In the late 20th century another variant emerged: the modernized bandit songs called narcocorridos, which tell stories of the drug trade. Some were commissioned by drug lords as praise songs. “Just as rap was forcing the Anglo pop world to confront the raw sounds and stark realities of the urban streets,” the music historian Elijah Wald writes in his book “Narcocorrido,” “the corrido was stripping off its own pop trappings to become the rap of modern Mexico and the barrios on el otro lado.”
“El otro lado” is “the other side”: the United States. Plenty of nominally “regional Mexican” music now comes out of California and Texas. And music with deep rural roots now regularly tells urban stories as well.
Current corridos tumbados bring together multiple elements of regional Mexican styles like ranchera, norteño, banda and mariachi. The music is lean and nimble, with improvisatory guitar filigrees, leaping and slapping bass lines, darting accordion countermelodies and huffing brass-band chords, all delivered with pinpoint syncopation. Pop hooks — perhaps from a trombone or an accordion — support raw, seemingly unpolished voices, even as the band arrangements demand real-time virtuosity.
Corridos tumbados carry forward a core element of Mexican music: a stoic sense of irony. A tale of heartbreak or betrayal is likely to be punctuated by hoots of laughter or mocking cries of ay! And a jaunty brass band might be oom-pahing behind a tale of a bloody shootout.
Narcocorridos and corridos tumbados have also borrowed strategies from gangster rap. Lyrics flaunt drugs-to-riches stories of hard work, overcoming odds, facing down haters, partying and flaunting designer labels. And as in hip-hop, performers constantly boost one another’s careers — and their own — with collaborations and guest appearances. On “Genesis,” Peso Pluma shares tracks with Cano, Junior H, Jasiel Nuñez and half a dozen others.
Mexican regional music, like far too many other pop styles, is largely a man’s world; videos by groups like Grupo Firme are filled with boozy macho camaraderie. But that is also evolving. One of the recent successes of regional Mexican music is the group Yahritza y Su Esencia, from the agricultural Yakima Valley in Washington. Yahritza Martínez — her parents are from Michoacán in western Mexico — is still in her teens.
Yahritza is backed by two of her brothers on her 2022 EP, “Obsessed” — the title is in English but the songs are in Spanish — with tracks including “Soy El Único” (“I’m the Only One”), a raw-voiced waltz about lost love that she wrote when she was 14. Yahritza has the heartfelt but crafty skills of songwriters like Taylor Swift; her voice is hurt, intimate and strong, pushing past language into feelings. The long-ignored promise of Mexican regional music, as it reaches the wider world, is that it will restore human-scale emotion to pop — defying technology, touching every listener directly.