Mexican Norteno is accordion centered music. Although the diatonic button accordion is favored, the genre often features the piano accordion. But, with either instrument, Latino accordionists usually do not go near the bass section and their focus is conspicuously on the treble keyboard. Jose Pavel, accordionist with the Norteno group, Los Alegres del Barranco (“The Merry Ones from the Ravine”), is different. Rather than playing just half of an instrument, the Sonoran front man uses both right hand and left hand keyboards and maximizes his instrument’s potential as he displays incredible nimbleness, smoothness and speed.
Along with Norteno, the piano accordion is used in Mexican bands such as Mariachi as well as Ranchera and Pop music. Most Mexican music leans toward wet tuning, rather than dry, much like accordions associated with the Mediterranean. But, the Norteno style can be fast and furious with a trade off between vocal and instrument which frequently underscores what they have stated in lyrics, punctuated with fast runs on the keyboard. With that dynamic in mind, they are aggressive players, not usually found playing quietly in the background. Norteno music can be an adjustment for Anglo ears, who find that some Norteno vocalists can sound slightly sour or even off key. But, Jose Pavel of Los Alegres del Barranco does not present that distraction and the more one listens to them, the more one can hear Jose’s skill as an accordionist.
Mexican Norteno relies on “corridos,” romantic ballads and stories about socially relevant topics that affect common folk. It uses a consistent rhythm, performed as waltzes, fast marches and often, polka. Unlike Norteno, dance music more commonly found in Mexican Ranchera and Mariachi is less consistent, using dramatic pauses. Good Norteno musicians can be amazing accordion players because their instrument is central to their band’s music and sound. Jose Pavel shows off his impressive ability on beautiful and colorful, jewel-like accordions seldom seen in the Anglo music world.
Jose Pavel favors the 48 bass piano accordion and demonstrates his agility especially with special effects like bellow shakes. Although the large box is fine for many players, it is a reality that as the number of basses increases, the box of the accordion must increase to accommodate them. As the 48, 72, 96 and up to 120 bass models grow in size, the accordion becomes heavier and the instrument handles differently for the musician, which is the same constraint for any instrument. When it comes to instrument choice, it is truly a matter of “different strokes for different folks.” The bottom line, as guitarist Carlos Santana said, is that “you have your own bag of tricks that you use that you know can make a song sound gorgeous”. On their road to arriving there, what instrument to use is only part of the many decisions musicians must make along the way.
Always on the road, Los Alegres del Barranco consistently tours the western and southwestern United States, Mexico and points beyond.