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The Music of Orkesta Mendoza is Borderless

Beginning in the 1930s, “border blaster” radio stations began lining the southern divide of the United States.

Unencumbered by American frequency restrictions, these Mexican superpower stations — dubbed “X stations” after the first letter of their corresponding call signs — pumped music via high-wattage frequencies across much of North America. In the ’30s, the songs of Lydia Mendoza, “La Alondra de la Frontera” (The Lark of the Border”) reached farm boys across the Midwest from stations dotting the Rio Grande. Near the dawn of the ’40s, the Carter Family sang renegade hillbilly spirituals in between pitches for health elixirs. In the early ’60s, Wolfman Jack howled rock ’n’ roll incantations and played deep cuts from black records down in Ciudad Acuña, turning on future members of counterculture institutions like the Doors and the Dead.

Music travels through the air, indifferent to lines on maps. It fuses and blends without asking permission. Simply listen and you can hear it on the new album from Tucson’s Orkesta Mendoza, ¡Vamos A Guarachar! Garage rock converses with feverish cumbias; bubbling synth pop flirts with mambo. Bandleader Sergio Mendoza was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and crossed to the American side of the city when he was only 8 years old. By 18, he found himself a little farther north, in Tucson. Eventually, he began performing with Calexico, one of the city’s best-known Latin/rock hybrids, beginning a career informed by adventurous cultural exchange.

He formed his own group, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, in 2009 as a tribute to Pérez “King of the Mambo” Prado, and has remained a high-profile musical explorer ever since. In addition to playing on and co-producing Calexico’s Edge of the Sun, he released Los Hijos De La Montaña in 2015, a folksy collaborative album with Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba, produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Earlier this year, he contributed to Mexican Institute of Sound DJ Camilo Lara’s Mexrrissey project, a Spanish-language tribute to Smiths singer Morrissey, transmuting grey-hued British jangle rock into a vibrant, pluralistic pop (while retaining its gorgeous melancholy). 
The latter endeavor seems to have inspired the flavor of Mendoza’s most recent recording. Previous albums Mambo Mexicano and Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta were joyful but never quite captured the effervescent abundance of the band’s live show. Released under a streamlined band name, ¡Vamos A Guarachar! manages to bottle the combo’s live zeal while also expanding on its stylistic palette. Rock and psychedelic touches have always colored the edges of Mendoza’s music, but on songs like “Cumbia Volcadora,” featuring Mendoza’s Mexrrissey bandmate Camilo Lara, and “Redoble,” synth bass and electronic pulses suggest futuristic intent. “Cumbia Amor De Lejos” pairs twangy guitar and reeds with drum machines and speaker rattling thumps.

Those in love with the band’s traditionalist impulses won’t be disappointed, of course. Vocalist Salvador Duran, known for his work with Iron and Wine and Willie Nelson, makes a star turn on the beautiful slow-motion ballad “Misterio,” and “Igual Que Ayer” shimmers with classic style. But more than ever, Mendoza embraces rock touches. “Carmelos” pushes lowrider oldies soul into the red with distorted guitars and a punk-rock edge, and “Shadows of My Mind” embraces psychedelic vocal swirls.

Like the broadcast range of those old border blasters, the sound of Orkesta Mendoza reaches far beyond its point of origin. The disastrous presidential election of 2016 was propelled by egomaniacal talk of a structure designed to further divide our country from its neighbor. But there’s comfort to be taken in the joyful sounds of open cultural conversation here. Sound pushes air. Right over walls.

Orkesta Mendoza is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Sunday, November 27.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.