Despite Donald Trump's impoverished view of Mexicans, they have a rich culture, only a hint of which has begun to make itself known among us gringos.
While Los Lobos broke ground for highlighting both cultures on the same album, subsequent artists on both sides of the Rio Grande have mixed elements of the countries together for their own neo-traditional mestizo music.
The reigning queen of this musical mash-up is the wonderful singer Lila Downs, who was born to a Mexican mom and a Minnesotan dad and was raised in both countries. Downs, singing in English, Spanish and indigenous languages, has gained an international following as well as a Grammy and Latin Grammy.
On Balas y Chocolate, Downs once again features her voluptuous voice with varying arrangements and styles, widening her territory a bit more than in the past. The show-stopper is her stunning vocals on the spare "La Promesa" featuring a bluesy arrangement with the dramatically slow-strummed chords of a reverb-y rock guitar. On "Cuando Me Tocas Tu (When You Touch Me)," she moves into Celia Cruz territory with a sultry bolero. Elsewhere, she stirs in cumbia, rap, rock. Balas y Chocolate is once again is a great showcase for Downs's always-surprising, fiercely alive music.
Brooklyn-based, Mexico City-born Rana Santacruz has a unique sound that might be called Mexican-plus. Taking rhythms and instrumentation of traditional Mexican music, he adds other acoustic elements. The opening cut uses a Mexican-sounding accordion, but also has a jazzy violin, muted trumpet and banjo in the lively cumbia-cum-rock beat.
The center of the varied tunes is Santacruz's sweet voice, which sometimes flirts with falsetto. While his music is easy to like, even a quick listen quickly raises eyebrows and questions: Is that a Pogues influence? Is that a Stephane Grappelli gypsy-jazz violin? Is that Balkan brass?
Santacruz's second album, Por Ahi, is as strong as his first and just as idiosyncratic and accessible, no small feat. Perhaps because of his tough-to-pigeonhole music, he still feels woefully undiscovered.
An unlikely Mexican mash-up is the group Mariachi El Bronx, which is the alter ego of the California-based punk group The Bronx (whose members are not from The Bronx). A what-the-hell attempt to do an interesting acoustic version of one of their punk songs led the rockers to try a mariachi arrangement, which set off a lightbulb moment and the snarling punks became earnest troubadours with matching suits and bolo ties.
Mariachi El Bronx III, their third eponymous album should continue to build their audience among Chicanos and gringos, who may have first seen them on Late Night, where David Letterman was visibly buoyant in his enthusiasm for their sound.
While the group members were only familiar with mariachi from hearing it floating in the air throughout Southern California, they gave themselves a crash course via YouTube and Vincent Hidalgo, an old friend and son of Los Lobos's David Hidalgo.
Their sound is heartfelt pop-rock with an overlay of mariachi horns, yelping and yearning. Lead singer Matt Caughtran, who once out-screamed a chainsaw on a televised reality show, proves to be a sweet-voiced and melodious crooner.
Austin-based Patricia Vonne has released five albums that dance across the border, showing her to be a tough Texas alt-rocker with influences from her Mexican and Spanish heritage. On Viva Bandolera, she has compiled 17 of her Spanish-language songs. The sister of director Robert Rodriguez, Vonne has had roles in several of his movies, including the memorable bad-guy-butt-kicking Zorro Girl in his film Sin City.
With a powerful and versatile voice, Vonne adopts a Zorro Girl-like macha persona: the female bandit, a bandolera, or a torero, female bullfighter, as much as a Texan kick-ass rocker. Alt-Latino fans will immediately hear in her sexy lower register a striking similarity to the voice of Andrea Echeverri of the Colombian group Aterciopelados.
Vonne mixes acoustic guitar with a rock lineup including a stinging lead guitar. She also plays castanets on several tunes, adding their distinctive clacking percussion to this very evocative, lively sound.
The vibe here is often spaghetti western drama and romance, conjuring up big skies, epic tales and the lure of adventure. "La Huerta de San Vicente" sounds like a slow, dramatic dance in a hot Southwestern desert barroom, even if the underlying rhythm is Argentinian tango.
Vonne's seamless and effortless mix of musical tradition is a reminder how intertwined the countries are and that they enrich each other. Here's hoping Vonne's music and this other Chicano hybrids can introduce more Americans to a part of their own culture.
Lila Downs with Juanes
Mariachi El Bronx - "New Beat"
Mariachi El Bronx on the Letterman Show (playing a song not on latest album)
Rana Santacruz in his adopted home of Brooklyn
Patricia Vonne song from her brother's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"
Patricia Vonne in her Spanish mode