Album Review

Los Pinguinos Del Norte - Corridos De La Frontera

Los Pinguinos Del Norte - Corridos De La Frontera

North of the Rio Grande it is called conjunto; south of the river it is referred to as Norteno. On the Texas-Mexico border, it's just plain musica, and when it's performed by Los Pinguinos Del Norte, a trio that's been playing for more than 54 years, it is simply some of the most soulful music performed in Spanish anywhere on earth.

That assessment isn't just mine. Border music become an infatuation for Chris Strachwitz, the greatest living recorder of American folk music, more than 30 years ago when his first field recording of border music was this very same album, recorded live in the El Patio cantina in the band's hometown of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Strachwitz's label, Arhoolie Records, subsequently elevated what is often called Tex-Mex into a serious folkloric sound, bringing it to the attention of roots fans who don't speak a whit of espanol but know good music when they hear it.

Led by accordeonista Ruben Castillo Juarez, the ensemble featuring button accordion, bajo sexto (six-string rhythm guitar) and tolocoche (a variation of the bass) is simple and direct, and the vocal harmonies between Castillo and Hilario Gaytan Moreno are plaintive, soothing and emotive.

Corridos are true storytellings of actual events, a tradition that preceded Spanish-language newspapers in northern Mexico and south Texas. Here they speak of heroes such as Gregorio Cortez (a Mexicano wrongly accused by Texas Rangers), desperados, heroes, smuggling (another borderland tradition), and events that still resonate along the Frontera.

If you think folk music is dead and gone, think again. Just make sure you're looking south and hearing a grupo like Los Pinguinos.