Mariachi El Bronx II, Mariachi El Bronx
ATO Records, USA
by Carlos Reyes
Earlier this year, Lady Gaga celebrated her 25th birthday singing alongside a full mariachi to a ranchero adaptation of “Born This Way." That was supposed to be the mariachi portrait in any publications' “year in pop" specials. That image changed significantly a few weeks ago as Mariachi El Bronx made their network television debut on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Upon the triumphant results of that performance, it appears that American punk music and mariachi blend pretty well. Their new album Mariachi El Bronx II is not only exciting, but it brings many topics of discussion afloat, including race.
Even in the most radical breadth of punk music, it’s hard to dismiss the genre as the ever-evolving social movement that rejects technicality and opens its arms to music reform. The first time I ever realized this hybrid could function (beyond a Chicano registry) was back in 2005 at the Latin Grammys, when Incubus joined Café Tacuba in a performance that blended alternative rock and Mexican folk almost effortlessly. Mariachi El Bronx takes that premise to serious ground as the enchanting alter ego of Los Angeles’ hardcore punk band, The Bronx. I guess it was only a matter of time before a seemingly all-American rock band embraced L.A. culture through Mexican tradition. The band’s concept and quest conviction can be compared to that of Shawn Kiehne, aka El Gringo, or Mexico’s Mariachillout. The former is an American country singer with a norteño fixation and a preoccupation with border politics, and the latter is a weird act that has released Mariachi tribute albums of The Beatles, Queen, and The Rolling Stones.
Crossover music at this level of cultural and racial blurring grandness has lost its novelty in genres like Latin Jazz (think Cal Tjader) or MPB (think David Byrne), but gringos wearing mariachi suits and personalized belt buckles are noticeable to say the least. Two years ago during the act’s formation, they explained why they didn’t wear sombreros: “because we’re white and that would be disrespectful.” While very few Mexicans would find that offensive (that’s after actually listening to them), it’s this kind of respectful approach that makes Mariachi El Bronx’s wide scope and ambition all that more endearing. Opening track “48 Roses” grasps the romanticism of ranchero music with the equally passionate three-chord punk notions. In this track everything is executed fiercely and with a sense of bittersweet tragedy, very suitable for a song about a man who buys four dozen roses for his four lovers and asks God to save him some forgiveness.
In the last decade, experimental lo-fiers Lucky Dragons have done their share of Mexican American contribution with mostly distorted and heterogeneous pieces, but this is one of the first times a band approaches this fusion with actual form. Initially a five-piece band, Mariachi El Bronx has expanded its formation and instrumental chest to match the demands of ranchero music. Not only are they great at mediating songcraft with aesthetics, but they are also great with speed. Fast-paced tracks like “Great Provider” and “Map of the World” are handled with the elegancy and fortitude of the Mexican genre. Unlike The White Stripes’ misguided and ultimately scornful attempt at mariachi punk, Mariachi El Bronx II is solid and beyond refreshing. For those of us with a profound exposure to ranchero music, the application of this vernacular by some white dudes seemed dangerously sketchy at first (because seriously, we don't need another ¡Three Amigos! fiasco), but within seconds of playing this record one comes to realize Mariachi El Bronx is not only in full control of their concept, but that their heart is also in the most honest place.