Off The Charts Beyond The Pop-Chart Mainstream Thrive A Plethora Of Distinctive Regional And Cultural Styles
Hundreds of thousands of fans continue to mourn the death of Selena Quintanilla, the 23-year-old star of Tejano music who was murdered on March 31. She had already won a 1993 Grammy award and earned a gold album.
Yet she had just recorded the first songs for an album in English, and to the broader English-speaking pop public, Selena was an unknown, one of the many performers who command a large following that’s almost invisible to outsiders.
Popular music grows more fragmented by the second. Pop’s old model of a single pyramid of success - a slow climb from obscurity to popularity - is long gone, and it may never have reflected reality.
Instead, pop can be seen as an interplay between a center of mass acceptance and a periphery of regional and subcultural favorites. Some styles, like hip-hop in the 1980s and alternative rock in the 1990s, breach the center and stay there; others have their moment and return to the margins.
In the United States, immigrants bring their music and mix it with what they find here; the growing Spanish-speaking population, in particular, supports many forms of music. Other local communities, from Creoles on the bayou to illegal Irish immigrants, also concoct music that suits their needs, for a Saturday-night dance or, perhaps, a private moment of introspection.
What follows is a list of 10 styles that are largely below the radar of the mass pop public, but which command large and loyal audiences.
Tejano: Selena’s music combines the accordion-driven polkas and cumbias of Mexican conjunto music with modernizing touches, including synthesizers and versions of rock songs; it has a core audience of young Mexican-Americans, reaching from the Southwest to California.
Old-timey and Bluegrass: For aficionados, these are two distinct genres from the roots of country music. Old-timey harks back to Appalachian string-band music, emphasizing melody and clarity, while bluegrass is more flamboyantly virtuosic. Together, they support festivals and clubs.
Dancehall: Speedy, singsong rapping in a Jamaican patois, over a stark reggae beat. Dancehall has been spread both through hip-hop and Caribbean enclaves in this country. East Coast rappers often dip into dancehall accents, and recently, Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper” became a No. 1 single after appearing on the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s film “Ready to Wear.”
Salsa Romantica: Love songs in Spanish, with sumptuous arrangements and sometimes a hint of Caribbean rhythm, have carried singers like Mexico’s Luis Miguel into the Top 30 of Billboard’s pop album chart, outselling many crooners in English.
Contemporary Christian: Not a musical style but a message, in music that resembles current mainstream styles including hard rock and hip-hop. Every so often, a performer like Amy Grant soft-pedals the message and reaches a broad audience.
Club Music: Known as “dance music” to record companies, these are post-disco electronic rhythms that propel clubgoers into the wee hours. A proliferation of subgenres calibrated in beats per minute - with names like techno, jungle, rave, dub, tribal and ambient - comes and goes. House music with its thumping mid-tempo beat and piano chords has survived for a decade.
Tropical: A catch-all term for uptempo Caribbean music, from Cuban rhumba to Puerto Rican bomba and plena to Dominican merengue and all their hybrids.
Zydeco: Across the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana into Texas, people dance to the two-steps and waltzes of bands driven by accordion and washboard. Younger band leaders like Beau Jocque add blues and funk to the mix, and can fill any bayou dancehall; zydeco also turns up regularly in commercials.
Banda: Rural Mexico reaches California in the music of bandas, rowdy brass bands that carry oompah music to new heights of exuberance, and are heard at block parties and on radio stations across Southern California.
Bhangra: A long-shot for mainstream acceptance, but one that reaches South Asian fans in England and the United States. Bhangra is a hybrid of North Indian music with contemporary Western rhythms and strategies, from house music to reggae to rapping.