How Dani Bander is Dreaming Up Mariachi’s Political Future

Courtesy of Dani Bander

I heard Dani Bander’s song “Los Condenados” for the first time on a rooftop in Mexico City, days before the election of Donald Trump. Clouds hover above us, while rain trickles down, and I stare at El Ángel de la Independencia, a symbol of hope in the distance that I’m not sure will have the same meaning in the days to come. The song reminds me of home in California, with its Western guitar sounds, upbeat punk drumming, and post-mariachi vocals. “Los Condenados” is as romantic as a Mexican folk ballad and an American love song, but there’s a somber tone to the song, and it ends with a slow, downward descent of trumpets.

The effect is that the ballad almost sounds like a funeral song, and I wonder if it is: a eulogy for American democracy.

After months of reflecting on this cultural moment, Bander tells me, “Usually, you think of the condemned as those who are the poorest, but I think that part of what’s broken in the machinery of the world is that we’re all condemned: those from the upper, middle, and lower class — I think that if you don’t understand that we’re all a part of the same machinery and the same culture, and instead we have this individualist mentality, we aren’t seeing how this type of thinking hurts all of us.”

When I first heard the song, I thought of it as a metaphor for the untouchables, or a modern-day allegory for everyone classified by the state as a “bad hombre.” Now that Trump is no longer deplorable, but electable, we – Mexican-Americans and Mexicans – are the deplorables. And in the eyes of the white supremacists who govern us, we’re all “illegals,” narcos, and criminals.

We are all condemned.

Elaborating on this idea, Bander says, “The fact that someone with so much power, like the President of the United States, could have such a closed mind, and have so little connection to other countries, other cultures, and reject immigrants, reject everything that is different to what he considers American and good…he’s articulating a line of thinking of where we [Mexicans] belong, our place in line — and if we don’t understand that, if we don’t work together for progress, we’re going to be condemned forever.”

But Bander’s forthcoming album Malacopa is a direct challenge to that condemnation, or succumbing to a stereotype. Instead, Bander re-envisions traditional mariachi music – from the themes of love, loss, and celebration, to its cultural significance and emotional relief. He pays tribute to mariachis as music of the downtrodden, and even the name Malacopa is derived from the explicit relationship between drinking in the cantina and listening to the genre.

“Immediately, most people associate mariachi music [with] tequila and Mexican parties. And also to catharsis, and living life like it’s a party. Because in Mexico there are so many economic, social, and cultural problems, parties serve as a way for us to escape all the problems of our country.”

In the eyes of the white supremacists who govern us, we’re all “illegals,” narcos, and criminals.

Bander’s subjects and musical style go beyond traditions. His post-mariachi compositions are informed by avant-garde horns, psychedelic choruses, and folk guitar ballads reminiscent of classics like “La Zandunga,”El Rey,” or “Hasta Que Te Conocí.”

While some songs could be classified as ballads, others are purely pop-inflected rock. The tone of songs like “Los Mariachis” or “Malviaje” are fresh and upbeat, incorporating new wave drumming, catchy choruses, and funky trumpets.

Bander is able to fuse seemingly disparate elements with the help of musical collaborations with AJ Dávila, Brandon Welchez of the Crocodiles, and Valentina Plasa of Candy. In fact, Dávila helped produce Malacopa, and Bander credits much of the sound, or the mixing of two different worlds to him.

“After a while, I stopped caring about sounding like the canon, or the way mariachi music is ‘supposed to be.’ When AJ Dávila and I started working together, he had this vision of mariachi music that you can only have when you come from the outside like he did, [being from] Puerto Rico. So that’s where this Western influence comes from in my songs, it’s like a fusion of what mariachi music is supposed to be, influenced by Mexico and the Western world.”

Despite the album title, Malacopa could not be further from the dull pain of a hangover or the nausea and heart-pounding passion of a drunken rage. Instead, the record is like waking up from an intoxicating nightmare, seeing the world with new eyes, and becoming grateful for being awakened.

“It’s a fusion of what mariachi music is supposed to be, influenced by Mexico and the Western world.”

Part of being awake is seeing your place in the world, how you want to change it, and challenge it. And for Bander, that’s what makes being a post-mariachi artist so interesting. “Mariachis function as a way to understand our identity, because elements of it, whether we like it or not, reflect Mexican culture. There are mariachis in Japan, Argentina, and Russia, but mariachis will always be from Mexico. So thinking about this reinforces my identity, and it serves as a commentary on who I am and how I can confront my problems. And just like all problems, we have to recognize our own in order to make change in the world.”

Bander uses post-mariachi music to reflect on Mexican traditions and to show the world that Mexicans are more than sombrero-wearing bad hombres. Mariachi itself becomes a symbol of resistance and a form of music that speaks to new and old generations and across class lines. Yet it has room for reinterpretation, for collaboration, and most importantly, for change. Post-mariachi is a way to look at Trump and his peers and say: we are not condemned. We are the future from your Malacopa. Take a drink.

Watch our premiere of Dani Bander’s lyric video for “Malviaje” below: