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The popularity of regional Mexican music is crossing borders and going global

(SOUNDBITE OF YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA SONG, "SOY EL UNICO")

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

That is a sound now dominating the Latin music charts and seeping over into the pop charts. It's a genre of regional Mexican music called sierreno, and it's become such a social and musical phenomenon that our friends at the Alt.Latino podcast wanted to try and figure out why this music, which goes back over a hundred years, is such a big deal right now. Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre are the hosts of Alt.Latino. They're here to tell us about their special three-part deep, profundo dive into the music. Now, Felix, Ana, you're running a part two of the series this week. The intro to the episode is as good of a place as any need to start with this conversation because it really points to some of the dramatic themes that you both hit on.

ANAMARIA SAYRE, BYLINE: Yahritza y Su Esencia were recording their own version of a style called sierreno, perfect for wearing your heart on your sleeve.

ARMANDO MARTINEZ: It's never going to be out of style, being heartbroken.

YAHRITZA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SAYRE: Their music really found an audience, one that grew fast, and the band was offered a record deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRAGIL")

YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing in Spanish).

SAYRE: They performed with bands that a few years before they had looked up to as heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRAGIL")

GRUPO FRONTERA: (Singing in Spanish).

SAYRE: Collecting a Latin Grammy nomination and playing in front of larger and larger audiences. Yahritza y Su Esencia was connecting with fans. But along the way, things got complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: I'm not disrespectful. I just don't respect people that don't respect me.

SAYRE: In a way that says a lot about how audiences in different places feel about this music - Regional Mexicana - and the artists who are making it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. No. Their name's Yahritza...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yahritza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...And Their Essence now.

SAYRE: As it crosses borders all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Like, how could you look and sound so paisa but at the same time not be paisa?

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So let's process a little of what we heard. And I'm guessing that the border between the U.S. and Mexico looms large in this story. You're talking about American artists playing Mexican music, right, Felix?

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: You know, yes. And Mexican music fans are very protective of their culture. And this has been true in the past, and certainly right now with this wave of Mexican regional artists.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So before we go any further, let's dig into what is regional Mexican music and why it's so popular right now, Ana.

SAYRE: So the different regions of Mexico, they all have kind of specific regional music attached to them. So Son Jarocho in Veracruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TLEN HUICANI SONG, "EL JARABE LOCO")

SAYRE: Conjunto bands from the border with their cowboy hats and accordions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONJUNTO PRIMAVERA SONG, "UNA VEZ MAS")

SAYRE: And in this case, Banda Sinaloense.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA EL RECODO DE CRUZ LIZARRAGA SONG, "Y LLEGASTE TU")

SAYRE: With its tubas and clarinets from Sinaloa. This new group of these young singers and songwriters, they're pulling back from at least a hundred years ago to stripped-down acoustic, 12-string-guitar style of music. But they make it modern, too.

CONTRERAS: All right. So let's bring it back to the band that you're featuring - Yahritza y Su Esencia. What makes them so popular in this context?

CONTRERAS: OK, a couple of things. First, as you heard at the top, the 17-year-old Yahritza Martinez has a very distinct voice. It's perfect for the in-your-face drama of the best mariachi ranchera songs. And as we point out in the episode, the band is also symbolic of the struggle for Mexican identity on the part of folks on both sides of the border. Yahritza and her brothers, as well as other bands from the U.S. that are playing this music, bring up uncomfortable conversations about authenticity, like who has the right to sing music from Mexico, even if you're born on this side of the border?

SAYRE: In Yahritza's case, she and her two brothers in the band were actually initially accepted by Mexican music fans. They wanted to show appreciation for someone trying to preserve their culture, and that's largely in part due to platforms like TikTok where they were able to post, you know, videos of themselves singing and people didn't really know which side of the border it was coming from.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And then things took an unexpected twist for the band.

CONTRERAS: In an interview with the band members, we were told one of the brothers had an immigration issue that threatened to derail their first headlining tour. So he had to spend six months in Mexico, a country he left when he was just 3 years old. So our conversations about the bump in the road of their career were all about identity, again, who has a right to claim Mexicanness. He was born here. He went back to Mexico. He felt like a stranger because he didn't have the cultural context to accept and mesh in with what was going on there.

SAYRE: What we realized over the course of telling the story as we followed them from here to Yakima to Mexico is that what their story really encapsulates is something that many Mexican Americans feel about their heritage. (Speaking Spanish). We got to spend a lot of time exploring that with both the band and, honestly, ultimately ourselves.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And those themes of identity and those themes of belonging, too, they're complex enough. But then the band also had to deal with an old interview that surfaced on social media that had what some say had demeaning language about Mexico.

CONTRERAS: You know, A, what attracted Ana and I to the band's music initially was the powerful, raw emotion in Yahritza's voice and in her songwriting, that wear-it-on-your-sleeve passion that they're known for also caused them to speak from the heart and say some things that got them in a little bit of hot water - talking about how things are different in the United States and how they preferred it to what was going on in Mexico - seemingly innocent stuff that took on a deeper meaning when you put it in this context of the border and everything that goes along with it.

SAYRE: We talked to them before and during and after this controversy, and we found that this experience, it really is about identity and something that Felix and I understand, and maybe you do, too, A, is asking these questions of, does a line in the sand determine your identity, who you are? If your parents are from Mexico, you grow up speaking Spanish, listening to old-school Mexican music, and yet you're more hip-hop than mariachi, does that mean that you can't claim your cultural heritage?

MARTÍNEZ: And here's the thing. We haven't even talked about the music and Yahritza's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRAGIL")

YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: She's perfect, man. Her voice is perfect for - like I said, for the high-drama emotion of the best mariachi rancheras. You think Chavela Vargas. You think Lola Beltran. You think of all the classics. You know, it's going to be fascinating to watch her talent grow and develop because, remember, she's only 17, man. She has a long, bright future in front of her.

MARTÍNEZ: Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre are the hosts of the podcast Alt.Latino from NPR Music. Their three-part series is called Regional Goes Global. Part two drops today. Thank you, you two.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, A.

SAYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRAGIL")

YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
Anamaria Artemisa Sayre
Anamaria Artemisa Sayre is co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.