Regarded as one of the most influential Mexican music bands in history, La Sonora Santanera has left an indelible mark on Latin American music with its unique big band style infused with elements of mambo, cha cha cha, bolero, cumbia, and merengue. They are the pioneers of the Mexican tropical music tradition, and their six-decade journey has produced a string of timeless hits, including ‘Perfume de gardenias,’ ‘La boa,’ ‘Luces de Nueva York,’ ‘El mudo,’ and ‘El orangután.’
Their recent albums, like the Grammy-nominated “En Su 60 Aniversario,” have showcased collaborations with renowned artists such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, Natalia Lafourcade, Lila Downs, Carla Morrison, Café Tacvba and others.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Mexico experienced a musical tsunami with roots in Cuba, bringing forth the rhythms of mambo, bolero, danzón, rumba, and cha-cha-cha. These rhythms, born in the Caribbean winds, reached Mexico, where Cuba’s musical stars, including Beny Moré and La Sonora Matancera, enchanted adoring fans. Mexican music lovers couldn’t get enough of Cuban melodies, making them a significant contributor to the Cuban economy.
In 1955, Carlos Colorado, a talented musician and one of the band’s biggest fans, arrived in Mexico City from Tabasco with a dream. His dream was to create a band that would blend these tropical sounds into a harmonious whole. When he found like-minded musicians in Andrés Terrones, Silvestre Mercado, and Armando Espinoza, La Sonora Santanera was born.
They drew particular inspiration from Cuba’s most famous orchestra at the time, La Sonora Matancera, and later embraced other tropical genres like Colombian cumbia, which also had a massive following in Mexico. Now, after 68 years and over 50 albums, La Sonora Santanera is embarking on a landmark European tour.
Reflecting on the band’s extensive journey, Arturo Ortiz, a percussionist and one of the only two remaining original members, fondly reminisces, “La Sonora Santanera has weathered many changes—decades have come and gone, as well as significant shifts in the music industry. Yet, here we are, still standing strong! It fills me with immense pride, especially as I celebrate my 50th year in this project.”
Ortiz recalls joining the band in 1973 when he and his fellow members were in their mid-twenties. “It was a golden era for the band. We were young when we joined, and I had been drawn to that sound since I was a child. For me, it was all about my love for music, my passion for Afro-Cuban percussion, and particularly, my love for my instrument, the conga, which provides the heartbeat of our tropical sound.”
However, Ortiz’s entry into the band was bittersweet, as it followed the passing of Armando Espinoza, one of the founding members. Ortiz had to step into the shoes of one of the most important figures in Mexican tropical music history, a daunting prospect for the young percussionist.
Trumpeter Antonio Mendes joined the band a year later in 1974, filling in for the ailing Don Carlos Colorado himself. “He was ill and, as one of the three trumpeters, he saw the need for a fourth. He believed in me, and I will be forever grateful for that.”
During the 1970s, La Sonora Santanera’s success on the radio and on stage continued to grow, coinciding with the burgeoning Mexican movie industry. The band even made appearances in films like “Bellas de noche” (1975), “Las ficheras” (1977), and “Mojado de nacimiento” (1979).
Then, tragedy struck. On April 25, 1986, the band’s tour bus collided with an oil tanker en route to a concert. This horrific accident claimed the life of Don Carlos Colorado and left many others injured. Mendes reflects, “Losing our musical director, Carlos Colorado, and other fellow musicians and friends was devastating. It took us many years to recover personally and professionally.”
Indeed, the loss of Carlos Colorado had a profound impact on the band. He had defined and nurtured the band’s distinctive version of tropical music, even when they played the same songs as La Sonora Matancera, like ‘Luces de Nueva York.’
As a visionary and leader, Colorado had been at the center of it all. His absence led to a division within the original band; some members formed another group called Los Santaneros. The remaining members renamed themselves La Unica Internacional Sonora Santanera and received support from Colorado’s widow.
Over the last decade, as La Unica Internacional Sonora Santanera, they have been grooming a new generation of exceptional musicians and innovating in various ways, according to Mendes. “Remaining faithful to our original musical goals has been paramount.
We’ve stayed true to the tropical genres—bolero, cumbia, cha-cha-cha, salsa—but we’ve interpreted them in our unique style. We’ve also collaborated with artists whose expertise lies outside tropical rhythms, such as Ruben Albarran, Lilia Downs, Rocco Pachucote, Natalia Lafourcade, and Carla Morrison.
They’ve joined us to perform covers, resulting in a unique fusion. For instance, Roco Pachukote tackled ‘La Boa,’ one of our anthems, Carla Morrison added her touch to beautiful boleros, and Albarran sang ‘Bomboro Quiñá Quiñá,’ a departure from his usual style. Each brought something fresh to the mix.”
In 2016, the orchestra made the decision to commemorate their 60th anniversary with a special album. “Alongside creating new music, we wanted to pay tribute to Latin music’s most beloved artists like Celia Cruz, Vicente Fernández, and Mr. Armando Manzanero in our 60th-anniversary album. We approached it with a different format to attract the younger generation, as we didn’t want La Sonora Santanera to fade into obscurity.”
And they certainly haven’t faded away. Their 60th-anniversary album earned a Grammy nomination, and they’ve clinched two Latin Grammys for the best traditional tropical album. In 2021, they received the prestigious Premio Goya in Spain. In Mexico, they were honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Mexican Government in the Chamber of Deputies and even featured on the National Lottery ticket. They are, without a doubt, a national treasure in Mexico.
Sonora Santanera’s Top 10 Hits:
- “Perfume de Gardenias” – Released in 1959.
- “La Boa” – Released in 1966.
- “Luces de Nueva York” – Released in 1969.
- “El Mudo” – Released in 1974.
- “El Orangután” – Released in 1980.
- “La Culebra” – Released in 1986.
- “La Mucura” – Released in 1995.
- “La Pachanga” – Released in 1998.
- “El Bombón Asesino” – Released in 2000.
- “La Sonora y sus Ojos Negros” – Released in 2013.
“What struck me recently, during our time in Costa Rica, was the number of young people in our audience singing along to all our songs,” Mr. Ortiz recalls. “They came to us, saying they grew up with our music thanks to their parents or even their grandparents’ parties!”
In many ways, overcoming the tragedy has been a process of coming to terms with the responsibility of carrying on Sonora Santanera’s legacy, says Mendes. “We were entrusted with carrying on the legend by those who came before us, like our founder Carlos Colorado and the others who started this project but are no longer with us. They left their mark, just as we are doing now. My friend Arturo and I will pass on this torch to our children in the future.”
This promise is quite literal, as both their sons are now part of La Sonora Santanera. “They grew up watching us on stage, and we instilled in them a passion for tropical music. Arturo’s son, Arturito Jr., is here, as is my own son, who is a trumpeter just like me! And there are other young talents with fresh ideas coming aboard to give the band a new image.”
Last year, La Sonora Santanera performed in Dubai, a concert that Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Mendes consider one of their greatest triumphs. “We love performing at home and in our neighboring Central American countries. However, over the past decade, we’ve been preparing to reach new horizons,” “For me, playing in Dubai was dream come true,” Say’s Ortiz
We want our audience to have a blast and feel the Latin rhythm. We want people to enjoy themselves so much that they’ll say, ‘Wow, I want to dance to La Sonora Santanera’ next time.”
Ortiz adds, “We’re coming with boundless happiness and enthusiasm. We want to give our fellow Latinos and everyone, really, a night to dance, sing, and feel like they’re back home.”