Banda De Los Muertos to Serenade the Trump Tower and Then Red Hook
New York’s only Mexican-style brass band, Banda De Los Muertos, will perform live in front of the Trump Tower at half past noon on Wednesday, September 16. For those who don’t know where the Trump Tower is (guess who just google mapped it), it’s at 5th Ave. and 56th St. in Manhattan. As street theatre in 2015 goes, this will be pretty hard to beat. 99-percenters who’re up for a serious dance party with this tight, explosively yet meticulously arranged retro group can go to the album release show for their self-titled Barbes Records debut at 9ish on Sept 18 at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer St. just off Van Brunt in Red Hook. The incomparably fun yet poignant all-female Mariachi Flor De Toloache open that night at around 8; cover is $15. The B61 bus (which you can pick up just south of Sahadi’s on Atlantic Ave.) will drop you off on Van Brunt about a block and a half from the venue. And if you have 20 minutes to spare, the walk from the Carroll St. F station is remarkably easy. Exit at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train, then take Smith about a block and a half to First Place and make a left. A couple of blocks from there, First Place becomes Summit. Keep going for a couple of blocks and when you reach the BQE, take the footbridge over and then make a U-turn, continuing on Summit until it merges with Hamilton Ave. for about half a block. Then make a left on Van Brunt and take it straight to Pioneer. And take these directions with you.
Among Mexican-Americans, Sinaloa-style banda music was often considered cheesy and dated until rediscovered by Gen X-ers in the 90s; since then, it’s continued to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Although bandas are common in California and the American border states, Banda De Los Muertos are the first of their kind in New Yor. This banda is the brainchild of clarinetist Oscar Noriega and multi-brassman Jacob Garchik, who came up with the concept while members of Slavic Soul Party. Noriega is Mexican-American and grew up playing much of the band’s traditionally-oriented repertoire in a popular Tucson family band. Garchik is a highly sought-after jazz trombonist and composer, although in this group, he plays sousaphone.The rest of the ensemble comprises several A-list jazz musicians: clarinetist Chris Speed, trumpeters Ben Holmes and Justin Mullens, trombonists Curtis Hasselbring and Bryan Drye, horn player Rachel Drehmann and standup drummer Jim Black, with Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos on vocals.
If you’re hearing this stuff for the first time and thinking, “A lot of this sounds like ranchera music with horns instead of guitars and strings,” you’re right! Many ranchera stars have recorded with bandas over the years. The songs on the new album are mostly covers, although the opening track, a Garchik/Noriega creation, is a brisk, spring-loaded cumbia. With its droll juxtaposition of swirly reeds and punchy staccato horns, it’s arguably the best song here – and a reminder just how tight traditional Mexican bandas can be, and how challenging the music is to play. The band revisits that groove later on with their take of ulio Jaramillo’s Ay Mexicanita.
The band segues from the joyous pageantry of El Sinaloense into the even more dramatic and more complex El Jalisciense. Ramos raises the rafters with her impassioned, gritty vocals on El Puerto Negro. Even by the rigorous standards of new big band jazz, Garchik’s elaborate chart for the old standard El Toro Viejo is striking – then again, he’s used to that kind of stuff since he arranges for the Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, among others. The same could be said for the tricky counterpoint and lush, ambered sonics of the band’s version of Las Nubes.
There’s a Ramon Ayala hit, the stately waltz Tragos Amargos – where the group sounds like a single, giant accordion – and one by Jose Alfredo Jiminez, Tu Recuerdo y Yo, which is closer to Tex-Mex balladry. The best song on the album – and the one with the most resonant backstory – is the angst-ridden bolero Te Quiero Tanto, written by Noriega’s grandmother, Susana Dominguez, who mentored him while he played with his brothers as a teenager. Another more fiery, toweringly majestic bolero, Culiacan also packs a wallop. For some comic relief, there’s a wry cover of Marty Robbins’ El Paso. The album closes with the scamperingly exuberant, shapeshifting Arriba Mi Sinaloa. The album’s not out yet, so there’s nothing at Spotify or the usual streaming spots, but there are a bunch of videos up at Garchik’s music page.