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Regional Mexican music is crossing borders and going global. Here’s how it happened

Eslabon Armado frontman Pedro Tovar reflects on rise of regional Mexican music and success of Peso Pluma collaboration “Ella Baila Sola.” (Nov. 14)

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Regional Mexican music — a catchall term that encompasses mariachi, banda, corridos, norteño, sierreño and other genres — has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders.

While it has been around the U.S. for decades, with the late Selena Quintanilla weaving pop, disco and R&B rhythms into her Tejano music in the ’80s and ’90s, something extraordinary happened in the last year.

Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s “Ella Baila Sola” single surpassed a billion streams on Spotify last month, becoming the first regional Mexican Top 10 hit on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100, peaking at No. 4. Days later, Bad Bunny’s collaboration with Grupo Frontera, “Un x100to,” hit No. 5.

According to Luminate’s 2023 end-of-year report, four of the six Latin artists to reach 1 billion audio streams in the U.S. were Mexican artists: Peso Pluma, Eslabon Armado, Junior H and Fuerza Regida. They were in the top 125 artists streamed. Overall, regional Mexican music grew 60% in the U.S., accounting for a whopping 21.9 billion on-demand audio streams.

How did this happen? ϰϲ reached out to musicians, producers and industry experts to get a sense of the evolution of regional Mexican music ahead of the 66th Grammy Awards on Feb. 4.

A LONG TIME COMING

Leila Cobo, Billboard’s chief content officer for Latin music coverage, always believed Mexican music was going to be huge in the U.S., given its large Mexican American population.

“But I never, in a million years, thought it was going to become so global,” she says.

For Cobo, one of the factors contributing to regional Mexican music’s global reach is streaming, which democratized listening habits and allowed listeners who might not otherwise come across this music to fall in love with it.

On Spotify, Mexican music grew 400% worldwide over the last five years, according to Uriel Waizel, lead editor at Spotify Mexico. And on YouTube, Peso Pluma bested Taylor Swift and Bad Bunny to become 2023’s most streamed artist on the platform.

FILE - Peso Pluma performs during the MTV Video Music Awards on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
Peso Pluma at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
FILE - Grupo Frontera arrives at the Latin American Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 20, 2023. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Grupo Frontera arrives at the 2023 Latin American Music Awards in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In addition to streaming, Cobo points at a large population of Mexican descent in the U.S. interested in exploring the music of their ancestors — and a new generation of musicians embracing the genre but mixing it up with rap, reggaeton and electronic instrumentation, invigorating it in the process.

“It went from being music that was a little bit old-fashioned,” Cobo says. “But now I see a movement. And I think that is exciting.”

Waizel says that while Mexican music is centuries old, “current Mexican music is breaking because it is the music that young people listen to.”

Spotify confirmed that last month, 56% of those listening to Latin American artists were under 30. In Mexico, that jumps to 60% of listeners.

FILE - DannyLux performs at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on April 14, 2023. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)

DannyLux at the 2023 Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)

“Before, parents taught regional music to their children, but now the young people are the ones who are teaching their parents music,” says DannyLux, a 19-year-old singer of sad sierreño, a novelty subgenre that surfaced almost five years ago. “Regional music is reaching the heights of reggaeton, which was not seen before.”

A MOVEMENT, NOT A MOMENT

For Grammy-winning producer Édgar Barrera, to understand regional Mexican music, listeners must first understand that “it is a movement” finally having its “moment to shine globally,” because regional Mexican artists now encompass a variety of genres and sounds.

He cites the cumbias of Grupo Frontera and the corridos tumbados of Peso Pluma, both with very different lyrical approaches: “And they are doing numbers that the American artists are doing.”

FILE - Fuerza Regida performs at the Suenos music festival on Sunday, May 29, 2022, at Grant Park in Chicago. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP, File)
Fuerza Regida at the 2022 Suenos music festival in Chicago (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP, File)
FILE - Mexican singer Junior H performs at the Axe Ceremonia music festival at Bicentenario Park in Mexico City, Saturday, April 1, 2023. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
Junior H at the 2023 Axe Ceremonia music festival in Mexico City (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

Artists like Frontera, Fuerza Regida and Junior H are selling out “the same venues that Drake goes to a week later,” he says.

Barrera believes part of the cross-border appeal is that these regional Mexican genres are founded in live instrumental performance — guitars, tubas, trombones, trumpets and more.

“They are real musicians, they are people making real music, not a computer where you are programming or grabbing something from a sound library,” he says.

REGIONAL IS INTERNATIONAL

Last summer, at the Premios Juventud awards show in Puerto Rico, Mexican singer-songwriter Carín León wore a t-shirt that read “F--- Regional,” an apparent reference to the phrase “regional Mexican music,” and later published a manifesto chastising the ways in which different types of Mexican folk music have been restricted by the term.

“Labeling it regional” is wrong, he told the AP. “We are not more ‘regional,’ we are more ‘international.’”

FILE - Carin Leon performs at the Latin American Music Awards on Thursday, April 20, 2023, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Carin Leon at the 2023 Latin American Music Awards in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

And it’s not just Mexican artists experimenting with the genre. Colombian superstar Maluma released a pop-norteño track on his 2023 album “Don Juan,” called “Según Quién,” a collaboration with León.

