Disney-Pixar's Coco and the Mexican Folk Music That Inspired It

On the weekend before Día de los Muertos in 2017, Mexican audiences gathered en force at their local movie theaters to catch the new Disney-Pixar release, Coco. Box office sales for the animated musical eclipsed all previous animated films by a factor of ten. When it hit U.S. theaters later that season, Coco proved to be just as popular.

The film follows the young hero, Miguel, as he pursues his dreams of becoming a musician despite his family’s generations-old prohibition of music. The quest begins with a magical guitar and leads him on an Orphean journey into the Land of the Dead, where he meets his ancestors and unearths secrets about his family’s past that may help him save his musical heritage.

While Mexican audiences may be better versed in canción ranchera, the traditional folk music at the heart of the film, others may be surprised by how much of the ranchera style they already recognize. From the Texas settlers that influenced the early genre to chart-topping international stars like Selena that updated its sound for pop radio, there have been plenty of entryways into ranchera for the curious listener.

Below, we’ll take our starting point as one of the main songs from Coco and then dive into the history of the genre.

"Remember Me" Song Snippet - Disney/Pixar's Coco

"Remember Me," penned by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who brought us the addictive tunes in Frozen, is certainly one of the more recognizable songs from the Coco soundtrack. It is performed by the character Ernesto de la Cruz, who is famous for performing canciones rancheras in charro film musicals from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, just like real-life legends Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante.

In the years following the Mexican Revolution (which took place 1910–1920), the swelling national pride resulted in the growing popularity of traditional music such as the ranchera, as well as closely associated styles like corrido and norteño. The traditional canción ranchera focuses on themes important to the rural Mexicano: love, nature, and patriotism. For an example of a ranchera classic, watch Jorge Negrete sing "Yo Soy Mexicano.”

Jorge Negrete - "Yo Soy Mexicano"

Despite the national pride indicated by the lyrics and gritos (distinctive mid-song vocal calls from the musicians and/or audience), the composition of the canción has more exotic roots: It is heavily influenced by the music of the Czech and German immigrants that settled in Southern Texas in the 1850s.

These settlers brought with them polka and waltz rhythms, as well as new instruments like the accordion. The combination of these new European influences with the Spanish guitar, violin, and brass instruments already popular in Mexican music resulted in the unmistakeable sound of the ranchera.

To get a sense of the influence these settlers had, you need only listen to the Patek Family Orchestra’s "Circling Pigeons Waltz.” The waltzing accordion found a new home among rural Mexican musicians and began earning its own gritos. To hear how seamlessly the accordion was brought into the fold, listen to Narciso Martinez and Santiago Almeida play "La Chicharronera Polka.”

Texas Czech Bohemian Moravian Bands - "Circling Pigeons Waltz"
Narcizo M y Santiago Almeida - "La Chicharronera"

In Les Blank's 1974 documentary Chulas Fronteras, the Tejano artist José Morante describes his surprise at the origins of one of the enduring ranchera rhythms.

"A lot of people hear the polkas the conjuntos sing, and some of the boys get the idea that they composed those polkas. But really they are German polkas, which I found out here in New Braunfels [Texas], when those German bands played the polkas, and—oh, the same polkas we play," Morante says. "So it's really a German polka, but we give it a little different taste."

In the past century, the ranchera genre has persisted and evolved, giving way to newer and more recognizable iterations such as mariachi and, more recently, rock and roll-influenced Tejano music. More than any other performer, Selena helped the music gain wide popularity with her mainstream-reaching take on Tejano, as heard in her "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”

Selena - "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom"

Of course, more traditional rancheras are still regularly performed by acclaimed artists, such as the Latin Music Hall-of-Famer and multiple Grammy-winning Vicente Fernández, who is known as the King of Ranchera Music. Watch him sing "El Rey” to a rapt Las Vegas audience.

Vicente Fernández - "El Rey"

Although significantly "Disney-fied,” the instrumentation of Coco is certainly in keeping with the traditions of Mexican folk music, with its recognizable oom-pa-pa accordion rhythms, soaring strings, passionate gritos, and intricate acoustic guitar runs. We’ll likely be hearing much more of this South-of-the-Border influence in the years to come.

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