It’s Saturday night at El Scorpion on Oleander Drive and about 250 people stream into the ranch-style building. Men pay $20 and women $10 to listen and dance to the upbeat, two-step style of music called Norteno. El Scorpion is the only nightclub in Wilmington to feature live Mexican bands every week. The sexy rhythms of merengue and salsa that originated from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico mix with the country western-style ranchera music born out of Mexico here in Wilmington. Despite the Spanish lyrics, the musical styles are as distinct as the regions and cultures they came from.
Live music is integral to Mexican traditions, and that’s why Jorge Villasenor, owner of the Mexican cowboy boot store Bota Azteca and seafood restaurant El Marinero, brought in the Mexican band Banda Dimension, from Kinston, for a special concert at a rental facility used for indoor soccer in Wilmington three weeks ago.
“Normally in Mexico, when there’s a party, there’s going to be any type of band,” said the 24-year old Villasenor. His concert drew an audience of about 200, and people are already asking when the next one will be, he said.
Norteno has roots in the early 20th century from the northern border states of Mexico, including Sonora, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon. It’s a fusion of traditional Mexican mariachi music with influences from the Czech, Polish and German immigrants who introduced accordions and the polka to the region.
Although norteno is popular in Wilmington, Villasenor prefers the faster beats punctuated by the celebratory horns in banda, which comes from the west coast of Mexico, where he is from. The happy, heavy oompah-oompah beat, which sounds like a party, made banda popular amongst young people like Villasenor in the 1990s, and that’s what his concert featured.
In the constantly churning musical evolution, banda has spawned an even faster, more electronic version called duranguense. Keyboards and even rap lyrics appear in this latest version of contemporary Mexican music. Couples dance free-style and with more flair to duranguense than to its predecessors, where couples stay true to the jig or a closely embraced two-step.
That’s how Gris Garibay got her job working the door at El Scorpion. She was a regular who came to dance with her friends every Saturday night. The owner, Bill Thornton, whose club previously catered to a country & Western crowd, needed someone who could speak both Spanish and English at his club’s Latin iteration and asked her for help. Garibay cards patrons at the door as Thornton’s son, Michael, stuffs their twenties into the cash register. She asks one young man wearing a baggy T-shirt and jeans to take off his wooden beaded necklace. She places it on a hook behind the counter and tells him that she’ll return his rosario when he leaves. She says that people wear these rosaries with different colored beads signifying the region of Mexico they come from. Occasionally the regionalism spurs fights, so El Scorpion has a policy of not letting anyone wear these necklaces inside the club.
A dress code is enforced at Club Vida, a Latin nightclub with a more urban vibe off of Market Street near Kerr Avenue. The music at Club Vida reflects the pan-Latin patrons from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia, said owner Juliana Vives, who is Colombian. Club Vida hosts live bands only once in a while, she said, because their crowd doesn’t really respond to live music. Rather, the DJ spins hip-hop-influenced reggaeton, merengue, salsa and Colombian cumbia, which is broadcast live on Saturday nights on local Latin music radio station, La Gran D 98.7 FM.
Twice a week in the back of his wife’s Mexican store on Carolina Beach Road, David Mondragon and his band practice his original songs. Mondragon immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, 20 years ago. His music is distinctly Mexican with American influences that range from the band’s name, Dragon’s Musical, chosen by his American-born daughters, to his song El Sueno Americano or “American Dream.” His musical style, which he describes as ranchera, or traditional Mexican music, is more old-school and romantic. He plays at local Latino community events, parties and at El Scorpion.
Although El Scorpion packs the house every Saturday night with an increasingly diverse audience that includes non-Latinos, some music aficionados would like to see more live Latin music venues.
“Somebody can do it, but they need a lot of money to (open a club),” Villasenor said. “But, whoever does it, they will have a lot of money and do well.”
Until then, people from as far as Jacksonville, Burgaw and Leland will keep rolling into El Scorpion in their boots and sombreros or baseball caps and sneakers every Saturday night.
Whether you crave country or urban music, there are a handful of places to get your Latin music fix around town.