10 times Banda el Recodo, Mexico's longest-running brass band, did something first(-ish)

Banda El Recodo

Banda El Recodo Publicity photo

No band sums up its genre more than Banda El Recodo.

When the brass band from Sinaloa, Mexico, plays Aldrich Arena Friday night, it’ll bring 81 years’ worth of repertoire with it. Banda El Recodo wasn’t the first band of its kind, but it’s lasted the longest. In the early 1900s, brass “tambora” bands ran rampant through Sinaloan villages, playing public bandstands and private parties. The village of El Recodo was home to three such ensembles, so one bandleader, an enterprising clarinetist named Cruz Lizárraga, added his name to his band’s moniker, setting them apart. Banda Sinaloense El Recodo de Don Cruz Lizárraga would soon make a (very long) name for itself beyond its village borders.

Banda was less reputable than mariachi, which post-revolutionary Mexico promoted as its “official” music. It was loud and rowdy; its musicians played mostly two-or-three-chord songs by ear; it stomped. Playing in tune wasn’t a given. In her engrossing book Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders, Helena Simonett writes that banda existed at the periphery of Mexican cultural life. Banda musicians didn’t aim for self-expressive art; they played because it was fun and because it paid, and their stylistic innovations generally began as money-making schemes. 

Banda El Recodo was at the forefront of most of these schemes. You can read the band’s long history as one innovation after another, each of which would contribute in some way to today’s banda-industrial complex. Twenty-first century banda is big business, traditional yet modern, rural but urban. It’s corny songs played with mind-boggling complexity. It melts faces, makes lovers swoon, and sometimes stumbles across art in spite of itself. 

Here are 10 times Don Cruz and his banda seemed to foresee our future.

In the late 1940s, they started wearing uniforms.

This did not go well. The band members “started a hellish row” when their leader issued white shirts and blue pants. “They couldn’t picture tambora musicians in uniforms,” Don Cruz later recalled — but he could. His vision was to sophisticate the wild village band, so they could land good-paying gigs in the port city of Mazatlán. Besides looking the part, the band re-arranged middlebrow material from El Norte. One such tune was Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol,” heard here in a more recent recording because nobody was recording bandas in the late ‘40s.

In 1951 or 1954, they recorded.

It’s complicated. Simonett helpfully outlines the whole mess — which involves un-dated early recordings, multiple bands named “Banda El Recodo,” and scrappy Don Cruz forming an ad hoc group to outwit the Mazatlán Musicians’ Union — in her Arhoolie Records liner notes. Bottom line: In 1954, two years after their peers Banda Los Guamuchileños, Banda El Recodo recorded in both Mazatlán and Mexico City. They draped the walls of a nightclub with bedding and cut their songs in one take, releasing the results as “Banda Regional Sinaloa.” 

In 1962, they traveled to the U.S.

This did not go well. Once again, Los Guamuchileños had beaten them to the punch — but then Los Guamuchileños broke up, nyah nyah nyah, so the job of banda-vangelism fell to Don Cruz and his fleet-fingered apostles. But driving up and down California, they had trouble attracting more than handfuls of people. They finally started getting regular gigs at L.A.’s Million Dollar Theater, known for hosting Mexican stars like José Alfredo Jiménez, and the situation improved. During this period, they continued cutting their own versions of U.S. pop tunes — like Jenny Lou Carson’s country hit “Jealous Heart,” which would become the banda standard “Celoso.”

El Recodo’s version isn’t online, so here’s Banda Vallarta Show doing “Celoso.”

In 1968, they recorded with José Alfredo Jiménez.

Banda was mostly instrumental, but Banda El Recodo cut plenty of one-offs like “Mi Gusto Es” with local singers. Their 1968 project was the first time a banda had backed an entire album for an international star. The eponymous album title was ungainly, but Jiménez had an elegant method of promoting the banda: he inserted their name into the third line of “Corrido de Mazatlán.”

