Hive Five: Mariachi Rock’s Greatest Hits

Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, UNESCO, the arm of the U.N. that determines its cultural agenda, officially showed its gratitude to Mexican music by recognizing Mariachi as a historical institution. The roots of Mexico’s traditional Mariachi sound, with its trumpets, violins, and nylon-string-guitars, go back at least as far as the 1700s. But by the 20th century, the Mariachi influence was so widespread that it began finding its way over the border into rock & roll. Now that this centuries-old style has officially been paid international homage at last, let’s look back at some of Mariachi music’s most memorable infiltrations into rock.

1. Love/The Damned, “Alone Again Or”

Mariachi-rock’s own “Stairway to Heaven.” This classic, mysterious-sounding cut from L.A. psychedelicists Love’s landmark 1967 album, Forever Changes, was probably the first place most Americans kids of the era ever heard Mariachi music outside of a Hollywood Western. 20 years later, the tune found an unlikely champion in the Damned, whose faithful cover gave the U.K. goth-punk patriarchs one of their biggest – and last – hits. [Listen here.]

2. Los Lobos,  “Saint Behind the Glass”

Speaking of Southern California, Los Lobos started out playing Mexican folk music in East L.A. in the ‘70s, but long after they traded their vihuelas and guitarróns for electric axes and started playing L.A. punk clubs, they kept their Mexican roots close. On their ’92 milestone, Kiko, they seamlessly slipped a mellow Mariachi feel into the fragile, folky, almost otherworldly sounding ballad “Saint Behind the Glass.” Cuban-American crooner Raul Malo later found room for the tune too, on his 2010 Tex-Mex outing, Sinners and Saints. [Listen here.]

3. Calexico, “Crystal Frontier”

Ever since graduating from desert-rock O.G. Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand and starting Calexico in the mid ‘90s, Joey Burns and John Convertino have mixed Mexican folk flavors with indie rock in their Tucson HQ. By the time their third album, 2000’s Hot Rail rolled around, the Mariachi influence on tracks like “Crystal Frontier” felt more like an irresistible compulsion than an ethnological exercise, with the trumpets adding an extra helping of atmosphere to Burns’ already evocative lyrics. [Listen here.]

4. DeVotchKa, “Bad Luck Heels”

Arizona also figures into the equation on “Bad Luck Heels” from DeVotchKa’s latest album, 100 Lovers, which the band cut in the desert with former Howe Gelb producer Craig Schumacher. A Denver-based group fronted by a New Yorker (charismatic singer Nick Urata) might not seem the likeliest candidates for a Mariachi-rock excursion, but DeVotchKa’s melting pot of styles mixes Mexican folk with everything from Middle Eastern melodies to Balkan beats, and on “Bad Luck Heels,” the Southwestern side of their sound comes leaping to the fore with trumpets ablaze. [Listen here.]

5. Mariachi El Bronx, “48 Roses”

Between their name and their three self-titled albums, L.A. punks the Bronx might have initially seemed a bit geographically confused, but they found a focus somewhat closer to home in 2009, when they released the first album as musical alter egos Mariachi El Bronx. Becoming something akin to the Pogues of Mariachi, they brought a rock & roll intensity to some surprisingly trad-sounding original tunes, like the galloping, Mariachi-soaked single “48 Roses,” from their second album under their “secret identity.” [Listen here.]

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