Mexico City is a huge, beautiful musical monster and eminently dadaist in its character. The city’s music is born of its multiculturalism, the diverse identities drawn from an endless spread of neighborhoods that could confuse even the most competent GPS. It’s a marvelous thing to dance with a leviathan of these dimensions, so long as you take care it doesn’t step on you.
The music that narrates Mexico City is a Technicolor print of its “active” population (to use the terminology of capitalism): the people between the ages of 15 and 64 who make up two-thirds of the population. A lot of the music here is free, and, like most of its best food, you’ll find it on the street. Mapping the capital’s present through its music is an impossible task, so I went to all 16 of Mexico City’s delegaciones (administrative districts) to ask people which songs define their version of this surreal urban landscape. From that shower of songs, I chose 13 rolas (that’s the local slang), for the number of skies in the Aztec mythos.
In all, I spoke to 102 people about which song defined their México. Their answers transgressed every kind of social division—from gender and class to urban tribe—and described the songs that unite us as a city. The result isn’t a playlist in the style of Putumayo (a popular series of “world music” CDs, available for years at Starbucks), but instead a portrait of a city that breaks thousands of hearts but always, somehow, manages to win them back.
1. “Sábado Distrito Federal” by Chava Flores (1959)
This song came from the brilliant mind of Chava Flores, a songwriter raised in the iconic barrio La Merced, then home to the city’s largest market and a melting pot of immigrants arriving from across the republic and the world. An ode to Saturdays in our great city, full of humor, sarcasm, and irony, this song is practically the official hymn of people fighting for survival.
2. “Distrito Federal” by Achepe (2010)
The youngest artist on this list, Achepe captures the distinct rhythms of Iztapalapa, the most populous area in Mexico City. It starts from the first line: “Welcome to the biggest city on Earth/ where people are kind by day and restless at night/ where water holds up tons of concrete/ where love triumphed without even trying.”
3. “Metro Busco Amor” by Los Lagartos (1996)
Our next stop is at the end of the light rail, an extension of the modernist metro system, at the Tepepan station in the leafy municipality of Xochimilco. Once one of the five lakes that filled the Valle de México, Xochimilco is the last part of the city still built on chinampas, a Mesoamerican agricultural system of floating islands in the shallow waters of the lake. That’s where the narrative of “Metro Busco Amor” takes place, a story of finding love underground in one of the orange cars of the metro.
4. “Las Manos Quietas” by Carlos Pérez (1985)
Written by a Spaniard, this is an epic number from the days of Hi-NRG, a form of electronic dance music that flooded the city in the 1980s at the hands of the DJ Patrick Miller, immortalized in a classic nightclub at the northern edge of the Colonia Roma. The city has changed, but this song still makes it possible for hipsters and queens to make out in the dark, humid nights of the Centro Histórico.
5. “El Mambo del Mercado la Merced” by Pérez Prado (1974)
Starting in the ’80s, the chaos of La Merced moved southeast with the construction of the Central de Abastos, the largest wholesale produce market in Mexico. This is where you go to find vegetables, fruit, tiny images of Donald Trump with a rope around his neck: everything short of your mortal soul. And if you look, you’ll almost certainly see someone dancing along to the king of mambo, Pérez Prado, and his immortal homage to La Merced’s colorful chaos.
6. “Kumbala” by Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (1991)
If the seductive madness of the Central de Abastos leaves you exhausted, you may need to move on to something slower. Look no further than Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (roughly, “the Damned Project and the Kids from the Fifth Courtyard”), founders of the rock mestizo genre, and their song “Kumbala”: a saxophone scraping across the red floors of Mexico’s cabarets.
7. “Te Recuerdo” by Alberto Pedraza (2003)
This is a classic example of the famous cumbia—a style of tropical dance music that originated in coastal Colombia and has since spread throughout Latin America—that don’t just dance, but talk. In Tepito, Mexico City’s notorious barrio bravo (“fierce neighborhood”), you find DJs chatting and sending messages while the music is playing: “A shoutout to Mireya and her miniskirt …” Trucks parked crossways block the street so that no cars—and no police—can get in. Carnitas, roast chicken, nopales, cilantro, tortillas, and salsas abound, as do people eating, circling, and whistling. In these big neighborhood dances, no one cares how old you are, if you’re gay or straight, cis or trans. They only care how passionately you move.
8. “Él No Lo Mató” by El Haragán (1992)
In bodegas and bars in places like San Bartolo Ameyalco, an indigenous town within the delegación Álvaro Obregón, you’ll hear marathons of tunes from the likes of El Haragán, whose song “Él No Lo Mató” (“He Didn’t Kill Him” or “I Won’t Kill Him”) tells the story of a 17-year-old boy, sweet and healthy, who was “easily convinced” to rob a shop. A cop fires on him, and the bullet pierces his heart. Based on a true story, the song is a symbol of urban rock, tackling the toll that society takes on the individual.
9. “Madrugal” by Café Tacvba (1994)
The shortest song ever produced by the legendary Mexico City band Café Tacvba describes the city waking up, its palaces appearing in the sunlight, and later, as the night falls, its cathedral disappearing “into smog and pigeon shit.”
10. “Por las Calles de México” by Sonora Santanera (1965)
There’s a popular saying that whoever doesn’t know the Salón Los Ángeles doesn’t know Mexico. This bolero, a down-tempo musical form that originated in 18th-century Spain and exploded in popularity in 20th-century Cuba, was the selection made by older couples lined up to dance at the city’s most famous dance bar, which turned 80 earlier this year. Salón Los Ángeles is a rose-colored world: Its neon-edged walls have witnessed the legendary comedian Cantinflas and the composer Benny Moré, Frida Kahlo dancing with Diego Rivera, Gabriel García Márquez sketching, Che Guevara taking photos, and the historic band La Sonora Santanera performing its greatest hits. If you don’t know “Por las Calles de México,” you don’t know the Salón Los Ángeles.
11. “Las Aventuras en el Defe” by Rodrigo González (1984)
On Calle Bruselas in the Colonia Juárez, there’s a voice that echoes from the rubble of the ’85 earthquake, which caused widespread damage and killed at least 5,000 people. Rodrigo “Rockdrigo” González gave voice to a generation of young people and a powerful youth movement violated by the state in the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968. Poet, singer, and great expert on the idiosyncrasies of his fellow chilangos, González became popular with this song, referring to the Spanish pronunciation of DF, short for Distrito Federal, as the city was known until 2016, when it was incorporated as the 32nd state in the Mexican Republic. Just two years before his death, he launched the so-called movimiento rupestre (Rock Movement), which encouraged young musicians who were too strapped to buy an amplifier to take up acoustic instruments.
12. “La Negra Tomasa” by Caifanes (1988)
Written by Cuban songwriter Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe, this hugely danceable version by Caifanes sticks like stucco to chilango speakers. Check out the gelled hair, eyeliner, and dark atmosphere of the music video—think of it as the Cure singing cumbia. [LG1]
13. “Chilanga Banda” by Jaime López (1995)
Another hymn to the city, this one written by a lyrical master, Mexico’s Bob Dylan. Without Jaime López, there would be no Mexican rock at all. “Chilanga Banda” is a masterpiece of barrio speak, a vibrant, untranslatable stream of double entendre: “Pachucos, cholos y chundos, chichinflas y malafachas, acá los chompiras rifan, y bailan el tibiri tabara.” If you don’t understand that, you’re not the only one. Like every other song on this list, like every other portrait of the DF’s beautiful confusion, this rola insists that in this city you die dancing.
Co-published with the new Roads & Kingdoms Mexico City Travel Guide.