Working the Borders: The Tijuana and Monterrey Scenes

El Gran Silencio

Nortec Collective

About 100 million people live in Mexico, and over 20 million of those live in the Mexico City metropolitan area; another 6 million live in Guadalajara, which is only 30 minutes from Mexico City. So you’d expect Mexico’s music scene to be dominated by this central area, which contains more than 25% of the people in the whole nation — and you’d be right. This is certainly true of Mexican rock music, which is called many things, including the incredibly cheesy word “rocanrol”– you’ve got Café Tacuba, Jaguares (which used to be Caifanes), Maldita Vecindad, and Molotov, just to name some of the ones we gringos might have heard of. (Oh, yeah, there’s also Santa Sabina. They were pretty great.) It seems to be pretty clear that the road to success for Mexican rockeros has to run through the capital city.

But a couple of other cities have started to challenge Mexico City’s dominance in the last few years. Tijuana and Monterrey are both closer to the U.S. border than they are to Mexico City, and both have enthusiastic and committed local music scenes that have little to do with trying to sound like chilangos (natives of Mexico City) and everything to do with musical hybridism.

Tijuana is exactly 12 miles from San Diego, California — you can get there in a half an hour by car. If you really want to be a purist, the rock scene in TJ begins with one name: Carlos Santana, who grew up there before moving to San Francisco (where, according to family legend, he beat the shit out of my uncle in a bar…but that’s another story). But lately there has been a renaissance in Tijuana. This flowering was more or less led by punk/ska legends Tijuana No!, who just ended their career in December after 11 years. Influenced just as much by Jamaica and England and the U.S. as they were by anything local, Tijuana No! somehow beat the odds and got popular enough to collaborate with likeminded internationalists Fermin Muguruza and Manu Chao. With their straight-ahead romp of a style and their heart-on-sleeve leftist politics (song titles include “Niños de la Calle” — “Children of the Street” — and “Gringos Ku Klux Klanes”), they proved that it was possible for Tijuanians to rock and roll on both sides of the border. (A good compilation is Rock en Español: Lo Mejor de Tijuana No! on RCA International, 2001; their live album Live from Balboa is supposed to be pretty hot too.)

Tijuana No! was so important, they have a famous ex-member. Julieta Venegas was an old friend of the band (she was a full member of its early incarnation as Chantaje) who helmed the accordion for a few gigs with them, and her song “Pobre de Ti” was their biggest hit. But she was never more than a shadow member of Tijuana No! — she had formed several of her own groups and composed music for plays, and was nobody’s hanger-on. Her debut solo album, 1998’s Aqui, was a breath of fresh air in Mexico’s “alterlatino” scene. Armed only with a piano or her trusty accordion, and backed up by Argentinean superproducer Gustavo Santaolalla, Venegas emoted her way through introspective burners like “Recuerdo Perdido” (“Lost Memory”) and a maybe-matched trilogy of songs that framed the album: “Oportunidad”, “Liberdad”, and “Verdad.”

But it was Venegas’ second album, Bueninvento, that broke her out in 2000. This record is nothing short of stunning; the title track, which means “Goodinvention”, is about eschewing makeup and getting to what’s on the inside, and that’s exactly what she does all over the record. Whether she’s singing about lost love in “Casa Abandonada” and “Flor” or lost opportunity in “Seria Feliz”, she is mournful and magical…and very very Mexican. And the songs have a kick this time around; Santaolalla is around, to be sure, but things are spiced up even further with the presence of three fourths of Mexico City’s ace band Café Tacuba, Joe Gore (guitarist for Tom Waits), Toy Hernández (whom you’ll meet in a second), and everyone’s drummer Joey Waronker.

