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Banda de los Muertos: Banda de los Muertos

Matt Marshall By

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It is common practice among groups that play Sinaloan banda music—a style that emerged from small village brass bands in Northwestern Mexico after the Revolution, typically featuring a few clarinets, trumpets, trombones and saxhorns, plus a tuba, snare drum and tambora—to link their name to their place of origin. Thus we get Banda El Recodo and La Arrolladora Banda El Limón, two of the music's most popular groups. This village association, and the broader regional identity of the music, is likewise a source of pride for the fans who live or have roots in the area.

Here we have Banda de los Muertos: a band, we might assume, that is of or for the dead, or for those descended from the dead (or even, considering the unfortunate, if not completely unfounded, conflation of banda and narcocultura, for the soon to be dead). Yet clearly there is a spirit of rebirth in this album's music—a music reclaimed. The band, organized by clarinetist Oscar Noriega and trombonist-cum-sousaphonist Jacob Garchik, reaches back beyond the electric transformations of technobanda that rose to prominence in Los Angeles in the 1990s, back beyond the garish vaquero uniforms adopted by so many groups, back beyond the ubiquitous vocals that have long held the instrumentalists in a supporting role, to retrieve a purer form of the music—a more casual gathering of local musicians blowing primarily for themselves, their family, friends and community.

But there is an irony (or reckoning, perhaps) in this reclamation, since banda was, historically, a music disdained by educated, socially ambitious urbanites for being unsophisticated noise played by amateurs for a rural, working-class audience. Conversely, Noriega, Garchik and their mates are all classically trained musicians, and their band holds court the first Saturday of each month at Barbès in Brooklyn, where Noriega says he delights in seeing the dance floor mix of Mexicans and hipsters that the music brings together. This thumping oompah-oompah music with its general lack of improvisation (the uninitiated might associate it most readily with polka) is also not what you'd expect from a pair of avant-garde jazzmen.

Yet Noriega, the son of Mexican immigrants, has a very personal link to banda. As a child he played this traditional music with his brothers in a band called Hermanos JOVEL and, appropriately, a favorite number from those days turns up again here: "Te Quiero Tanto," a smoldering bolero written by Noriega's grandmother, Susana Domínguez Ruiz. That is one of only two numbers on the album that include vocals, the other being Los Tigres del Norte's "La Puerta Negra," both sung with searing panache by Mireya Ramos of the all-woman Mariachi Flor de Toloache group. The general lack of vocals and the nine-person lineup not only harken back to banda's lost days, but also afford a more personal, nuanced approach with well-delineated instrumental lines and section play that can be enjoyed for its compositional intricacy, contrasting with the brass blare of the high-profile contemporary groups.

The album opens with a bold, spirited original by Noriega and Garchik, "Cumbia de Jacobo," which joins Noriega's clarinet with Chris Speed's in a looping butterfly dance that flitters over a vibrant brass attack, setting the course for an album of triumphant, willful and well-orchestrated tunes that will insist on celebrating even heartache and defeat. So the band drives Ramos' amorous certainty on "La Puerta Negra" with foot-tapping glee, blowing through the door that would lock her away from her lover. Garchik's nearly melodic sousaphone on "El Toro Viejo" with its reverberating bellows proves there's still a lot of fight left in this old music. While "Tragos Amargos" and the José Alfredo Jiménez classic, "Tu Recuerdo y Yo," mix tears with the restorative, careen-inducing exuberance of a good drinking session.

So in the end, we may need to reconsider. This is not music from or of or for the dead after all, but rather music to conquer death—and our inevitable passage to it—by laughing in its face. Which is to say, music that makes a party of life, no matter the circumstances.

Track Listing: Cumbia de Jacobo; El Sinaloense El Jalisciense; La Puerta Negra; El Toro Viejo; Tragos Amargos; Culiacán; Las Nubes; El Paso; Te Quiero Tanto; Ay Mexicanita; Tu Recuerdo y Yo; Arriba Mi Sinaloa.

Personnel: Oscar Noriega: clarinet; Chris Speed: clarinet; Ben Holmes: trumpet; Justin Mullens: trumpet; Brian Drye: trombone; Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Rachel Drehmann: alto horn; Jacob Garchik: sousaphone; Jim Black: drums, percussion; Mireya Ramos: vocals.

Title: Banda de los Muertos | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Barbes Records

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