Thursday, March 30th 2023

Polka Influence on Mexican Music

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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Polka Influence on Mexican Music


Polka Influence on Mexican Music

Mexicans have a tendency to forget the roots that laid the foundations for their rich, cultural heritage. Things we think of as typically Mexican often have roots outside of Mexico. Chicken and lime were not indigenous to Mexico, nor was cheese or bread. El trompo for tacos al pastor comes from Lebanese immigrants. The accordion is no exception.

In this article, you’ll learn the surprising history surrounding how polka changed the Mexican musical landscape.

What Is Polka?

Polka Influence on Mexican Music

When we think of polka, we typically think of Germany, but this style of music originated in the region of Bohemia—now in the Czech Republic. In fact, the word “polka” comes from the Czech word půlka, which describes the half steps used in polka dancing—which itself is featured in half-tempo (2/4 time signature).

The birth of polka is typically attributed to a Czech woman named Anna Chadimova, in 1830, who created the unique dance to a folk melody that had existed in Bohemia previously. Her music teacher, Josef Neruda, noticed her dancing and wrote down the steps. (Since then, this story has been disputed by historians.)

One thing that is certain, by 1835, the dance could be found in the luxurious ballrooms of Prague. In 1839, it arrived in Austria, and the following year it arrived in Paris—which acted as a platform to broadcast polka to the world.

Polka Gets to Mexico

Polka Influence on Mexican Music

It was Emperor Maximilian I who introduced polka to Mexico. By 1864, he had marching bands with European-style musicians ready to entertain him. And when his short-lived reign came to an end, these musicians fled the conflict—heading north. In northern Mexico, mariachi, huapango, and oral traditions would meld with Germanic rhythms like waltz (3/4 time signature) and polka (2/4 time signature) to birth something new: Norteña.

It wasn’t only Maximilian’s musicians that contributed to this musical melting pot. German, Polish, and Czech immigrants arrived in the southern region of Texas in the 1830s and 40s. Germans made up the largest denomination of European-born immigrants in Texas at that time, and even constituted over 5% of the population by 1850. The region of south Texas became known as the German Belt.

It’s from these European immigrants that Mexico got the accordion—and from this instrument, Norteña got its unique sound. The horns were replaced by the buttons on the accordion—specifically, that “oom pah-pah” of the 3/4 time signature.

Racial Tension Gives Birth to Norteña

Polka Influence on Mexican Music

In large part, this replacement of the horns with the buttons on the accordion was born from racial tensions. In a fantastic 3-minute segment on NPR (which I highly recommend, just click here), Chris Strachwitz recants a story from one of the fathers of Norteña, Flaco Jimenez, where the legendary musician tells exactly how that process occurred.

According to Jimenez, when he was a youth growing up along the Mexican border, he wasn’t allowed to go to the European dance halls. However, he had a white friend of his who would go in his place. After the show, this friend would whistle the melodies to him, and he would hammer them out on the accordion. That’s how the bass section (traditionally played by deep horns like the tuba) came to be played on the accordion.

This tale seems eerily reminiscent of the great jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, who would sit in the alley outside white jazz clubs as a youth and mimic licks he heard. To allude to the Jurassic Park character, Ian Malcolm, it could be said that “music finds a way”.

Norteña Today

Polka Influence on Mexican Music

It could be said that polka has had a decline in Europe. Not in popularity, but in trendiness. It’s seen as a cultural symbol rather than a style of music that attracts a younger crowd. I would assume that role falls to Euro-hardhouse. Thus, it could be argued that northern Mexico is the only place where polka attracts innovation and verve from the younger generations.

And Norteña isn’t only found in Mexico. I’ve heard the oom pah-pah blasting from speakers in the mountains of Chiapas. It has risen to influence other styles of music—like mariachi and huapango—those that influenced it.

And with Mexican immigration to the United States and Canada, you’d be hard-pressed to find a large city in North America that doesn’t play the cultural inheritor of polka: Norteña.

Perhaps the greatest figurehead to broadcast Norteña to the world was the Chicana artist, Selena. Known as the Queen of Tejano Music, she rose to the top of the charts, in part, due to a musical style that had been around for 150 years.


Polka Influence on Mexican Music

Like the United States, Mexico is also a melting pot of cultural influences that has given birth to a multitude of unique traditions. However, unlike the United States, it’s set among the backdrop of the indigenous roots that existed long before the arrival of the Europeans.

However, whereas in the US, the memory of immigrants cling to our individual identities (as in I’m a quarter Irish, or I’m Filipino-American), in Mexico, these foreign influences—even those brought by the Spanish conquistadors—seem to have been forgotten as if they had always been Mexican.

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