SONG: Mal Hombre
ARTIST: Lydia Mendoza
Listen to it here:
This song is not of Mexican descent, even though it was made popular by a singer who celebrated and was celebrated for her own Mexicanness. Lydia Mendoza’s core repertoire was all traditional Mexican songs, but the song that made her famous, Mal Hombre, is descended from the Argentinian Tango tradition. Because of that, it doesn’t sound a lot like any of her other repertoire, but audiences continually requested it until it became adopted into the traditional Mexican repertoire list of Lydia Mendoza. Because of Mendoza, this song remained popular throughout much of the 20th Century.
Our first Hispanic singer on the list, Lydia Mendoza was born in May of 1916 in Houston, Texas. Her family was very musical and her father quit his job with the railway, which had the family constantly moving from south Texas to Monterrey, Mexico and back when Mendoza was a teenager. The family then eked out a living performing as a small family band in the streets. Lydia’s sister Maria played mandolin, Panchita played guitar, her brother Manuel played triangle, Lydia played violin, and her youngest sister, Juanita danced.
The family started recording for several labels in the 1920s and 1930s, and Lydia recorded her first solo, Mal Hombre, just before her 16th birthday. This song followed her as her signature song throughout her long performance career. She was an active musician playing concerts from the 1920s to well into the 1980s when a stroke rendered her unable to perform.
Mendoza’s touring routes went along the itinerant Mexican labourers routes throughout the US, making her popular with the Mexican agricultural workers who nicknamed her The Lark of the Border, and The Singer of the Poor.
- Lydia Mendoza’s mother played guitar and to imitate her, Mendoza made her very own guitar out of a wooden plank, nails, and six rubber bands.
- Lydia Mendoza’s biggest hit was Mal Hombre. She learned the words to the song from a bubble gum wrapper.
- Mendoza adhered to the Mexican tradition of singing by popular demand – she would not use a set list, instead she would sing whatever was requested of her
As soon as I read that Lydia was born in Texas of Mexican descent, I immediately thought “Selena!” Then I read that Lydia performed Tejano music like Selena too! Anyway, although I’m not super crazy about Lydia’s voice, mad props for playing guitar! I love the tango-ness of this song, especially when it turns from minor to major tonality when she sings the lyrics “mal hombre” – it’s like she’s saying “bad man” with a little smirk on her face. I love layin music, but I think I might give this one a pass. Sorry, Lydia.
I feel like I recognize the name Lydia Mendoza, but maybe I’ve never heard her before. So when I read in the 1,001 Songs book that said she is one of the great pioneers of American music, I felt a little dumb. I really enjoy her singing voice, she has a really sweet sound that goes well with the more intense tango rhythms in the guitar playing. This song is really simple, but super effective. I feel like this could be an easily adapted song for a big band with some fiery trumpet parts, or something more intense. I love how Mendoza is able evoke all these changes from major to minor with her tone as well. For those of you following along at home, did you guys know of her?
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Blanca Rosa Gil’s fiery and passionate version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: