Ranchera, norteño, and banda sinaloense reign supreme in Mexico. Ranchera is the traditional music performed by mariachi ensembles. Layers of string instruments and trumpets provide the backing for a larger-than-life singer to vocalize epic songs about romance and patriotic pride. José Alfredo Jiménez [Cuando lloran los hombres (Sony International, 2003)], Pedro Infante [Las mañanitas (Warner Music Latina, 2001)], Jorge Negrete [Mexicanismo (Sony International, 2006) ], Lola Beltrán [La grande (Warner Music Latina, 2002)], and Vicente Fernández [Necesito de ti (Sony International, 2009)] are some of the heroes in this field—and Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de mi padre (Asylum, 1990) delivers an accessible introduction.
Boasting a polka-like beat and tuneful accordion melodies, norteño is hugely popular. One group rises comfortably above all others: Los Tigres Del Norte, whose double-CD Jefe de jefes (Fonovisa, 1997) is a bona fide norteño masterpiece. Emerging from the state of Sinaloa and spreading throughout Mexico and the U.S., banda sinaloense is larger-than-life, often boasting more than 40 musicians onstage. The sound is opulent and somewhat frantic, combining syncopated drum rhythms with bursts of tuba and clarinet. The punchy Con la banda...el recodo!!! (Sony International, 1998) finds pop star Juan Gabriel teaming up with the biggest banda of all.
Puerto Rico occupies a unique place in the continent's music history. Besides boasting its own brand of danceable folklore—the plena and bomba, luscious styles in their own right—this Caribbean island was instrumental in the development of the pan-global genre known as salsa.
The salsa explosion of the seventies took place in New York City, crystallizing a volatile meeting of styles. The initial ingredient was a number of Cuban formats: guaracha, cha-cha, mambo, and guaguancó. These were transformed by musicians, mostly of Puerto Rican origin, who brought forth the luxurious sheen of American big band jazz, the gritty vibe of urban R&B and soul, and the subtle influence of boricua folk. The resulting sound spawned such salsa stars as El Gran Combo, Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto, La Sonora Ponceña, and Rubén Blades.
Of the bandleaders, Tito Puente was the grandest. He emerged in the mambo era of the fifties and continued recording copiously until his death in 2000. His Dance Mania (Sony International, 1958) showcases the rich buffet of tropical formats that would eventually morph into salsa. The modern salsa sound explodes with full force on Eddie Palmieri's 1964 masterpiece Azúcar Pa'Ti (Tico/Fania, 1964). It contains the nine-minute-long "Azúcar"—devastating in its intensity and swing. In former Sonora Matancera vocalist Celia Cruz, salsa found its most flamboyant star. A collaboration with Nuyorican producer Willie Colón, Only They Could Have Made This Album (Vaya/Fania, 1977) has an indelible quality to it—the diva's chocolaty voice surrounded by lush layers of trombones and Colón's savvy production instinct.