[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
“Why are they wearing cowboy gear?” my friend asked as she absorbed the busy Sunday afternoon scene of Chicago’s 26th Street. “Welcome to Chicago,” I told my New York pal.
Duranguense means belonging to the state of Durango, México; but it also refers to a genre of regional Mexican music. The Grammy-winning style of Duranguense was born in Chicago in early 2000, and Mexican youth across the country became quickly enamored with the catchy sound and accelerated two-step dance called el pasito Duranguense. What makes Duranguense unique is that unlike previous genres that surged south of the border, Duranguense was created and launched in the US by both foreign- and US-born musicians. The large concentration of Mexicans in suburbs and particular Chicago neighborhoods facilitated the music’s spread. Although short-lived, Duranguense’s popularity came to represent the bi-national realities of the Mexican diaspora.
Duranguense provided a window of opportunity to musicians as the burgeoning sound captivated increasing numbers of both first- and second-generation Mexicans. Although not all of its followers were Mexican, Duranguense became a subculture that reflected the experiences of different generations, and of different lives in relation to the border; it spoke to the experiences of both migrants and their US-raised children. The lyrics signaled working-class values and were often reinventions of older traditional songs. Local Chicago bands that had for years played at cotillions, weddings, and rodeos soon incorporated the Duranguense sound. K-Paz de la Sierra, Los Horoscopos, Alacranes Musical and Montez de Durango dominated the early Duranguense scene, integrating the heavy-bass sounds of other regional Mexican genres such as banda, norteño, and tamborazo, with the fast-paced electronic and brass instrumentation of Duranguense.
Duranguense was an outlet through which some migrants could fulfill their artistic aspirations. Practices often began in a basement or garage, and depending on the band’s success, led to a string of local gigs. The decades-old Mexican nightlife scene included Noa Noa’s, El Sinaloense, el Casino Tropical, the Aragon, and Globos. More recently, banquet halls like the now retired European Hall and restaurants like Merenderos, Alejandra’s, and Las Islas Marias opened their doors to nightlife entertainment, facilitating entrance to a younger 18-plus crowd.
The vaquero, or western-wear attire indicative of rural-ranch life, was an essential component of the dance scene. Although fans of older regional Mexican styles also dressed in the traditional leather boot, belts, and tejanas, or cowboy hats, the Duranguense scene was distinct. A dance floor at a Duranguense baile, or dance hall, was filled with boots and matching belts in a variety of colors, modernized guayaberas (Caribbean men’s shirt), and tejanas autographed by band members. Women, on the other hand, had the option of both western apparel and trendier fashions. In the summertime, jaripeos and coleaderas, or rodeos and horse shows, became events where the entire family could sport western regalia. Of course, a local band always enlivened the sidelines with the new sounds of Duranguense.
The dance halls weren’t the only venue where the music was heard. Mexican radio stations were also responsible for filling the airwaves with Duranguense rhythms; you never failed to hear the vibrant sounds as you cruised Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
Duranguense artists orchestrated both Mexican rural representations and city life in the United States. Even their music videos depicted Chicago backdrops and rustic Mexican agrarian landscapes, drawing upon both identities. Younger generations in the US related to the genre that paid homage to the cultural ties of their parents while being emblematic of their American experience. The music also captivated audiences in México, such that Duranguense bands frequently toured in several Mexican states for months at a time.
A Changing Music Scene
Duranguense’s sound is part of a long history of transnational music. It shares stark similarities with older European polkas, schottisches, and waltzes, and the rapid movement and up-tempo beat characteristic of Duranguense often led its critics to compare it to “circus music.” Reinvented cover songs also provoked accusations that the music lacked authenticity and original material. In fact, to many, the emerging Duranguense scene was reminiscent of Quebradita, an earlier subculture that originated in LA. Chicago dance clubs incorporated the acrobatic moves of Quebradita and even named themselves after the bands that sponsored them. Despite these criticisms, Duranguense provided tremendous autonomy to musicians. It was also inclusive; while the majority of musicians and dancers were of Mexican descent, Duranguense’s sound was also popular with some people of Central and South American origin. If your hips could exercise the exaggerated side-to-side moves associated with the dance, then you were welcome.
Around 2007, Duranguense’s popularity began to wane. Tía, who’s been attending bailes, or nightclubs, since before Duranguense was popularized, says Duranguense’s dead, and “if you’re still into it, you didn’t get the memo.” Some speculate it was due to media preoccupations over recent anti-immigrant legislation; others claim it was the rise in popularity of narcocorridos (drug ballads) that resulted from the increased violence in Mexico. Despite the genre’s decline, the music remains one of Chicago’s very own hallmarks, symbolic of the blurred yet very active boundaries created by migrant cultural productions. ◊