Heartbreaking melodies belted over Hi-NRG beats of endless momentum -- only the beats are polkas.
In the title of her new career retrospective, Diana Reyes unapologetically invokes the "d" word. The album’s called Mis Mejores Duranguenses, a perfectly accurate title that nonetheless situates Reyes in a previous decade, out of vogue in today’s Mexican music world. But despite its nostalgic aura, that word, that genre -- duranguense -- is integral to what makes Reyes such a vital singer. Like Donna Summer, forever tied to a different dance music "d" word, Reyes transcends the style that made her transcendence possible.
For the past few years, being a duranguense fan in the norteño world has felt like being a scorpion set loose at a Sierra Club meeting. Everyone runs away when they see you coming, but once they’re safely across the room, they talk about you with condescending pity and acknowledge your Vital Role. Springing from the state of Durango and its satellite city Chicago around 2002-04, duranguense was, for a few years, the hot sound of regional Mexican music. That sound was a pared down take on banda with synth oompahs, ultra-speedy tempos, unhinged tambora (a bass drum with cymbals on top) acting like a lead instrument, and a ridiculous dance step all its own. Dancing el pasito duranguense was like "having gum stuck [on] the bottom of your shoe and trying to get it off," explained dancer Jaime Barraza to the radio show "The World".
By decade’s end, the genre itself had become stuck. Thanks to band infighting, legal wrangles, and the winds of popularity shifting from Durango to Sinaloa’s bandas and corridos, duranguense’s popularity dwindled. Maybe not down to the level of used chewing gum -- recent videos by genre stalwarts Grupo Montéz and Alacranes Musical still command around a million hits apiece -- but pretty far. Far enough that the annual Radio Éxitos compilation, which used to be one third duranguense, now shuns the genre. Even Los Horóscopos de Durango jumped ship; the band has sold its keyboards and bought tubas, and now it plays banda sinaloense.
Born in Baja California, with family from Sinaloa, Diana Reyes began her singing career recording traditional norteño. In 2004 she hopped aboard the Durango bandwagon and released six or seven albums for labels both major and minor, including DBC, the label she founded. To give you an idea how bankable this stuff was, that "or seventh" album was a Christmas record for Universal, Navidad Duranguense. She wasn’t alone. During those gold rush years, at least three other bands released Christmas albums with the same title.
Reyes was a welcome presence in the genre. Her husky voice was a powerhouse, and she could fray it at exactly the right emotional high points. Though you’d sometimes catch her chuckling, she sang with a gravitas that gave counterweight to her skippety-skip music. Look, let’s put our duranguense cards on the table. Lots of people hated this style and called it ridiculous circus music. They had a point. Most duranguense acts sounded like they were vying for Chintziest Synth Sound at the county fair. To overcome that handicap, musicians either had to own the chintz and become the wildest band in town and maybe cover "The Night Chicago Died", like the sainted clowns in Banda Lamento Show, or they had to use their genre trappings to make perfect pop songs, like Diana Reyes.
At her best, Reyes achieved what Hi-NRG singers like Laura Branigan and Exposé did in their own genres: heartbreaking melodic lines belted over beats of endless momentum. Since Reyes’s beats were mostly polkas, the 20 songs on Mis Mejores might take some getting used to. After a few songs, though, the oompah is so consistent it falls away, and you’re left with the tune and the unpredictable clatter of percussion, clarinet, and bargain basement synth presets (yikes) popping out like the cast of Laugh In. In Reyes’s two biggest hits, 2004’s "Rosas" and 2007’s "Cuando Baja La Marea", the band is so tight the players could be on autopilot, but their stop-on-a-dime breaks and complicated fills reveal otherwise. The melody to "Marea" takes advantage of the polka’s two-step feel to stretch and contract its phrase lengths like taffy. 2005’s "Mentiras" pulls the same trick. No longer tethered to predictable four-bar phrases, these melodies are free to start earlier than you expect, or extend longer than normal, giving them an emotional weightlessness. "Forget the beat," Reyes and the melody say, "this is how I feel."
What she feels is mostly sad, and then angry about the sadness. 2009’s album ¡Vamos a Bailar! opened not with an exhortation to dance, but with the post-breakup pine "¿Dónde Están?" A sub-Winwood keyboard fart reminds you this is a duranguense song. Reyes establishes the breakup in a thick purr, but once she hits the chorus, she and the snare drummer belt you with that string of questions: where are all those letters and flowers and visits and kisses? Our bodies, the ones that used to be close to one another -- where are they? Turn your attention from Reyes to the band, and you’ll realize the keyboards and woodwinds are still going, but they no longer sound cheesy. They’re simply adding to the bedlam.
In 2010 Reyes released her best album, Amame Besame, through Capitol Records. Half-duranguense, half-techno cumbia, and all exquisitely produced, it effectively marked the end of duranguense not just for Reyes but for regional Mexican music in general. Apart from duranguense Reyes has been less exciting. Her 2011 roots album Ajustando Cuentas took on traditional banda. Her voice sounded spectacular, but the banda arrangements were too perfect -- they were there to showcase her, not to be her sparring partners. Most recently, Reyes released a power ballad telenovela theme, “Yo No Creo En Los Hombres.” (Hey, me neither.) I won’t vouch for the song, whose horns read more "‘80s Chicago" than any horn-based music you’d actually wanna hear wafting from our fair city, but her voice remains a powerhouse. As for this new hits album, you’d think 20 straight duranguenses would be too many. And while some variety would be nice, the beats never quit, the new romantic melodies never flag, and the instrumentalists never stop finding new ways to go apeshit. Plus, Reyes’s voice might make people nostalgic for a time when they could reliably hear women’s voices on regional Mexican radio. Let’s hope so.