Banda de los Muertos is a group formed by saxophonist/clarinet player Oscar Noriega and trombonist/arranger Jacob Garchik to play the Mexican brass band music known as banda. It’s a highly traditional genre from the Sinaloa region, played since the 1880s, a blend of Mexican folk music and German polka that developed when a large number of German immigrants arrived in Mexico during the 19th Century. Groups can range from five or six players to well into double digits, and while the instrumentalists are typically male, many female singers have had great success in the banda genre, including Ana Bárbara, Graciela Beltrán, Ana Gabriel, and Jenni Rivera.
Banda instrumentation is highly melodic and intricately orchestrated—groups are typically made up of brass (trumpets, trombones) and woodwind instruments (clarinets, alto saxophones), and percussion, most notably a large parade-style bass drum. While maintaining the traditional sound, Banda de los Muertos is made up of well-known figures on the New York jazz scene. The lineup on their self-titled album, out September 18 (pre-order it from Amazon), includes Noriega and Chris Speed on clarinets, Ben Holmes and Justin Mullens on trumpets, Brian Drye and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones, Rachel Drehmann on alto horn, Garchik on sousaphone, and Jim Black on drums and percussion. They’re also joined by vocalist Mireya Ramos at times.
We’re premiering the group’s medley of “El Sinaloense” and “El Jalisciense.” Garchik says of the track, “‘El Sinaloense’ is one of the most famous songs associated with the state of Sinaloa and with banda. In fact the opening notes are sort of like an iconic calling card for Banda el Recodo, like hearing ‘Hail to the Chief’ and thinking immediately of the President. ‘El Jalisciense’ is also a very famous song, associated with Vicente Fernandez. Both songs are proud, detailing and bragging about the things that make those from these two states distinctive, kind of like the ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ of Sinaloa and Jalisco. We wanted to play these two to pay tribute to the classic banda sound, and because they are very fun songs, fast, intricate and exciting to play.”
Stream “El Sinaloense/El Jalisciense”:
Jacob Garchik and Oscar Noriega answered some questions via email.
What about banda appeals to you as a player, and did you learn anything from a technical standpoint while studying this music?
Jacob Garchik: The level of musicianship in banda is extremely high, even with so-called “amateur” bands. The professional bands have some of the best brass players in the world. Playing banda for the last five years has certainly improved my sousaphone playing!
Oscar Noriega: As a clarinetist, playing the melodies. They are in the high and somewhat altissimo registers, which is technically difficult if you are not used to it. Also, learning to play loud and keeping one’s sound integrity together while blending with all brass and drums is not an easy task, it is exciting and a welcome challenge. As for its music, I like the feeling and power it brings to the audience, making them dance and sing with the band.
I’m intrigued by your decision to go pretty traditional, rather than “modernize” banda or take it in an avant-garde direction—how big a change of gear was this music for you and the other band members?
JG: All of us are well-versed in many different styles of music, including avant-garde jazz but also classical, Balkan music, Hasidic wedding band music, salsa, blues, New Orleans brass band music. We respect many different traditions and know how to “play the gig.” That said, any Mexican banda listening to us for the first time would hear many traditional elements but also hear our own spin on things. We play some repertoire that no other bandas play (“El Paso,” “Cumbia de Jacobo”), we use some instruments that are unusual for bandas (drum set, slide trombones), and in general we have our own style of playing.
ON: I could only speak for myself; I don’t think of it as a big change of gear. I spend a lot of time studding many types of music—jazz, classical, Balkan, Mexican, my mentors and friends music, etc. I approach it thinking that I don’t know anything from the beginning, and being open to learn something new. One way is learning traditional songs first. Also I’m a big fan of the older repertory and of some of the new modern bandas’ music.
What is the response like when performing with Banda de los Muertos live, vs. the typical 2015 jazz gig? Is it more fun to play music people dance to, or just a different kind of fun?
JG: Playing for dancers has been an essential part of my musical world since I did salsa gigs as a teenager. I thrive on variety; I might play a dance gig with the Banda on a Saturday but the next day play jazz for a cerebral, sit-down audience. I don’t want to do just one or the other! It’s the difference between having a conversation with a stranger on the subway or giving a lecture to students. Both are important.
ON: It’s different, it’s like comparing a 2015 swing jazz band performing a typical jazz gig. I play many types of jazz gigs, from improvised to new and standard music, they’re all different, all fun, some more challenging, some technically hard and some mentally harder. As for banda, I’m happy when the crowd starts to dance and sing along.
How did you pick the tracks for the record? How deep is the band’s repertoire, and will there be a second volume?
JG: The repertoire is quite a varied mix. Some of the songs are Oscar’s picks, relating to his childhood—songs he used to play as a kid, a song his grandmother wrote, or a song his dad liked on the radio. Some of the repertoire are banda classics which I loved just from hearing the recordings. We have quite a few more songs (about 40 in total) and yes, we definitely plan on recording more, including more original music.
ON: At first, both Jacob and I picked songs and played them for the people and kept what we liked, eliminating what we thought didn’t work. When we started working on the selection for an album, we thought more about what we wanted and picked some songs I grew up playing, some Sonora style or Norteño music I listened to when I was young, living in Tucson, AZ. We have a lot more music in the book and yes, we hope to do a second volume.
For people interested in exploring banda further, which groups or vocalists would you recommend?
JG: Start with some classic stuff from Banda el Recodo—try and find the old instrumental recordings from the ’60s and ’70s. For vocalists, almost every classic Mexican singer has done albums with banda at some point, and you can’t go wrong with José Alfredo Jiménez, Pedro Infante, or Paquita la del Barrio. Just look for “con Banda.”
ON: Banda el Recodo is my first choice, they have been around forever and will be around for a while, they have gone through so many changes and know so much music. I also like El Coyote, Banda el Limon and Banda los Recoditos.