For anyone who's migrated to this Triangle we call home, you now have a theme song. It opens simply, with two male voices rising and falling in close harmony, singing a cappella in Spanish: "Raleigh, North Carolina, I carry you in my heart."
Accordions, six-string bass and drums launch into waltz tempo. The places mentioned are familiar, but it sounds like a classic Mexican norteño ballad. The lyrics tell of comings and goings, new friends and beautiful women, good money and bittersweet feelings of a home away from home. It's a road song, but the nostalgia is for North Carolina: "Raleigh, I know that I owe you a lot/ Goodbye, I know I will miss you/ And I know that when I can I'll be back."
This is "Raleigh," the title track from Rey Norteño's 2006 debut. It's earned the band national airplay on Mexican regional radio stations such as the local 96.9 FM La Ley. After last year's airwaves splash, Rey Norteño ("Norteño King") maintained a strong foothold in the southeastern concert and festival scene, opening for major Mexican acts such as Ramon Ayala, Conjunto Primavera and Beto y sus Canarios. They have an offer in the works to appear on a Hispanic TV morning show. With their clean-cut sex appeal and yes ma'am manners, the members of Rey Norteño have become role models for an all-ages fan base, especially young Latinos who wait in long lines to get posters, hats and T-shirts signed.
Rey Norteño is the Huerta brothers—Fred on guitar and vocals, Amoz on accordion and Alejandro on bajo sexto—and nephew Alex Huerta on drums and friend Chago Rodriguez on second accordion. The brothers have musical backgrounds but never played together until three years ago. Their mother and the band's namesake, Reyna, urged her sons to form a trio huasteco—to play the fiddle-based folk music of their native Hidalgo, Mexico. That memory brings smiles. Opting for the more commercially popular, yet time-tested norteño must have been like going into the country music business when your mama always wanted you to play bluegrass.
When Fred joined his brothers here three years ago, after a stint in Chicago as a professional drummer with a sonidero outfit, the band finally happened. Amoz was drumming in a Raleigh durangense act (they've since grown famous across the border as El Throno de Mexico) and Alejandro was playing guitar in a local group called Animal.
"It's a project I've had in my mind for many years, but it was never possible because we all played in different bands," says Fred. "When the chance came to form our own band, I suggested it to my brothers and they said, 'Orale pues'."
The group's been hard at work ever since. They practice every night at a storage shed in North Raleigh, exercising the calm intensity of a string quartet. No dangling cigarettes or popped-open beers here. Sound insulation foam curls off one wall, and show posters and chord charts adorn another. Fred directs with few words, taking a turn at the drum set to show young Alex a pattern or woodshedding basslines with the elder Alejandro.
It's a jolt to see the band in street clothes and not the western uniforms they wear on stage: cowboy boots and hats, pearl-button shirts, jeans with "Rey Norteño" embroidered on the trouser leg. In flip flops, baseball caps, T-shirts and shorts, they look more like Saturday night wanderers on Franklin Street than Los Tigres del Norte, one of the old-time norteño bands they model themselves after.
But the accordions are the touch of distinction. During a Rey Norteño performance, up to six of these rhinestone-studded beauties—Gabbanelli accordions in a rainbow of colors, several mimicking the designs of the U.S. and Mexican flags—may grace the stage.
Tonight, the band's rehearsing for its second album. Fred's catchy songwriting is powered by his vocal charisma, a high tenor range that evokes romantic possibilities much like that of salsa/pop balladeer Jerry Rivera.
Fred is developing a follow-up single for "Raleigh," hoping to capitalize on that song's momentum. It won't mention a city, he says, but it will tap into similar themes. Indeed, the tremendous success of "Raleigh" was largely strategic. The lyrics never mention Mexico, a calculation meant to include the broadest possible listener base.
"I wanted people from Peru, Ecuador, China, Canada or wherever they are from to be able to identify with the song because we have the same experiences," Fred says. "Work, cold, hunger, falling in love, facing certain types of discrimination, being away from your family for a long time—all of us go through the same things."
Rey Norteño's music uses traditional ranchera idioms to speak to the modern immigrant experience, says David Garcia, an ethnomusicologist at UNC-Chapel Hill who's invited the band to appear at a UNC conference and festival he's organizing for March. Garcia uses "Raleigh" in his world music classes to illustrate the theme of music and migration.
"The lyrics are very relevant to what's happening around us. It brings it not only into contemporary times, but right here, into Raleigh, N.C.," says Garcia. "These experiences are cross-cultural. It's not only the U.S. that's having to deal with immigration and so forth. And it's a great song."
The song can play a special role in immigration debates that are becoming more heated, Garcia says: "They're expressing very positive emotions and connections with North Carolina. It humanizes them. It tells the story of the immigrant from their perspective, which you just don't get in the media."
With a busy touring schedule—a typical weekend might take Rey Norteño from Wilson to Winston-Salem—the guys are living what all musicians know too well. Troubadours are economic migrants par excellence. Making your bread means traveling, and the irony of success is that it forces separation from the people and places you love.
"There's still a lot to do, but we are starting to feel accepted in the music world," says Fred. The guys in Rey Norteño bring one advantage with them: They already know a thing or two about road trips. Maybe that's why, so far, they've managed to keep their feet planted firmly on the road.
Rey Norteño performs at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance Sunday, Oct. 14. For more information, visit www.shakorihills.org.