Southwestern Mexico’s Tierra Caliente, known as the Hot Lands, straddles parts of three Mexican states—Michoacán, Guerrero, and the state of Mexico. The inhabitants of this area are a proud people who have created a brilliant and truly unique regional style. Unlike the music from Guadalajara, which over the years has grown from a regional style into the modern folk/pop hybrid now known as Mariachi, the music of Tierra Caliente has languished in relative obscurity until quite recently. This regional style, known as Calentano music, has retained a remarkable purity.
The music of the Hot Lands grew from many of the same diverse musical roots as the many other Mexican regional styles. From Spain came the music of the bullfight ring, the dramatic pasodoble with its Moorish gapped scales. Europe contributed the waltz, scandalously romantic in its day; the march, with all its formality; and the cascading notes of the polka. Africa was the wellspring from which came stunning, often dizzyingly complex, syncopation. The brilliant musicians of Cuba gave Tierra Caliente the bolero and danzón. Even the United States contributed to the mix, providing inspiration for the Hot Lands’ own versions of foxtrots and swing tunes.
Then, remarkably, the doors that had for so long been flung open to this world of diverse sounds clicked shut around the mid-1950s. Newer musics—rock and roll, cumbia, and modern pop—did not speak to the traditional musicians. Cut off from the new sounds partly by choice and partly by the region’s remoteness, Calentano music brewed and bubbled into a heady mixture indeed.
Perhaps the best way to describe Calentano music is to compare it with Mexican musics that are more well-known in North America—namely Norteño music, with its omnipresent accordion and bajo sexto (a little like a large 12-string guitar), and Mariachi music, with its trumpets and violins. Mariachi is a modern folk/pop hybrid derived from the traditional music of the region around Guadalajara. Mariachi and Calentano bands play many of the same genres, but in the characteristic sónes and gustos of Tierra Caliente the violinist has much more freedom. Once the melody has been played, a violinist can choose from literally hundreds of decorative passages called “adornos,” allowing the spirit to dictate the mood and flow of the tune.
Mariachi and Calentano groups both use violins and guitars, but the Mariachi groups add trumpets, the guitarron (like an acoustic bass guitar) and the vihuela (a little like a small guitar). The traditional Calentano group adds a small drum called a tamborita and sometimes an antique guitar variant called a guitarra panzona.
The lyrical themes of Calentano music could hardly be called unique. They usually deal with love, lost love, the natural beauty of the region, and the regional specialties of the various towns of Tierra Caliente. A typical gusto Calentano might sing the praises of the sombreros of one small town, the beautiful young women of another and the beautiful scenery of still another. Truth be told, the only way that these regional lyrics might be differentiated from those from other parts of Mexico would be in their use of slang terms found only in Tierra Caliente—“guache” and “chamaco,” for example, to describe a young child.
While Mariachi music grew from its regional roots to become a nationally popular style, it could be said that Calentano music bloomed only to waste its sweetness on the desert air. The remoteness of the region and the fact that the best players were seldom heard outside of the area coupled to keep the style relatively obscure. The newer styles like rock ‘n’ roll, cumbia and modern pop had no influence on Calentano music, which continued to meld its international roots into an indigenous style.
– Paul Anastasio from The Music of Mexico's Tierra Caliente: A Renaissance