Mexico City is a huge, beautiful, musical monster, and eminently Dadaist in its character. The city’s music is born of its multiculturalism, the diverse identities drawn from an endless spread of neighborhoods that could confuse even the most competent GPS. It’s a marvelous thing to dance with a leviathan of these dimensions, so long as you take care that the city doesn’t step on you.
The music that narrates Mexico City is a technicolor print of its “active” population (to use the terminology of capitalism): the people between the ages of 15 and 64 who make up two-thirds of the population. A lot of the music here is free and, like most of its best food, you’ll find it on the street. Mapping the capital’s present through its music is an impossible task, so I went to all 16 of Mexico City’s delegaciones (administrative districts) to ask people which songs define their version of this surrealist urban landscape. From that shower of songs, I chose 13 rolas (to use the local slang), the number of skies in the Aztec mythos.
In all, I spoke to 102 people about what song defined their México. Their answers transgressed every kind of social division—from gender to class to urban tribe—and described the songs that unite us as a city. The result isn’t a playlist in the style of Putumayo (a series of popular ‘World Music’ CDs available for years at Starbucks), but instead a portrait of a city that breaks thousands of hearts but always, somehow, manages to win them back.
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Sábado Distrito Federal by Chava Flores, 1959
This song came from the brilliant mind of Chava Flores, a songwriter raised in the iconic barrio La Merced, then home to the city’s largest market and a melting pot of immigrants arriving from across the Republic and the world. An ode to Saturdays in our great city, this song, full of humor, sarcasm, and irony, is practically the official hymn of people fighting for survival.
Distrito Federal by Achepe, 2010
The youngest artist on this list, Achepe captures the distinct rhythms of Iztapalapa, the most populous area in Mexico City. It starts from the first line: Welcome to the biggest city on earth/ where people are kind by day and restless at night/ where water holds up tons of concrete/ where love triumphed without even trying.
Metro Busco Amor by Los Lagartos, 1996
Our next stop is at the end of the light rail, an extension of the modernist Metro system, at the Tepepan station in the leafy municipality of Xochimilco. Once one of the five lakes that filled the Valle de Mexico, it’s the last part of the city still built on chinampas, a Mesoamerican agricultural system of floating islands in the shallow waters of the lake. That’s where the narrative rock of Los Lagartos takes place, a story of finding love underground, in one of the orange cars of the Metro.
Las Manos Quietas by Carlos Pérez, 1985
Written by a Spaniard, this is an epic number from the days of High-NRG (“high energy, a form of electronic dance music) that flooded the city in the 1980s at the hand of the DJ Patrick Miller, immortalized in a classic nightclub at the northern edge of the Colonia Roma. The city has changed, but this song still makes it possible for hipsters and queens to make out in the dark, humid nights of the Centro Histórico.
El Mambo del Mercado la Merced by Pérez Prado, 1974
Starting in the 80s, the chaos of the Merced moved southeast with the construction of the Central de Abastos, the largest wholesale produce market in Mexico. This is where you go to find vegetables, fruit, tiny images of Donald Trump with a rope around his neck: everything short of your mortal soul. And if you look, you’ll almost certainly see someone dancing along to the king of Mambo, Pérez Prado, and his immortal homage to the Merced’s colorful chaos.
Kumbala by Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio, 1991
If the seductive madness of the Central de Abastos leaves you exhausted, you may need to move on to something slower, something in the vein of ska-danzón. Look no farther than the Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (which translates roughly as the Damned Project and the Kids from the Fifth Courtyard), founders of the rock-mestizo genre, and their song Kumbala: a saxophone scraping across the red floors of Mexico’s cabarets.
Te Recuerdo by Alberto Pedraza, 2003
This is a classic example of the famous cumbias–a style of tropical dance music that originated in coastal Colombia and has since spread throughout Latin America–that don’t just dance, but talk. In Tepito, Mexico City’s notorious barrio bravo (or fierce neighborhood, a colorful way of saying dangerous), you’ll find DJ’s chatting and sending messages while the music is playing: “A shout out to Mireya and her miniskirt…” Trucks parked crossways block the street so that no cars—and no police—can get in. Carnitas, roast chicken, nopales, cilantro, tortillas, and salsas abound, as do people eating while circling and whistling. In these big neighborhood dances, no one cares how old you are, if you’re gay or straight, cis or trans, just how passionately you move.
Él No Lo Mato by El Haragán, 1990
In bodegas and bars in places like San Bartolo Ameyalco, an indigenous town within the delegación Álvaro Obregón, you’ll hear marathons of tunes from the likes of El Haragán, whose song Él no lo mato (“He didn’t kill him” or “I won’t kill him”) tells the story of a 17-year-old boy, sweet and healthy, who was “easily convinced” to rob a shop. A cop fires on him and the bullet pierces his heart. Based on a true story, the song is a symbol of urban rock, tackling the toll that society takes on the individual.
Madrugal by Café Tacvba, 1994
The shortest song ever produced by the legendary Mexico City band Café Tacvba describes the city waking up, it’s palaces appearing in the sunlight, and later, as the night falls, its cathedral disappearing “into smog and pigeon shit.”
Por las Calles de México by Sonora Santanera, 1965
There’s a popular saying that whoever doesn’t know the Salón Los Angeles doesn’t know Mexico. This bolero, a down-tempo musical form that originated in 18th-century Spain and exploded in popularity in 20th-century Cuba, was the selection made by older couples lined up to dance at Salón Los Ángeles, the city’s most famous dance bar, which turned 80 earlier this year. Salón los Ángeles is a rose-colored world: it’s neon-edged walls have seen the legendary comedian Cantinflas and the composer Benny Moré, Frida Kahlo dancing with Diego Rivera, García Márquez sketching, Ché Guevara taking photos, and the historic band La Sonora Santenera performing its greatest hits. There’s a saying here: “If you don’t know Los Ángeles, you don’t know Mexico.” And if you don’t know Por las Calles de México, you don’t know Los Ángeles.
Aventuras en el DF by Rockdrigo González, 1984
On Calle Bruselas (Brussels Street) in the Colonia Juarez, there’s a voice that still echoes from the rubble of the ’85 earthquake, which caused widespread damage and killed at least 5,000 people. Rodrigo “Rockdrigo” González gave voice to a generation of young people and a powerful youth movement violated by the state in the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968. Poet, singer, and great expert on the idiosyncrasies of his fellow Chilangos, González became popular with this song, “Adventures in the DF,” or Distrito Federal, as the city was known until 2016, when it was incorporated as the 32nd state in the Mexican Republic. Just two years before his death, he launched the so-called Movimiento Rupestre, or Rock Movement, which encouraged young musicians, too deprived of economic resources to buy an amplifier, to perform on acoustic instruments.
La Negra Tomasa by Caifanes, 1988
Written by Cuban songwriter Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe, this hugely danceable version by the Mexican band Caifanes sticks like stucco to Chilango speakers. Check out the gelled hair and eye-liner and dark atmosphere of the music video: think of it as The Cure singing cumbia.
Chilanga Banda by Jaime López, 1995
Another hymn to the city, this one written by a lyrical master, Mexico’s Bob Dylan, Jaime López, without whom there would be no Mexican rock at all. Chilanga Banda is a masterpiece of barrio-speak with its vibrant, untranslatable stream of double entendre: “Pachucos, cholos y chundos, chichinflas y malafachas, acá los chompiras rifan, y bailan el tibiri tabara,” he sings, and if you don’t understand that, you’re not the only one. Like every other song on this list, every other portrait of this city’s beautiful confusion, it reveals that in this city, you die dancing.