In the zone
Traditionally, Norteña music hasn’t been subject to much interpretation. It’s polka-influenced country, and even though its name means “northern,” it’s popular all over the Western U.S. and Mexico. Ever since it developed in the 19th century, based on Polish and German sounds migrating to the Southwest and Mexico, the genre’s steady, danceable beat and reliance on traditional accordion haven’t changed much.
“That’s the music you listen to with your great grandparents, your grandparents, your parents,” said Kristias Trujillo-Zenea, drummer for the band Zona Norteña.
The thing is, once a genre crosses an international border, and once a band that intended to stick to tradition hires a teenager in croc-skin cowboy boots with a rock ’n’ roll heart—it’s hard not to mix things up a bit. That young musician is Imanol Quezada.
“He’s our pride and joy—our 15-year-old kid, who plays the accordion like Jimi Hendrix.” said Trujillo-Zenea.
Quezada said that his dad taught him accordion when he was four or five, and that he grew up on, “all types of stuff, jazz, blues, sometimes rock.”
Each of the band’s six members has a story of growing up on Norteña and at least one other musical lineage, and each has settled on his own level of traditional or fusion.
Bass player Martin Arroyo switches from genre to genre often. He’s a member of both Zona Norteña and the Latin-funk/jazz group Drinking With Clowns.
Drummer Trujillo-Zenea also plays in Drinking With Clowns, but the sounds emanating from his drum set when he plays Norteña aren’t Latin-funk/jazz in the least. They’re more like strains of Pantera or Metallica—bands he’s always revered.
Other members keep it more traditional.
“When you play Norteña you have to stick within the Norteña style,” said singer Ramiro Ramirez, who grew up singing in a church choir in Guadalajara. He likes to scream like a metal head and croon romantic ballads.
“I grew up singing all kinds,” Ramirez said. “I’m used to singing everything.”
But when he takes the mic for Zona Norteña, he said, “I try to stick within the boundaries.”
Miguel Rodriguez has always been into classic rock, but shortly after he bought a Classic Series Fender Stratocaster, his rock band broke up. Now he plays a bajo quinto, a 10-stringed guitar with fancy edging. No self-respecting Norteño band would do without either a bajo quinto or its close cousin, the 12-stringed bajo sexto.
Federico Mendez provides the other essential Norteña sound, straight-up country accordion. Yep, you read right, this six-member band has two accordion players.
Zona Norteña played its first-ever show about a year ago, opening for Los Tigres del Norte, the influential, multi-Grammy-winning group from San Jose that’s widely popular in Mexico and the U.S.
Since then they’ve been playing two or three weddings, birthdays or quinceañeras a month and the occasional bar gig. With practice, they’ve mixed their different approaches into a seamless, amalgamated style that’s still right for dancing with the grandparents—provided the grandparents are cool with a few jazz and blues chords, a little Metallica in the percussion and a little Hendrix in the accordion. And the experimentation may well progress further.
“I think it’s a work in process,” said Trujillo-Zenea. “The other day we started working on original music, just to see what will come out of it. It has a good chance to evolve.”