Walking up to the corner of Webster and 14th streets in downtown Oakland, you can't miss the large white tour bus parked on the side. The words Banda El Rincon, painted above the windshield, glisten from rain on a soggy Friday night. The group, made up of musicians from Dixon, San Jose, and Oakland, is hanging outside before going on at El Reventon, a haven for top-name banda music.
"Banda Sinaloense is never going to die because it's the traditional music of certain parts of Mexico like Sinaloa, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacan," says twenty-four-year-old lead singer Jose Luis Villaseñor. "It's used by people in celebrations, especially in these little pueblos (towns) named after saints whose custom is to have a banda play 'Las Mañanitas' on their patron saint's day."
A mirror with a glittery image of a smiling Selena, the slain Tejano pop star, leads patrons up the red-carpeted stairs into a virtual rancho experience. Operated by Juan Lopez, the venue has been catering to Mexican regional music for the last few years at what used to be the Caribee Dance Center. The upstairs space attracts a large clientele of young people with its two Plexiglas-divided sections: a minors-only side and a larger over-21 room with a bar.
Dressed in matching white guayabera shirts, the sixteen-piece Banda El Rincon blasts off with a raucous, lovelorn waltz that Villaseñor delivers with a slight grit in his tenor voice. Flanked by three trumpets, three trombones, and four clarinets on each side, the bell of a tuba sticks up in the back with a marching-band bass drum next to it. Timbales and other percussion instruments fill out the organically bold, non-electric sound.
"What we try to do is take popular songs and do them banda style," continues Villasenor. "But we've also got several originals that we toss in that people really like. Right now people want narco-corridos (drug-themed folk ballads) like those done by Lupillo Rivera. Romantic music is still in and people still ask for the quebraditas, but right now the corridos are hitting hard with la raza."
Upbeat Colombian cumbias, re-adapted Dominican merengues like "La Reina Del Swing," trad polkas, vals (waltz), and the controversial narco-corridos pour out with superb precision. As the show progresses, the dance floor thickens with white bobbing Stetson hats and the video screens on the walls show jarapeo (Mexican rodeo) clips of bucking bulls.
"We just recorded our first album in Los Angeles for Discos Barajas," says Villaseñor before going on, " and we're working a lot around here. Our biggest competition are the DJs, who charge much less than we do. But people know live music is more exciting and if they can afford it, they hire us. We only play in nightclubs on Fridays, leaving the weekends for the private family fiestas."
The banda boom hit the East Bay in the late 1980s at Eastmont Mall dances and mega-banda blowouts at Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. Now El Reventon and Fandango Latino (98th Ave. and San Leandro Blvd.) feature banda and accordion-driven conjunto norteño regularly in Oakland; the same with Mexicali Rose in Hayward and Club Mangoes in Fremont. But it's youthful musicians like Banda El Rincon, carrying the torch lit by such resident bands as Banda La Tunera and Banda Los Caporales, that keep the flame burning in the East Bay. Saturday, March 9, the popular Banda El Limon will play El Reventon, 1408 Webster St., Oakland. 510-853-1813.