Tag Archives: music

The Music Interlude of English Class

8 Mar

Exile to Mexico is proud to present: music exchange week at the university! A new Throw-Back Thursday publication for this humble blog!*

What music represents your country’s culture? This was one of the questions I asked my Level 2 students this week to get their brains relating in English for our music unit. It’s been such a fun discussion and rock-out session the past couple of days of class that I thought y’all might appreciate some of the excitement. Plus I bet you’ve never heard of half the music my students think is important, just like they’ve never heard of half your music. So I’m bringing the music exchange to you.

We were preparing to read an article on hip hop, and its now-international popularity. The article included a history of the roots of hip hop that mentioned genres like blues, jazz, reggae, and rhythm and blues. Most of my students have never heard of any of the styles or artists named there, except maybe for Bob Marley’s reggae. So we spent more than a whole class reading the timeline, listening to music and discussing it. It turned out to be a blast, even if nobody understood more than two words of any song. They foolishly wanted me to sing to them, believing that my singing would help them understand. Bwahahahahaha!

Before we even got to all that music, though, I asked them what music represents Mexican culture. What do you think, dear reader, when you think of music in Mexico? If you said mariachi, some of my students would certainly agree with you. Mariachi is popular- at certain moments, at least- all over Mexico and is fairly recognized internationally. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) even declared it an important part of the national culture in 2011.

Other popular answers to this question included banda music and norteñas, which you may or may not have heard of. I certainly hear people playing banda music around here about a thousand times more often than they play mariachi music, but identity is identity and we all know mariachi is historical and famous. Perhaps it is more relevant on a daily basis in other parts of Mexico than here in coastal Oaxaca.

I am the worst in the world at describing music, so I will spare you my pathetic attempts and give you examples instead. This is some of the music that my students feel like is important to and representative of their lives and culture in Mexico.

This is Conan’s favorite ever corrido, one style of music that a lot of my students mentioned as being important. A corrido is a Mexican folk ballad that narrates something like a historical event or another important topic. It was a style that started in the gruesome, ten year long Mexican Revolution. I was much more impressed with the argument for corridos being Mexico’s music rather than mariachi music. Corridos explore a whole gamut of topic including but not limited to infidelity, immigration, poverty and oppression, folk heroes and historic events, and even violence and drugs. Norteña music, at least as far as my gringa understanding goes, is in the same style as corridos, still a narrative ballad style, but more about love and romance and cheating and all that stuff, and less about popular stories and oppression and revolution and the like. The most famous Mexican group that is classified as “norteña” music is Los Tigres del Norte. Here’s a song by them, and another, because I got a lot of recommendations by them.

Banda music is something it seems like everybody listens to around here, so of course that was named a lot as well, although I feel like that’s like saying “pop” is the national music of the United States. Here’s an example of something that I suspect is supposed to be romantic but the video itself is creepy, in my humble opinion. I can’t even listen to the lyrics. That’s how I feel about most pop music- especially “romantic” stuff, though, so it’s nothing against banda music itself. Here’s another example, just in case it’s your thing.

Not one person named mariachi when I asked what music represented culture in Oaxaca, of course. There were some more mentions of corridos and banda music by a couple people, but overall the clear consensus was a regional style of folk called chilenas, which I bet you’ve never heard of. Here’s an example of a chilena, along with the dance, at a yearly festival called the Gueleguetza that takes place in Oaxaca City. And a chilena about Puerto Escondido, my adopted town. And another popular chilena, because, really they are a major part of the culture in this state.

So does everybody here love chilenas and listen to them daily? No. But they’re guaranteed to be played at a wedding or other major party, at the town’s festivals, etc. They are THE regional folk music. Everyone knows how to dance to them, at least on the basic level, at the very least if they’re tipsy at a big party. Chilenas are heard throughout Oaxaca much more than mariachi, hands down. (I like it much more than mariachi music, too.)


People dancing a chilena in Oaxaca. (Google image, definitely not my photo)

Also, in case you’re curious, there is indeed a link between the country of Chile and the music called “chilenas” here in Oaxaca. It is a bit similar and surely comes from the folk dance in Chile called the cueca. You can see a cueca for comparison here. The little bit that I’ve been able to research about it says that chilenas probably came here through Chilean sailors and immigrants heading to California during the gold rush, stopping off and maybe sometimes staying on the coast of Oaxaca. It’s a small world! (Especially since I also used to live in Chile.)

These music discussions were extra delightful for my students because, in addition to goofing off and watching their teacher lip sink to strange music, it turns out they had a very easy time with the vocabulary and translation part. There’s no English translation for Mexican music styles. Mariachi is mariachi. Chilenas are chilenas. You just have to experience it…. and pronounce it like a gringo. “Teacher, how do you say, ‘música banda’?” “Banda music!” I tell them happily. It’s just like my Level 1 students’ joy when we talk about food. “How do you say ‘enchiladas’?” “Enchiladas,” I tell them, and they sit there and blink at me. “It’s the same?” they ask. “Not exactly,” I say, and they giggle hysterically when I pronounce it like we do in the states.  Another win for the students!

Hope you enjoy the music half as much as we did in class! Salud!

*This is a blog I wrote a couple of years ago, and failed to publish. Whoops! But look how social-media savvy I am! Finally using the term “Throw Back Thursday” just before it goes out of style! Yay for taking advantage of procrastination!

Also, thank you, YouTube, for helping out the international sharing!