Dancing Across the Border

Born in Mexico and raised by Celso Pia, sonidero music is taking over Dallas' Latino nightclubs. Is it here to stay?

KLNO-FM, ranked No. 1 by Arbitron in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, regularly spins Piña's "Cumbia Sobre El Rio." And J Medina, a.k.a. Mixmaster J, who hosts Party Lounge on KNON-FM (89.3), says the number of requests he gets for Piña's music has gradually increased: "Now, basically every time I pick up the phone they are wanting to hear it."

But these younger fans aren't only requesting Piña's songs; they want sonidero, no matter who's giving it to them. Raul Rojas, who DJs at the Bronco Bowl's Tropicana (formerly La Changa), says Dallas' sonidero scene exploded about seven months ago, after KLNO sponsored a sonidero concert downtown at Artist Square. Thousands of people paid to dance to the heavily promoted lineup of big-name Mexico City DJs. Since then, sonidero is everywhere: Thursday nights at De Cache, Fridays at Club DMX, Saturdays at Tropicana. Bailongo mixes sonidero music into its lineup all weekend, and the DJs at Escapade 2001 and Far West play sonidero on a nightly basis.

Far West also has a pure sonidero night about once a month, usually Thursdays. Sometimes the night entails live music; other evenings the club brings in DJs from Mexico, frequently from Mexico City, Casas says. These special nights at Far West annoy Rojas, who says he's been trying to cultivate a sonidero scene in Dallas since emigrating from Mexico City about seven years ago.

Disqueros such as this one sell pirated music all over Mexico.
John Sevigny
Disqueros such as this one sell pirated music all over Mexico.
Dancers shuffle to cumbia mixes at Dallas' Bailongo.
Peter Calvin
Dancers shuffle to cumbia mixes at Dallas' Bailongo.


Celso Piña performs March 13 at Far West.

"When I got here, there wasn't sonidero," Rojas explains. "I suggested to discos this scene, but they shut the doors on me, so I had to start playing it myself. They didn't take me seriously because it was so different. They only played what was selling."

At the time, that was tejano. As the crowd inside Tropicana one Saturday suggests, that's not the case anymore. Rojas shouts out greetings and other messages so heavy with reverb that unaccustomed listeners feel like their skulls are rattling. These salutations and dedications are part of sonidero culture, where the DJ is there to play messenger as well as records. This is nothing new to the dancers at Tropicana.

"Back in Mexico, all the Chilangos [Mexico City natives] are used to this music," says Angel Escobar, who immigrated to Waco from Mexico City a few years ago. He drove to Dallas with his wife and brother-in-law to get his sonidero fix at Tropicana. "It's like our rock and roll."

Rojas--a freelance DJ who got his start about 16 years ago performing for free in Mexico City's streets--landed his first sonidero gig in Dallas in 1998, getting the crowd warmed up for a norteño concert at Palenque (which later turned into Far West).

"I was sending out saludos [greetings] to people from different Mexico City neighborhoods," he says, "and people were crying because it reminded them of Mexico."

Two months later the now-closed International Ballroom hired him to put on a sonidero dance. About 2,500 people showed up, much to management's surprise, he recalls: "They had to shut the doors. Cover was $20 and people were offering $50 to get in."

Which is the main reason there are so many clubs playing sonidero music now. According to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission records, Northwest Dallas' Escapade 2001 and Far West each generate more revenue in liquor sales than any of the thousands of other nightclubs licensed to sell alcohol in Texas. Combined, both warehouse-sized venues made more than $110,000 from liquor sales last November, the most recent month for which records are posted. No individual nightclub in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio or Austin beat the approximate $59,000 Escapade 2001 generated Friday through Sunday nights and the approximate $52,000 generated Thursday through Sunday nights at Far West.

Far West likely will bring in some nice coin when Piña performs there on March 13, his second appearance at the club in four months. When he played last November, the club sold about 2,000 tickets for about $30 a pop, Casas says.

"He puts on a good show," Casas says. And that makes everyone happy. Especially the club owners: Tickets are going for at least $30 this time, maybe more.

The story of how the music of urban Mexico's underbelly seeped into the country's mainstream, and became such a hit in North Texas, begins in poor colonias like Sierra Ventana, a jumble of cinder-block, graffiti-scrawled houses high in the hills overlooking Monterrey.

The sweet accordion runs and folksy lyrics of Colombian vallenato first hit Mexico sometime in the 1960s when sonideros, or disc jockeys, began playing the music at parties in Loma Larga, especially in the neighborhood of Independencia. Jose Juan Olvera, a professor at Monterrey's Universidad Regiomontana who studies the city's Colombian music culture, attributes the DJs' interest in Colombian music largely to immigration. When poor young men from Loma Larga immigrated in search of better opportunity to places such as Texas, California, Florida and New York, they frequently returned to their communities with music that had been imported to the United States from Colombia.

Loma Larga sonideros soon began traveling across the border to Houston and other Texas cities in search of imported Colombian music--since the trip is only about 500 miles, vs. 600 to Mexico City. Vallenato gained more recognition in the early 1980s when Piña and other musicians started following the music of Colombian virtuosos such as accordionist Aniceto Molina.

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