arts

Is That a Polka or Are You Just Glad to See Me

accordion playerWalking down a crowded urban street it struck me as incongruous that there would be a lowrider Chevy rolling by with windows down, music full blast.....playing polka music (click to hear a sample). I remember thinking that this must be the ultimate anti-rap. It would be funny to imagine gangsta rappers in the hood trippin’ to polkas.

But wait, that’s not polka --- it’s Norteño (click to hear a sample) or Tejano (more about that later). Most people say Norteño because it originated north of the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border in the early 1900s. The distinguishing characteristic is the polka beat for which we can thank the Bohemian immigrant farmers and miners who were working in Mexico. German immigrants also settled in Monterrey, Mazatlan and Sinaloa and brought their beer and accordions along with the rhythm and soon mariachi bands had flaco jimenezblended this beat with their local ranchera styles. Norteño always has the accordion paired with the bajo sexto (12 string bass guitar) to produce the unique sound.

When Mexican-Americans in Texas heard the Norteño music they added a little more swing to it and called it Tejano, another way of saying Tex-Mex or a Texan of Mexican heritage. Some say that Norteño music is little more country while the Tejano has more of a swing jazz sound.

Whatever you call it, the music has an infectious rhythm that makes you tap your feet or jump up and dance. I have been using Norteño music on my iPod for years as a soundtrack for brisk walking.

While this music had a primarily Mexican-American los tigres del norteaudience for a long time, it has now slipped into the mainsteam and there are big fans in Europe and Japan. Recording artists like Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, and their Texas Tornados band helped introduce the Norteño sound to new listeners, as does the group Los Lonely Boys. As the music gets more modern, electric bass guitars have been added, along with more updated percussion instruments. Bands such as Los Tigres del Norte have transformed the guitar and accordion style, and added saxophones and electronic keyboards.

Norteño has evolved so much in the last 20 years that we can only expect more permutations of the music to flourish in the years ahead. Personally, I hope I can still walk down the street and hear the music, that for just one second or two, sounds like a rollicking good polka.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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