The United States has always been keen on its moniker of exceptionalism but many are not aware that in just a few years the US can boast the largest population of Spanish Speakers in the world. Another exceptional feat which also speaks to the issue of diversity. In spite of the battles over immigration it is a fact that it is precisely this diversity that has helped the US remain the most exceptional country for creativity and invention. Nowhere is this more apparent than in music. So many genres exist and flourish it is hard to keep up. Meanwhile the proliferation of social media not to mention the thousands of traditional radio stations that carve up audiences in ever more narrow niches means many rather large music genres can go unnoticed and under most people's radar. This is especially true of the "Latin" Spanish speaking market. One tends to listen to what one likes and when directly catered to by a radio station or other media outlet why venture outside that box?
I recently discovered the world of Regional Mexican Music after reading a fascinating article in the New Yorker Magazine which educated me on the "Norteno" music scene and its biggest act, the Tigres Del Norte. The most telling fact was that unlike acts like Sting, the Rolling Stones or other big "Anglo" acts who must enter hotels via the back door or garage entrance to avoid the fans in the lobby seeking autographs, the Tigres Del Norte must enter the lobby entrance because if they went in the back door the hotel would close down! No room service, no cleaning, virtually the whole hotel would come to a halt as the people who really keep a hotel running are the staff and they 9 times out of 10 the fans of Tigres. It goes to show how much the underbelly of the US relies on our Southern immigrants particularly from Mexico.
Norteno music with its stories of the barrio, and the lives of this underbelly of America reminded me of the early days of the punk scene in the UK when bands were all staking claims to their "stance" namely their political or social relevance. Pure love songs were a no no at the very early stages though as time went on the normal themes of love and romance once again became common. Norteno likewise has a good deal of social comment and as such is an important indicator of attitudes and trends we "Anglos" non-Spanish speakers would miss. Like the punk movement Norteno has energy and an upbeat feel about it so for me, a non-Spanish speaker I can still appreciate the "vibe" and spirit of the music even as I do not understand the words.
Bands, or "groupos" like the Tigres Del Norte and Intocable tour in a surprising number of US cities and in the case of the Tigres Del Norte even play venues as big as stadiums to adoring sell out crowds. Most of the biggest acts have Mexican roots but the US is now seeing signs of home grown acts that are beginning to make a name for themselves. Meanwhile it is not surprising with the constant pot boiling social issues in the US, whether it be women's rights or LGBT rights these groups are incorporating such issues in their lyrics far more than their counterparts in the South.
One such group in the Norteno style is the Villa 5, a 5 sibling group of 4 sisters and a brother from Apple Valley, California. US born from Mexican immigrants their story is one of the usual struggle from poverty to trying to cash in on the American dream. They grew up dirt poor buying their instruments from yard sales and taking advantage of their youth - they were after all very "cute" calling themselves the Villa Kids. As they grew older they discovered the added hurdle of being girls in an almost exclusively male dominated Norteno music scene. They managed to persevere in face of resistance and challenges using this resistance as an energizer to make them fight even harder. In may ways, that is exactly the spirit America has always encouraged. If someone says you cant do it, you want to do it all the more.
In 2014 as the group's ages were 17 to 24 they changed their name to the Villa 5 and secured a record deal with a new independent music label called Toro-Music that was formed precisely as a reaction to the growing interest in home grown Norteno music acts. Villa 5 represented not only an act with music that might succeed commercially, but with 4 women who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs they were also socially important with something relevant to say. Perhaps they could inspire other women to join in the scene and broaden the reach of the music just like other genres have done. Meanwhile, brother Joel and the lone male in Villa 5 added the element to give them a male appeal many can relate to. What is it like to be surrounded by women with something to say? It's quite amusing that his sisters call him "El Silencio" the man who refuses interviews until their first number one in the charts. Undoubtedly he has adopted a successful strategy to deal with his situation under the circumstances!
The first Villa 5 album has songs running the gambit of social comment mainly from a female perspective as well as pure fun songs about partying on a Saturday night. More fun than social as life is too short to be overly serious especially when you are young. It will be interesting to see just how far they get - and most of all - what they inspire in the world of Norteno.