Not long past its twentieth anniversary, “Chilanga Banda” remains one of the most beloved anthems in Mexican rock. As performed by the band Café Tacvba, often with the song’s writer and original performer Jaime López, it is a great roar of pride for “chilangos”, the inhabitants of Mexico City. Knowing the lyrics by heart is a badge of honor, understanding them even more so, for few rock songs are as defiantly opaque, as slathered in the slang of a particular place and a particular time.
Its enduring popularity, which today appears preordained, was by no means a sure thing when it was first released back in 1995. To start with, it’s hard to make out what the song is saying in the first place. Those who go to the trouble of translating it can see immediately that it’s not telling a story in a conventional way. The words fit together because of their sound and their origin rather than their literal meaning. They seem patched together carelessly, but are actually quite thoughtful, showing a deep knowledge of the urban argot of the young in the streets of the Mexican capital. They create a mood, a sense of collective identity that has proven irresistible and infectious. Only in live performances is its emotional impact grasped to the fullest.
The title, for one, is ambiguous. Is the “banda” of chilangos a criminal gang? Is it just a group of friends? Is it perhaps all chilangos? The lyrics, at least at first, don’t help clarify matters. They seem to be nothing more than a series of unconnected pronouncements by an unnamed chilango, who seems to be in both a pensive and a contentious mood. At the start he talks to someone else: “Stop bothering me, you monkey-faced chilango. Your job sucks.” But soon the unseen interlocutor is gone and the narrator is just dropping tidbits about his life. Sometimes he brags – “I make enough dough for drinks and parties” – and others he describes what others do to pass the time – “My buddy puts out his joint and sings ‘La Cucaracha’”.
Always in the cadence of the street-smart chilango, the narrator rattles off bunches of words, most of which contain the hard “ch” sound, as in “chip” or “chalk” – “chango” (“monkey”), “chilango”, “chamba” (“job”), “cucaracha”, and so forth – producing an effect like a pair of cymbals keeping the rhythm of life. “Chilanga Banda”, as written by López, is one of the triumphs of the musical style known as “Movimiento Rupestre” (“Rocky Movement”). Because of little government or commercial support for alternative rock music in Mexico during the 1970s and 80s, musicians opted for cheap, acoustic instruments and emphasized vocals over instrumentation.
López, one of the legendary rock composers in Mexico, was born in the state of Tamaulipas. The son of a career military officer, he moved to Mexico city at age sixteen to finish his high school education. He enrolled in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (known as UNAM), but quickly dropped out to dedicate himself to his music.
He was part of a generation, which included Roberto González, Arturo Cipriano, and Jesús Echavarría, that came of age during a dark time in Latin America. A military junta deposed the democratic government of Brazil in 1965. Military dictatorships would arise in Argentina, Chile, and most of the rest of the South American nations in the following years. In 1967, the Argentine guerrilla fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a hero of the rebellious youth, was gunned down in Bolivia, and in 1968 a student demonstration at Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City was brutally repressed by the military, leading to scores of dead and injured. As López put it in an interview, “it was a difficult time to be young”.
Given his political leanings and his rebellious nature, López had no interest in seeking fame and future by sanitizing or commercializing his music. He also did not quite see the world like more explicitly ideological left-wing performers of the period. More than anything else, López identified with the chilango lifestyle and, especially, its language. This is precisely the goal of “Chilanga Banda”, which is by turns angry, funny, and silly. It takes at its starting point the Mexican predilection for using slang words with the “ch” sound, which is at least in part a remnant of the country’s nahuatl heritage. For some reasons, Mexicans seem to love the sound and find it endlessly amusing. The great Mexican comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños, known as Chespirito, created a whole pantheon of characters whose names started with “Ch”, including “Chómpiras”, an inept small-time crook referenced in “Chilanga Banda”.
López included the song in the album “Odio Fonky, tomas de buró”, which he recorded with his collaborator José Manuel Aguilera. Though it attracted some attention and positive reviews from critics, it was more a niche highlight than any kind of commercial breakthrough. Fortunately it caught the eye of rising stars Café Tacvba, who recorded a version and included it in their album of covers “Avalancha de Éxitos” (released in 1996). It is credited by many to have lifted the band from impressive commercial success to beloved icon status.
Café Tacvba’s main contribution in their cover of the song – other than the hyper-chilango voice of its lead singer, Rubén Albarrán – is the complex musical arrangement, which some critics have compared to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. In López’s original, the song begins essentially as an a capella rap, with a few percussive instruments being introduced into the rhythm and the full (and relatively spare) rest of the instrumentation joining in only towards the end of a pretty short song (not even two and a half minutes). Café Tacvba’s cover version is more than a minute longer. It begins with a similar, rap-like delivery, but the vocals are quickly enveloped by wind and electronic sounds. After the first chorus, the song slows down to a crawl and acquires a metallic, drugged-up vibe, only to slowly re-gather steam and end in a happy, drunken celebration.
The official video suggests that the song is about the criminals who roam the streets of Mexico City, thieves, thugs, and drug runners. But I think López had something broader in mind: a panoramic look at chilango life, as the lyrics make clear: poor workers, peasants, male whores, crooks, drunks, losers, all gather together to drink beer and pass the time, dancing and singing “tíbiri tábara”.