By Randy Jackson
Nothing tells me I’m in Mexico quite like the lively accordion notes of a melody drifting out of a shop or restaurant as I pass by. The clarity of the accordion sound is like a pleasant breeze to our eardrums, its tonal vibrations stimulating our smile muscles. If the accordion sound were a colour, it would be bright yellow. What could be more delightful than a song with a lumbering tuba stomping out a slow beat while the accordion dances rapidly around it like Tinker Bell after an espresso.
Although the accordion didn’t originate in Mexico, once it arrived, it became a venerated cultural icon of Mexican music. The accordion was introduced by German immigrants to Texas and Northern Mexico in the mid-19th century. It promptly plunged into the existing regional folk music of Northern Mexico and Southern US like a fat kid doing the cannonball into the kiddie pool. Today we call the music that emerged from this area Norteño or Tejano music (also referred to as Norteño Conjunto and Tejano Conjunto (conjunto meaning “together,” or “ensemble”).
Traditional Norteño/Tejano music features the acordeón diatónico or acordeón de botones (an accordion with two rows of buttons, with each row producing the diatonic, or 7-note, scale), the bajo sexto (12 string Mexican guitar), drum, and a sort of talking-singing vocals. The instrumentation of this musical genre has evolved over time to include bass guitar, saxophone and other instruments. Beyond the Norteño/Tejano musical genre, the accordion spread to a number of other folk music traditions in Mexico, so that the delightful ear-tickle of the accordion can be heard in most forms of Mexican music today.
Where Did the Accordion Come From?
The accordion was invented in Germany in the 1820s. Its lively spread in worldwide popularity was accelerated by the “Polka Craze.” Polka burst onto the scene in Paris and London in the 1840s and spread rapidly throughout the western world. The marriage of the polka and the accordion was quickly consummated. From the start, the accordion and polka were artifacts of the common people, something more for the streets than for upper-class salons.
In Mexico and Latin America, the accordion never completely outgrew its folk root traditions. Rock music, which emerged mostly from the United States and Britain in the 1960s, favoured drums and electric guitars, which led to the decline of accordion popularity. But not before door-to-door salesmen convinced parents like mine, and those of Weird Al Yankovich, that their precious sons should learn how to play the accordion. Although accordion lessons worked out pretty well for Weird Al, my rotund Polish instructor only left me with an addiction to pierogis.
The Accordion in Mexican Music Styles
Thankfully, in Mexico, accordion love is still alive and well. There is an astounding range of Mexican musical styles; although the accordion may not be as prominent as it is in the traditional Norteño/Tejano music, it remains a proud member of most Mexican music genres and styles. Two examples of this are the banda and cumbia genres.
The popular banda music originated in the state of Sinaloa. This style may sound similar to Norteño because of the ever-present accordion, but the distinguishing feature is the prominence of brass instruments, in particular rumbling low notes of the tuba used to set the song’s tempo.
By comparison, the cumbia genre generally has a more lively tempo than banda, especially in its Mexican versions. Cumbia is thought to have originated within the Afro-Colombian community. Wikipedia lists four styles of cumbia in Mexico, and dozens of styles throughout Latin American countries. In Mexico, maracas are usually the distinguishing cumbia sound, setting the song’s tempo, but the piano accordion (keys instead of buttons) is frequently the main source of the rhythm.
It’s no wonder the accordion is so often heard in Mexican music; its versatility to musicians is like a Swiss army knife to Houdini. The accordion can add delight to pretty much any music style. I’ve even heard the accordion in some reggaeton pieces. Although to my ears, reggaeton is basically rap music, it doesn’t get much of my accordion-loving attention.
Without any neurological understanding whatsoever, my guess is that the audible range of the accordion is perceived by the part of the brain that is associated with the urge to dance. I believe this dance urge developed early in human evolution, but remained only partially satisfied until the accordion came along. And although I accept that this view may have developed as a result of my childhood accordion lessons, I’m happy to have found that Mexican music embraces the accordion.
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