In 1989, they hired a singer to front the band.

By putting Conrado Calderón on payroll, Don Cruz made his job easier. Now the band could play their one-off vocal singles in concert without scrambling to find someone to sing them. But Cruz was also reading la borra del café: If the banda was going to reliably score hits, it needed a frontman. Calderón’s throaty voice was smooth as agave, making him perfect for this recording of “Llorando Se Fue/Lambada,” released when the Forbidden Dance was sweeping our sorry continent.

In 1992, they hired a twangy frontman.

Behold Don Cruz’s counterintuitive genius. His whole career, he’d been pushing the banda beyond el rancho, toward the city and El Norte and the world. And then he hired Julio Preciado, who had a taste for narco songs and crowed like a rooster on the fritz. Surely this move would limit the banda’s appeal? Wrong: In ‘92, the legendary corridero Chalino Sánchez died, inspiring a generation of L.A. kids who’d previously been into rap to start dressing like — in the words of journalist Sam Quinones — “Mexican hicks.” For them, Preciado’s nasal ranchera voice kept it real. Still, some longtime banda fans hated corridos like “De Sinaloa a California”; they thought the band was selling out and glorifying drug traffickers.

In the mid-‘90s, they became reactionary curmudgeons.

The tables had turned. Banda got big in L.A. — the regional Mexican radio station KLAX hit #1 in the market — but it was mostly the novelty technobanda of groups like Banda Machos, who ditched wind instruments in favor of synthesizers. Banda Machos’ lead singer told the paper La opinión his group had “updated and modernized” the Sinaloan sound, the way Banda El Recodo had been doing all along. But Don Cruz hated technobanda. It wasn’t real banda sinaloense! After Don Cruz died in 1995, the band solidified its “elder statesmen” status by cutting a 1998 album with genre-jumping Mexican icon Juan Gabriel.

In 2001, they turned acoustic banda into a pop song delivery device.

Under the direction of Don Cruz’s sons, and with his wife María running the office, Banda El Recodo began hiring a pair of young L.A. producers named Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, known professionally as Los Twiins. The twins had their identical fingerprints on the pulse of the youth, and they led Recodo toward a sound that would blanket airwaves to this day. Noel Hernandez’s newly written “Y Llegaste Tú” sounded trad but vibrant, and turned the banda’s contrasting instrumental sections into hooks. And, in possibly another first: “We’ve learned how to really tune the banda,” Omar told Billboard, “which [in the past] maybe wasn’t really done.”

In 2003, they got a Grammy nomination.

Throughout its myriad name changes, the Grammy for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album had recognized norteño, Tejano, mariachi, and whatever Juan Gabriel was doing that year… but rarely banda. After Julio Preciado left Banda El Recodo in 1998, he started scoring hits and Grammy nods with his own catchy take on the style. Not until 2003 did a nomination go to a banda, rather than to a singer accompanied by a banda. The skippy Vicente Fernandez cover “No Me Sé Rajar” continued Banda El Recodo’s millennial sound: quick, clean shifts in tone color, with enough horn bluster to conjure images of the old town square.

In 2007, they gave songwriter Luciano Luna a shot.

In the past two decades, banda has become a big pop music industry, with go-to producers and prolific one-man song factories like Luna. He’s a Diane Warren type, a hopeless romantic whose gigantic melodies and insipid lyrics appear as regularly as the tides. His breakthrough came when El Recodo took his ballad about, I dunno, besos and sueños or something, and gave it a personality. The brass blared, the clarinets swooned, and the singers harmonized like lovelorn corndogs a few months off the ranch. It was maudlin, trite, tasteless, banal, and thrilling — like the rest of the genre Banda El Recodo helped create.

Banda el Recodo
With: Voz De Mando, Brazeros Musical, Dos Coronas
Where: Aldrich Arena
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Oct. 18
Tickets: $50 and up; more info here