10 times Banda MS, the world’s biggest brass band, didn’t totally blow

Banda MS: There are so many of them.

Banda MS: There are so many of them. Photo provided by the artist.

Banda MS may be the world’s most popular brass band; these days, they’re definitely one of the suckiest.

Sure, the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Bands have packed more festivals over their long careers. Red Baraat and No BS! have played more Tiny Desk Concerts. Several Balkan brass bands livened up the Boratsoundtrack, whose producers apparently closed their eyes, pointed to a region near Kazakhstan on a map, and decided, “Eh, close enough.”

Who’d I miss? The Grimethorpe Colliery Band? Get outta here with that shite.

But no matter how good these acts are, none of them rival the popularity of Banda MS, who’ll play Aldrich Arena in Maplewood Saturday night. The banda makes music for a young, tech-savvy, international audience. In the past decade, Banda MS has scored nine Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin chart, conspicuous amid the reggaeton and Latin-trap glut. The group currently has three albums on the Latin Albums chart, equaled only by bachata king Romeo Santos and chameleonic hair model J “Mi Gente” Balvin. Most of their “album sales” reflect online streamslast year, Banda MS was Spotify’s most-streamed Mexican act, and its YouTube videos routinely notch hundreds of millions of views.

This is a travesty for art.

Banda MS’s singles are SO BORING, oh my gosh. They’ve cornered the market on stodgy, grooveless, cloying, tension-free ballads about amor—as opposed to the ambiguous, groovy, caddish, tightly coiled slow jams favored by their chart rivals (and world’s former biggest brass band) La Arrolladora Banda el Limón. Not since the indefensible Hal Leonard’s Grade 2 Music for Marching Band Samplerhas a brass-based ensemble devoted so much energy (16 band members!) to sounding so banal. If regional Mexican radio were the Hobby Lobby home decor section, Banda MS would be the giant cursive “love” you hang over your bed.

Still, during its decade and a half career, Banda MS has recorded several songs with actual personalities. Here are 10 that, with any luck, they’ll play Saturday.

Al Centro Y Pa’ Dentro” (2004)

The sexdectet’s full name is Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizárraga. Sergio is the banda’s founder and original tubist, and the “MS” stands for “Mazatlán, Sinaloa,” a port-and-resort city where bandas first formed in the 1800s. A century later the more cosmopolitan, tourist-friendly bandas would start dressing up in flashy matching suits and using chord changes from U.S. pop. Such innovations live on in songs like “Al Centro,” a rockin’ cumbia with drum fills, unison riffs, and other devices proven to ratchet up excitement.

“La Suata” (2004)

Banda MS started as a self-contained indie banda, writing, producing, and releasing its own material. Singer Walo Silvas wrote this profane lover’s kiss off, in which madres are chinga-ed and ex-girlfriends allegedly sell their own culos. (Better than selling their madres’ culos, I guess.) It would become the band’s breakout song, but for someone else—La Arrolladora Banda covered it and, con censura, got a radio hit.

Niña Peligrosa” (2006)

Concerned that the dancing young lady he’s ogling will, I dunno, spontaneously combust or something, Silva gives her a rock-hard syncopated strut that’s guaranteed to just make her dance more. He then sprays his throaty vibrato all over the place, putting out the fire with gasoline.

“El 24” (2007)

Playing banda sinaloense usually means playing a handful of narcocorridos, story-songs about the drug biz. In recent years these songs have literally lost the plot, foregoing narratives for tight-lipped humblebrags attributed to real-life gangsters. Fans of traditional corridos often hate the new school on both aesthetic and moral grounds. Still, these tossed-off character studies can be thrilling, like this jubilant waltz, sung from the POV of a death-dealing dude nicknamed El Tecate. Banda MS still plays it at every show.

El Mechón” (2008)

The band’s first major label U.S. hit was a hoot, part of a novelty fad embraced by radio morning shows. This version of Abraham Nuñez’s gloriously dumb two-chord cumbia improved on previous guitar renditions by adding a sick percussion groove and spiky tuba stabs. It’s smutty if you want it to be, and it’ll get you moving regardless: Former Giants closer Sergio Romo uses it for his walk-on song, and MS’s trombonist once fell off the stage while playing it.

Viajes Panamá” (2009)

Banda MS quickly stopped writing its own songs, relying instead on hired guns. The band’s 2009 album featured four tunes by a teenager named Gerardo Ortiz, soon to release his debut album. Today he’s the biggest solo star in regional Mexican music. The best of the four is this jaunty narco waltz about three accomplished businesswomen who take trips to Panama in armored cars. As in “El 24,” nothing happens; it’s a sleek airbrush painting of a song.

Amor Enfermo” (2011)

Then the band covered a song by Ortiz’s elder cousin Regulo Caro, one of the most inventive lyricists in the scene. Caro is drunk on words. Here he uses violent narco imagery to make his love affair pop like a gangster movie—gunpowder lips detonate hearts, an R-15 emits bursts of kisses, etc. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can marvel as the internal rhymes pile up like Scorsese dolly zooms.

Amor Express” (2012)

The title “Amor Express” conjures visions of Benjamin Bratt and Eva Longoria trapped inside a Hallmark romcom about train conductors shoveling coal. (Tagline: “Their lives were on track… until love ran them off the rails.”) But don’t worry, it’s actually the most palatable MS power ballad. The prolific Espinoza Paz writes lots of songs for lots of people, and many are crap, but when he’s on—as in this wordy, hooky, unusually chorded song—I stop begrudging his fortune. The video is almost as good, a mini-novela with a spilled-coffee meet cute in sumptuous slo-mo.

Hermosa Experiencia” (2013)

Speaking of sumptuous, this song, with all its lips, skin, undressing, and body tasting, is basically a Harlequin novella. (Or a Thomas Harris thriller.) It’s also surprisingly fast, a super-tight waltz splitting the difference between traditional town square banda and radio pop pleasure. Even six years later, there’s a good chance WREY has played it today.

Los Suficientes Huevos” (2014)

Banda MS eventually left its major label, recovered its masters, and started earning royalties for the first time in its career. Weirdly, independence made the band blander than before, and even its fast songs started sounding lame—see the toothless cumbia “El Cocodrilo” on its 2018 album.

Still, who knows what’ll happen live? Ballads could become euphoric singalongs. Deep cuts could rise from the mothballs. If the banda is feeling especially randy, they might even whip out this Freudian shame nightmare, where the shy narrator mourns his lack of “eggs.” You don’t need an interpreter for that.

Banda MS
Where: Aldrich Arena, Maplewood
When: 8:30 p.m. Sat. March 23
Tickets: $70-$250; more info here