Mexican banda singer Alfredo Rios, better known as El Komander, earns his name with a commanding stage presence. (photo by Jordan Green)
by Jordan Green
Like the eminence who would follow them, BuKnas de Culiacán’s set commenced with a crackling audioscape of cinematic drama coupled with searchlights casting about the venue and cutting through artificial fog as the band members took their places. With a brassy and percussive sound heavy on oompah, they turned in a frenetic set, with singer Edgar Quintero providing raspy vocals and accompaniment on accordion that washed over the rhythm section like a melodic swell.
Roaming the stage with a wireless mic, guest star Luis Barraza provided a foil of casual insouciance, shimmying next to the horn players, hyping the band and, at one point, pouring a mixed drink into Quintero’s mouth as he wailed on an accordion solo.
It was an effective setup for Barraza, an accordionist and vocalist himself, to subtly ratchet the emotional level of the music before the audience on Sunday at Disco Rodeo in Winston-Salem really knew what was happening. He strapped on his accordion and made a stabbing, melodic attack before laying his instrument down and rendering a plaintive and authoritative vocal. As the band peaked in intensity, Barraza and Quintero shared vocals while the two drummers unleashed martial rolls. Then, after a showman-like drum breakdown and horn outro, the band came back on for encore, accordions piercing the air with a joyous squall.
By then, the party in the VIP area stretching in front of the stage was in full swing, with couples dancing and friends pouring drinks down each other’s throats. Barraza and Quintero, beaming, obliged happy fans with selfies.
The audience was waiting for the undisputed lord of the realm, with many of the young men dressed in large, crisp cowboy hats, oversized belt buckles and super pointed boots in emulation of their hero and ladies dressed in tight micro dresses and heels. His name is Alfredo Rios, but he’s better known to his fans as “El Komander.”
As the searchlights played across the room and a sonic rumble announced his imminent entrance, there was a palpable excitement, with cell phones held aloft to capture the moment, smiles abounding and guests bouncing on their feet to the house music — a sequence of snippets of hits set apart by a stentorian voicing that a boxing announcer might use: “Alfredo Rios. El Komander.” The audience, almost exclusively Mexican-American, thronging every inch of floor space in the 1,400-person capacity venue were ready to go nuts.
Rios’ larger-than-life profile preceded him; he’s the top artist on the roster of Twiins Music Group, home to the rest of the artists on the bill at Disco Rodeo, including Luis Barraza, singer Charly Barraza and the group Los DesVelados. Company founders and brothers Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela, who were born in the state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico and make their base of operations in Los Angeles, make no bones about their interest in fusing the graphic ethos of gangsta rap onto traditional Mexican music.
Brutal depictions in song of the exploits of narco-traffickers have inevitably given rise to the same kind of debates that surrounded gangsta rap in the early 1990s, raising the question of whether the music glorifies violence or functions as a reportorial mirror.
Under pressure from government censorship and mounting fines in Mexico, Rios announced in the fall of 2014 that he was retiring from singing narco-ballads. As a reflection of his own predicament and developments in the narco-war, recent Rios songs have chronicled the capture of drug cartel leaders. “Plan Zambada Imperial,” a ballad posted to YouTube on Feb. 4, chronicles the capture of Ismael Zambada Imperial, aka El Mayito Gordo, the son of a Sinaloa cartel leader. In the cinematic-quality video, Rios portrays a capo gathering with his family at a mansion as heavily armed federal agents move in, and then fleeing into the jungle after a shootout, only to be captured as he attempts to escape. But in an ironic commentary on the slippery nature of Mexican justice, the video ends with Rios indulging in celebratory gunfire with a gold-plated AK-47 in front of the mansion, while standing alongside the federal agents.
By the time Rios took the stage with his band in Winston-Salem, it was technically Monday morning, and the crowd was in a state of near pandemonium. He played the anti-hero and the magnanimous strongman, clearly projecting an aspirational profile to his devoted fans. The audience went wild as the singer stalked the stage calling out the names of Sinaloa, Michoacán, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas and other states that Mexican immigrants in North Carolina hail from. Even without a strong grasp of the language, an observer could clearly read from Rios’ hand gesture rising from down near the floor to above his head, that he was making a testimonial about people from humble roots rising to positions of power.
From the first song, women were streaming onto the stage, requiring two harried stage handlers to constantly police the premises. But Rios and his crew also abetted the chaos by placing a chair in the center of the stage to which the handlers escorted a series of women hand-picked from the crowd and seated them, in a ritual repeated several times over the course of the next 90 minutes. Then one of the handlers would fetch a bottle of whiskey from the drum riser, and Rios would pour a shot into the woman’s mouth before accepting her kiss on the cheek and shimmying away. While singing, he grabbed cell phones from the fans in the VIP section, took selfies of himself and returned them to their rightful owners. He sauntered to the edge of the stage and threw kisses towards the back of the hall.
Every song started with an explosion of sonic energy, the drums, sousaphone, double bass, accordion and acoustic guitar combining in heady swirl. Like Public Enemy during the era of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or the Rolling Stones in late ’60s “Street Fighting Man” mode, Rios’ band established a ground floor of intensity from the jump and then steadily raised it until the people in the audience were practically beside themselves with ecstasy. As with label mates BuKnas de Culiacán and Los DesVelados, Rios’ band completely dispensed with song breaks, maintaining the relentless pace and foreclosing against any possible distraction.
The band would periodically drop out in mid-song, with Rios wrenching a declarative statement from his heart, not unlike James Brown in “Please Please Please” or “It’s a Man’s World.” Then, as Rios’ vocals built up intensity, the guitar and horns joined in a flourish, like fireworks making a spray of light. And although comparisons to American soul do a disservice to the band’s superb mastery of Mexican traditional music, their ability to heighten the dynamic by hitting accents for maximum impact likewise brings to mind James Brown’s band.
Then, just before 2 a.m., the concert was over. The house lights revealed a dance floor covered in melted ice and crushed Modelo cans. Like an elusive strongman, El Komander was gone.