note: Click on links for music.
Would you rather listen to gangster rap, country music, or polka? If you cringed in horror at any of the three options, well, brace yourself. If you answered, “All three!” then you probably already know your Tigres from your Tucanes.
Whatever your musical tastes, the blood-splattered accordion-happy world of the Mexican narcocorrido is a fascinating place to visit. In Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerillas, folklorist and musician Elijah Wald explains how the traditional corrido (a form of ranchera story song that became popular in Mexico in the 19th century) evolved into the modern narcocorrido, a musical genre that lionizes smugglers, crime bosses, and sometimes even meth manufacturers.
After a brief foray into the music’s roots, Wald starts with an introduction to (who else?) Los Tigres del Norte, the group who had the first modern narcocorrido hit in 1972 with “Contrabando y Traición,” a song you’ve heard a million times if you’ve ever spent any time in a cantina. But in addition to interviewing Los Tigres, Wald tracks down the song’s writer, Ángel González, living in obscurity in Ciudad Guerrero. The second half of the chapter is devoted to González’s life story and his ruminations on the origins of the song. This attention to detail sets the tone for the book, which contains an exhaustive selection of interviews with narcocorrido composers. Wald must have interviewed upward of a hundred people–from little-known talents like Chema Garibay to heavy hitters like Teodoro Bello. The songwriters talk about their lives, their creative process, and their reasons for tackling the world of Chevy Silverados, AK-47s, cocaine, and bloody retribution.
Like gangster rap, narcorridos have been blamed for promoting a culture of violence. Many corridistas base their songs on stories taken from the news, but sometimes narcos actually pay songwriters to record their exploits and atrocities for posterity. Wald delves into these moral gray areas, exploring the socioeconomic and political realities that contribute to the music’s popularity. But, more importantly, he gives the songwriters a chance to talk back. As Sinaloa star El As de la Sierra explains, “All the stations in Mexico and the United States ask the same question: how can this be selling without any help from radio? Well, because people like it. Above all, what I record are corridos of the drug traffic, corridos bravos, to put it that way, and that’s the style right now, it’s what people are asking for.” LA-based singer Jenni Rivera* agrees, saying, “What we sing is not, like, the most positive thing in the world, and we realize that. But I’m only writing corridos and performing, and so is Lupillo, ’cause we’re trying to make a living. We grew up around this. We grew up in the ghetto. And we never became drug dealers, nothing happened to us, we never were influenced by anything. So I’m like, ‘You take care of your kids and let me sing what I gotta sing.'”
The book is atmospheric–rich with distinctly Mexican details, from the slang to the surreal moments Wald experiences in his quest to track down every relevant narco corridista. Far from behaving like a stereotypical academic, Wald follows PG-approved travel methods by really immersing himself in Mexico. He sleeps on couches, is invited to random fiestas, gets drunk with obscure song writers, attends a cock fight, and hitches rides with truckers. At one point he buys a songwriter breakfast and brags that it’s the first time he’s had to foot the bill during his countless interviews. He’s either a true codo or that statement is just a testament to the fierce hospitality of the Mexican people. At any rate, he leaves no stone unturned, tracking down a Zapatista corridista and riding second class buses to talk to the men who make their living as mobile buskers. This rigorous devotion to research is a refreshing contrast to the glut of modern journalism based on twitter comments.
Narcocorrido is a serious work of cultural history and Wald has adeptly captured the stories of musicians and songwriters who otherwise would likely have faded into complete obscurity. The book was published in 2001, well before the escalation of violence that characterizes the current narco wars. I am interested to know if any of these songwriters are rethinking their subject matter. Maybe it’s time for a sequel.
*Jenni Rivera died in a plane crash in Mexico in 2012. Conspiracy theories swirl.