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Twins Add Oomph to Banda's Oom-Pah


The Valenzuela twins, Omar and Adolfo, have such a knack for making popular Mexican banda music that they even turned their handyman into a local recording star. One day, the young worker named Luis Enrique Payan was laying the glossy green floor tile he brought from Tijuana for the Valenzuelas' backyard Montebello studio. The next, he was on the cover of his own CD as El Compa Kito, surrounded by party girls above the title, "I Like La Vida Loca."

"He doesn't do floors anymore," deadpans Omar. "He's a singer now."

Time will tell whether the singing tile man is more than a flash in the pan. But the Valenzuela brothers, 25, are firmly established as the hottest producing team in a regional genre once dismissed as cheap oom-pah music but now gaining international respectability and commercial strength.

With roots in the military bands of old, featuring brassy horns and big bass drums, Mexico's banda music has broken geographic and social barriers in the last decade. It has started appealing to a younger crowd and even winning the ear of city dwellers who used to look down their noses at the country-bumpkin music of their coastal cousins from Sinaloa.

Who's laughing now? A modern, supercharged version of banda has made millionaires of working-class stiffs like Long Beach star Lupillo Rivera and has started drawing the attention of major Mexican pop performers including Thalia, wife of Sony Music Chairman Thomas D. Mottola.

Today, banda is a full-blown movement in Mexico and the U.S. And behind much of it are the easygoing Valenzuelas, who co-produced Thalia's recent EMI Latin release, "Greatest Hits With Banda." They have also worked with an array of lesser-known acts, amassing 12 nominations in next week's second annual Premios Que Buena, a people's choice competition that has become the biggest banda hootenanny around. (The colorful awards ceremony is scheduled Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre and has been sold out for weeks.)

The twins have become accustomed to accolades. They got glory for producing the latest work by Banda El Recodo, the granddaddy of the genre, which won this year's Latin Grammy for best banda album. True, the banda category was stacked in their favor, with three of five nominations produced by the brothers.

The twins seem unspoiled by success. They live with their mother in a comfortable suburban home on a bluff overlooking the Rio Hondo. In the driveway are a new SUV and a heavy-duty pickup truck, symbols of success for banda acts, whose Web sites sometimes feature photos of their rugged vehicles. In the back by the swimming pool, the twins have converted a small guest room into a studio.

Aside from some state-of-the-art digital gear, the room seems sparsely furnished and feels cold, like the house itself on a wintry afternoon. Their music collection reflects their broad tastes, from cumbia to jazz. Adolfo, distinguishable from his brother by a bright red sweater, sits on a couch cradling a saxophone. Omar straddles a straight-backed chair, popping breath mints and snacking on mandarins from the garden.

It's hard to believe that these two friendly fellows are being besieged with offers from major labels and demands to work with artists the caliber of legendary Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel. What's their secret?

"There are no secrets," says Omar. "The only key to success is study."

Banda Shed Regional

Boundaries in the 1990s

As children in Mexico, the twins studied classical music at a government-run arts school in Culiacan, their hometown. At home, their strict musician father forced them to practice every day. They still recall the warning they'd get for wanting to watch television instead.

"While you watch television, some other guy is getting good and is going to beat you," said the senior Valenzuela, who played sax and clarinet with the Orquesta Tierra Blanca.

Even within Mexico, banda until recently has been considered a regional genre, with much less stature than the mariachi. It got its first dose of respectability in the 1970s when Antonio Aguilar, famed mariachi singer and screen star, recorded an album with banda, among the first to record vocals on music that was traditionally instrumental.

"And that's when people started saying, 'Banda can't be that bad if he's singing it,'" says Adolfo.

It wasn't until the 1990s that banda really broke out of its regional boundaries, the brothers say. Its new popularity was fueled by Sinaloa's narco-economy. Cash-rich drug dealers would hire bandas for three-day parties and throw fistfuls of pesos at the musicians.

Suddenly in Sinaloa, everybody wanted to play in a banda.

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