2. I have been to salsa clubs, and I agree: it is hard to not dance along with those rhythms!
  3. What the heck is modern Mexican music?

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To answer that question, I suggest either watching the 2012 documentary Hecho en Mexico or listening to its soundtrack. It is a good introduction to the genre. I would describe it as a richly complex mixture of traditional and modern, of indigenous and international. Check out the documentary’s trailer to hear what I am talking about:

What caught my ear in this soundtrack was the mixture of traditional music with a modern style. In particular, listen to the kid singing at minute 1:24 in the video. The beat is a contemporary base rhythm for an old Huichol melody.

When I listened to the soundtrack for the first time, I realized that I could not understand a single word that the kid sang. That is because he is singing in the Huichol language. That is when my heart melted. Not only is the song a fusion of music styles, it features one of the world’s endangered languages.

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One of my favorite trivia questions is: how many languages are spoken in the world today? I will tell you at the end of this post to allow you time to come up with a good guess.

The truth is that many of the world’s indigenous languages are disappearing. Unfortunately, with every language lost, we lose part of our global heritage via linguistic richness and cultural expression. Many linguists are scrambling to document as much about these endangered languages as possible before their last speakers pass away. National Geographic has been cataloging their experiences, documenting everything in a nice website called Enduring Voices: Documenting the Planet’s Endangered Languages.

I have been interested in endangered languages for almost 15 years. This is why I am such a fan of musicians incorporating indigenous languages and instrumentation into their popular songs.

Mexico is home to more than 6.2 million indigenous language speakers , 1.4 million of whom do not understand Spanish. Some 68 languages have been retained, all of which are included as official national languages. How wonderful that the country politically promotes indigenous languages on the same level as Spanish to honor its heritage and diversity.

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Hecho en Mexico inspired me to look for songs from my region that are sung in indigenous languages. I was able to track down these three gems:

  •  A lovely folk piece sung in Náhuatl (NAH-wah-tl), Mexico’s second most spoken language
  • A Huapango song from the Huasteca region, sung in Otomí (oh-toh-MEE)
  • A home-dubbed hip hop song rapped in Hñahñu (nyah-nyu)

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Why sing in indigenous languages? During an interview, the hip hop group called Slajem Kóp explain why they create music in their first language, Tzotzil, rather than in Spanish. While their audience is a much smaller niche of some of the approximately 350,000 speakers and a few language nerds like myself, they prefer it that way.

“Many men [from our state] go north to find work and a wife. When they return, they teach their children only Spanish, and as the kids grow, they have no desire to learn the true language [Tzotzil] because they were never taught it.

We need to keep speaking the true language [Tzotzil] because we do not want to lose our customs and culture. Singing in our language is a way of preserving it.”
– Artists from the group Slajem Kóp

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Not all 21st century Mexican music combines the old with the new, or the mass culture with indigenous cultures. Still, it maintains a unique identity that is still ear-catchingly great. Here are some of my current favorites:

  • Mexican Institute of Sound (Mexico City) electronic fused with Mexican folk and traditional music
  • Molotov (Mexico City) alt-rock
  • Café Tacvba (Mexico City) alt-rock going strong for more than 20 years now
  • Zoé (Mexico City) alternative/psychedelic
  • Zurdok (Monterrey) rock/metal
  • Nortec Collective (Tijuana) a mix of electronica and traditional norteño music
  • La Maldita Vecindad (Mexico City) a mix of ska, Cuban rhythms, and alt-rock
  • Control Machete (Monterrey) hip hop
  • Nahuatl Sound System (Mexico City and Queensland, Australia) Aztec electronic with foundations in cumbia and folk
  • Twin Tones (Mexico City) surf rock
  • Centavrvs (Mexico City) very danceable DJ remixes of Mexican revolution music
  • Los Aguas Aguas (Xalapa, Veracruz) A mix of jarocho, funk and reggae that just screams for listeners to put on flip flops and relax in a hammock
  • Lila Downs (Oaxaca) a mix of traditional Mexican music with modern Latin and American popular music styles, occasionally sung in indigenous languages
Music can be found in any setting it seems, even on a public bus

Music can be found in any setting it seems, even on a public bus

So how about you? Have you fallen in love with modern Mexican music by now?

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PS. There are somewhere around 6,000 – 7,000 spoken languages in the world today, whereas most people guess that there are only a few hundred!

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Making me smile

  • It is so fun to say my 10 favorite words of indigenous origin that have retained daily usage in Mexican Spanish:
    • Guajolote (wah-hoh-LOH-te) turkey
    • Escuincle (ess-KWINK-ley) bratty child
    • Popote (poh-POT-eh) drinking straw
    • Mapache (mah-PA-chay) raccoon
    • Tianguis (tea-ANG-gees) open air market
    • Biznaga (biz-NAH-ga) type of cactus
    • Cacahuate (ka-ka-WHA-tey) peanut
    • Cacomixtle (ka-kao-MIKSH-tlay) ring-tailed cat
    • Guacala (WAH-ka-la) gross
    • Hijole (EE-hole-lay) shoot!
  • You can tell the time of day based on the street vendors: morning is tamale and atole  time, afternoon is time for snacks like chili-covered peanuts and gummies, evening street carts are almost entirely selling corn on the cob or cups of corn. Sometimes they are different vendors, although there are some who switch out their carts according to the time-related cravings of the people, selling a variety of foods throughout the day
  • Day of the Dead decorations are coming out to replace Independence Day items, and every once and a while, you can spot Halloween decorations
  • Music recommendations! If you know of fun music that fits the descriptions above, leave me a comment below! I am always interested in expanding my repertoire
  • The complete Cusinela song featuring the Huichol boy…he is just too cute!
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6 responses to “Musica Mexicana in the 21st century

  1. Andrés just told me about these guys. They’re trying to fight a mine from exploiting their land and they make good music!

  2. Great timing! Clara was just sharing her newest music finds – Appalachian music, which lead to distinguishing ‘clogging’ vs ‘buck dancing,’ which lead to u-tube visits all around – yodeling, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, fiddling, the close harmonies of mountain singers…. on and on. Was great fun.
    Love your selections above! Boy is so cute & will watch for the documentary.
    Cant wait to see you soon. I’m planning a Trader Joe’s run for you.
    Aunt Kathleen
    ps Halloween & Dia le los Muertos are majorly fav holidays for C & H for years.

    • How funny, I was just watching a documentary about Appalacian music last night called Bluegrass Journey! I love exploring music and youtube tangents, and I have a special place in my heart for bluegrass 🙂 Do you know about Carolina Chocolate Drops? They’re great!

      Cannot wait to Trader Joe’s with you and the girls next week 😀

      Hugs!

  3. Clara’s really been exploring lots of new & old things – especially music and design – wise. We are enjoying.
    *Do you know about Carolina Chocolate Drops?* –Didn’t, but do now! Wonderfully rich sound & neat blend of traditional and forward.
    Any wants from TJ?

    • Latest cravings: sharp cheddar, artichokes, lemony things, raspberries, good hearty bread, unsweetened chai tea, chocolate covered pretzels, things made with maple syrup as a sweetener, dried berries, and whole grains to cook. If I have any of those things in the USA, I will be pumped.
      See you soon!

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