Maluma told the AP he sensed years ago that corridos and banda music were going to enter the global music market. So, he called up Barrera, the producer, in 2018 and said: “I need different instrumentals because I want to start writing Mexican songs, like, regional music. He said, ‘Why? Let’s keep doing reggaeton,’ and I was like, ‘You’ll see!’”

Then the sound was everywhere.

“I’m so glad that it happened because we really needed it in the industry,” Maluma says. “That Mexican sauce we were missing in the global view of Latin music.”

A quick-hit glossary of regional Mexican music genres:

  • mariachi: ensemble folk music originating in Jalisco; usually includes guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, violin and trumpets
  • banda (norteña/sinaloense): ensemble music that features brass instruments and percussion
  • corridos: folk genre that had flourished in Mexico in the 19th century and had a golden era during the Mexican Revolution; narrative lyrics are told with guitar, bajoquinto and bandolon
    • corridos tumbados/corridos bélicos: a new genre of corridos from the last half-decade as spearheaded by people like Peso Pluma and Natanael Cano, these are more explicit corridos and can have influences of other genres like hip-hop
  • Դǰٱñ: from Northern Mexico and Texas, ensemble music identifiable for its use of the accordion
  • ñ: from Northern Mexico (Chihuahua, Sinaloa) and dates back to the ‘90s; known for its three main instruments: twelve-string guitar, accordion and tuba
    • sad ñ: From Northern Mexico and the U.S., a new version of sierreño that surfaced in 2019; played mainly with guitars, bajoloache and percussion, sometimes incorporating electronic instruments
  • tejano: Music from the Texas-Mexican border; combines norteño with U.S. genres and those from European immigrants, like polka. Think Selena Quintanilla.
  • cumbias: From Colombia, a style of dance music; included here because modern regional Mexican music often weaves cumbias into its songs

A ROCKY ROAD TO WORLDWIDE SUCCESS

It wasn’t long ago that regional Mexican music was in a tough spot. For some, the music was subject to a kind of classism, vilified the same way reggaeton was before it became accepted the world over.

Now, a new generation is responsible for refreshing the way in which the world looks at it, the very reason singer Pedro Tovar of Eslabon Armado hopes the genre will change from “regional Mexican” to just “Mexican music.”

“The roots are there,” for a younger generation of listeners, “and the genre is expanding more and more,” he says.

FILE - Brian Tovar, from left, Pedro Tovar and Gabriel Hidalgo of Eslabon Armado arrive at the iHeartRadio Music Awards on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Regional Mexican music has become a global phenomenon, topping music charts, breaking streaming records and reaching new audiences as it crosses borders. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Brian Tovar, Pedro Tovar and Gabriel Hidalgo of Eslabon Armado arrive at the 2022 iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

That wasn’t always the case. Less than a decade ago, the category for best ranchera/mariachi music album was completely removed from the 2016 Latin Grammys due to too few entries in a year also marked by the death of icon Juan Gabriel and Vicente Fernández’s retirement from the stage.

“We started sounding the alarm years in advance to say ‘this genre is going down,’” said Gabriel Abaroa Jr., president of the Latin Recording Academy, in an interview with the AP at the time.

Actor and singer Lucero, a veteran performer of regional Mexican music, also remembers those days.

“A few years ago, the problem was that regional music was disappearing, and it was increasingly difficult to sing ranchera songs,” she says. But now that it has rebounded, she is “very excited,” even if the songs are a hybrid approach to the genre.

A NEW SOURCE OF PRIDE

While there is no shortage of musical genres to play with, young Latin American musicians continue to embrace — and experiment with — regional Mexican music. They see it as a point of pride, a connection with and a celebration of their identity.

FILE - Becky G performs on NBC's "Today" show at Rockefeller Plaza on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in New York. Becky G, 26, experimented with regional Mexican music on her latest album, “Esquinas." (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Becky G in 2023 on NBC’s “Today” show in New York (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

It is something Mexican American artist Becky G, 26, accomplished with her latest album, “Esquinas,” which she described as “a love letter to my abuelitos, to my younger self and, hopefully, to the future generations.”

“Since I was a child I always talked with my grandparents about doing a project totally inspired by regional Mexican music,” she said.

And to perform at a time when regional Mexican music is bigger than ever is something she describes as “a source of pride for us Mexicans.”

Peso Pluma, 24, couldn’t agree more.

“It feels great, hearing all these people from different countries listening and singing (along) to my songs, it’s just a dream, man,” he told the AP at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.

“I’m very grateful for the genre that I do,” he said. “It’s going global and it’s breaking barriers. And I’m just thankful for all the people that are supporting Mexican music.”

A beginner’s playlist of the global hits that put regional Mexican music on the map:

  • Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma
  • Gabito Ballesteros and Natanael Cano
  • Grupo Frontera and Bad Bunny
  • Fuerza Regida and Marshmello
  • Becky G and Chiquis
  • Dariell Cano and DannyLux
  • Oscar Maydón and Junior H
  • Maluma and Carín León

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Sherman reported from Los Angeles.

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Music Journalist