When Sergio Lizárraga got his first tuba at age 15, he never imagined he would become the leader of 2018’s most-streamed Mexican act on Spotify.
After playing in other bands like Banda La Costeña, in 2003 Lizárraga founded the 16-piece Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizárraga — more commonly known as Banda MS — which has become the most successful regional Mexican music act in an era dominated by the urban and reggaetón genres. The group performs banda music (played by large wind ensembles of 10 to 20 musicians), a subgenre of regional Mexican music that also includes mariachi, ranchera and norteño.
Although regional Mexican music is popular in the United States, and for a long time was a top-selling Latin genre, it is often looked down upon by pop artists as lacking sophistication. But since Lizárraga moved Banda MS (the initials stand for the group’s hometown of Mazatlán in Sinaloa, Mexico) from Universal’s Disa label to his independent Lizos Music in 2014, the group has notched 10 No. 1s on Billboard’s Regional Mexican Songs chart, nine top 10 singles on the Hot Latin Songs list and six top 10 LPs on the Latin Albums tally, including Con Todas Las Fuerzas (With All Forces), which debuted at No. 5 in September.
“It has been a good year, but the Spotify recognition surprised me,” says Lizárraga, 43, who put down his tuba in 2013 to devote himself to managing and producing Banda MS and serving as president/CEO of Lizos Music. The label has over 40 staffers and a roster that includes new acts Marilyn Odessa and Banda La Misma Tierra. Banda MS has played over 100 shows in 2018, including three nights at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater and two nights at Arena Monterrey in Mexico. “There’s still this stigma against banda music,” says Lizárraga, “but we — I’m very proud to say — have broken paradigms.”
For the 15th anniversary of Banda MS, the executive spoke to Billboard on the success of the group and the growing legacy of regional Mexican music.
What drove you to get into banda?
Music is part of our upbringing in my native Mazatlán. It’s a very musical city and home to Banda El Recodo. [Mexico’s most venerable band, it formed in 1938 and is still active.] We were four kids: one sister and three brothers, including my older brother, who died at 21, and my younger brother Albert, who plays clarinet in the band. I started studying music at [age] 15 along with a group of friends, many of whom are part of MS today [trumpeters Ricardo and Elias Nordahl, clarinetist Jairo Ozuna and tambora player Yahir Ozuna].
Why did you pick up the tuba?
No one else wanted to play it, because it was too big. Three of us had a drawing, and I got stuck with it. But once I tried it, I loved it. It’s a solo instrument; there’s only one tuba in the band. So you can impose your style, and you play throughout every song. When I told my mom how much that first old tuba was going to cost, she almost flipped. It was the most expensive instrument of all: $600. But my older brother, who was working at the time, gave me most of the money, and my dad put up the rest.
You had a big scare in July 2016, when a stray bullet hit singer Alan Ramírez in the neck after a show in Mexico City. He almost died, but the police determined it was an accident.
The fact that it was a stray bullet was a big relief. We didn’t see ourselves traveling in armored cars. Of course, we had to analyze things — to ask ourselves if we had enemies. But we couldn’t come up with anyone.
Before going indie with Lizos Music, you signed with manager Fernando Camacho, who represents and produces some of Mexico’s top groups. Through him you released music on Universal labels Disa and Fonovisa.
We came from being indie, and we were the most-listened-to banda in Mexico. Our singer was Julión Álvarez [who has since left the group], and he was a star. But I felt we couldn’t reach big goals [on our own]. We signed with Fernando in 2006, when Álvarez decided to go solo. We still have a great relationship with Fernando, and when our contract expired, we stayed one more year with him. I eventually went indie because I was forced to do things alone. [Lizárraga was not offered a favorable contract by Disa.]
I came from making music, [but] knew absolutely nothing about the business of music. By the end of 2015, we hadn’t received a single cent in royalties as Banda MS. When we recovered our masters and released Que Bendición [What a Blessing, in 2016] under Lizos, we received the first royalties in the group’s history. That opened our eyes to the business and to the fact that there was more to it than shows and albums. We realized that streams and videos are a source of revenue.
Banda MS plays the occasional corrido — songs about real heroes and antiheroes. What’s your opinion on corridos and narcocorridos, which talk about drug culture and are very popular now?
Corridos are part of our culture. I don’t agree much with singing corridos about people who are breaking the law and are alive. They used to be about outlaws who were long dead. But now you’re exulting people who are alive and doing terrible things. If a corrido speaks about, say, [Colombian drug trafficker] Pablo Escobar, that’s a story of the past. We sing stories in the same way Los Tigres del Norte do. [The Northern Mexican norteño group tends to chronicle actual events and deceased people.]
What surprises you most about this success after 15 years?
I don’t see myself as a “successful” guy. Success comes from teamwork. Obviously, I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve found people who have supported me. Success is having the vision to identify loyal people, people who work, who
don’t hide things from you and who help you learn.
Regional Mexican music is often overlooked on big stages and playlists. Why do you think that is?
When people tell me we should play reggaetón, I don’t agree. Our music will always be needed. We can perform any rhythm. Not every banda has the musical skill to sound good. I go to our concerts and I see people dancing, singing and crying for three hours. So I do feel we’re getting the love. When you fill the Microsoft Theater for three nights, you are getting love.
What’s next for Banda MS, and for the regional Mexican genre?
To continue defending the genre and being there for our people — fans in Guatemala, Argentina, wherever they may be. Regional Mexican music is music for the people. And the people don’t tolerate distance between [themselves and] their artists. It’s not like pop acts, who sometimes don’t even give interviews. Regional Mexican fans are a bit more territorial; they want a closer relationship.