Mariachi bands have violins and sombreros. Norteño bands dress like cowboys and use accordions. Bandas are big (14--18 players), brassy Mexican dance bands. There are about 15 bandas in Tijuana, but only 1 performs regularly in San Diego.
"Work visas are getting harder and harder to get," says conga player Luciano Hermosillo of Banda Santo Tomás. "We are the only [Tijuana] banda that can play in San Diego."
Four of the 16 members in his band live in San Diego; the other 12 live in Tijuana. Banda Santo Tomás is named after the trumpet player and singer who has run the show for 40 years.
"People only leave when they join a better band," says Hermosillo. "We never fire anybody. The person who is leaving or the band owner looks for a replacement."
Banda Santo Tomás has three clarinets, four trumpets, two trombones, one timbale, a bass, tuba, congas, and two singers. Because of the large payroll, most of Hermosillo's bandmates have day jobs. Are there any other difficulties the band must work around?
"You have 16 different minds. We never fight onstage, but when you get home, yeah, it happens."
Banda Santo Tomás has released six CDs and played in Chicago, Miami, and New York. They appear on Fridays at Mar y Sol in Chula Vista ($15 cover) and Sundays at El Kora in Spring Valley (free admission).