This record was made in Mexico City, where Venegas is now based, and locals are not surprised — musicians claim that there’s no real alternative scene in Tijuana. But there is one, now, based in dance music. The loose artists’ network called the Nortec Collective burst onto the scene last year with a debut compilation CD of techno dance music called Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1, and got written up all over for their winning blend of computer-based but funky dance rhythms and traditional Mexican music samples. The opening track is the most famous. Bostich’s transcendent “Polaris” melds Kraftwerk-style robot jazz with honking norteño tubas and whirring slamming drums off an old banda sinaolense album, and creates a classic tune that respects both history and the ass-shaking imperative. The album is glutted with great grooves, from Hiperboreal’s “Tijuana for Dummies” to Panóptica’s “And L” — and both those artists have now released their own albums, with more to follow, so it looks like the scene is spawning its own children.

Nortec’s great success came through creating their own audience; the collective includes visual artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers among their number, and they have managed to convince Tijuana’s young people that it’s okay to have their own hybrid culture. Monterrey has been up against the same thing for a long time. Monterrey is Mexico’s third largest city (its metro area numbers almost 4 million people), and it is a relatively prosperous industrial center. But Monterrey is often just as ignored by the rest of Mexico as is Tijuana, because of both cities’ supposed “sin cultura” status: “without culture” is a term that slams border towns as bastards, neither American nor Mexican but somehow lesser for being influenced by both. “Pochos”: wannabes.

Now, however, that very hybrid status is the basis of Mexico’s most vibrant musical community. Monterrey is no longer apologizing for being a mixed-up global village type of city — rather, it’s reveling in it. Solo Para Fanaticos, the brand-new compilation by Monterrey rappers Control Machete, solves that in a heartbeat in its very first cut: “Si Señor” is an instant classic of Spanish-language rap. Yeah, you’ve heard it — that Levi’s commercial where the Latin dude is doing that messed-up computer-aided dance through the whole cityscape? That’s what he’s dancing to. “Si Señor” mixes the drugged-out style pioneered by Cypress Hill with the undeniably Mexican theme of gathering the seeds of culture from all over and growing them. Modified translation from follows: “Later to gather [all the seeds] little by little / To take [them] to my warehouse, and to see what interests me / The good thing, the bad thing….” All this is very well and good, but it wouldn’t be so great if it didn’t slam, and if Fermin IV didn’t growl “Si señor!” on the chorus like a Mexified Busta Rhymes.

Solo Para Fanaticos is a hastily assembled collection, built to capitalize on the success of “Si Señor”. The song was also heavily featured in the recent hit movie Amores Perros, but that doesn’t mean it’s not laden with gold. Fermin Caballero is clearly the group’s star, with his big gruff voice, but the high tenor stylings of Pato are no joke either. The group’s sound designer/DJ? None other than Toy Kenobi, a.k.a. Toy Hernández. Control Machete’s first album, Mucho Barato was kickass enough, if derivative; the stereotyped drug-deal-gone-wrong tale of “¿Comprendes Mendes?” and the Licensed to Ill knockoff “Mexican Curios” are both just too U.S.-like to break any new ground. But with 1999’s Artilleria Pesada: Presente, they really came into their own.

Besides “Si Señor”, they scored major wildness points with amazing pieces like “Desde la Tierra (El Tercer Planeta)” and the one-two Cuban-influenced punch of “Danzón”– on which they had some kickin’ assistance from Tacuba’s omnipresent Rubén Albarrán — and “Grita”, which is a whirling son piano workout. This album is tied together thematically with skillful segues, which you can barely tell in the midst of Solo Para Fanaticos‘s cut-up mix-and-match track listing. Unfortunately, the future of Control Machete is in doubt. Fermin IV got married this summer and converted to evangelical Christianity, and while they are all still scheduled to go into the studio this fall, even band insiders are worried that this new development will hamper them. (Someone needs to hire me to do these compilations. Quick.)

But the undisputed classic of the new Monterrey style does not belong to Control Machete. It is last year’s Chuntaros Radio Poder, by the five-man band called El Gran Silencio. These guys are truly insane: they’re a cumbia band, they’re a rap ensemble, they slam like punk rockers, they croon like rancheros — they’re all over the map, and it sounds great. Another source of energy for El Gran Silencio is their love of punk rock. To hear their song “The Wings” is to know what it’s like to pogo. “I want to fly / I need to fly / I want to fly / But I don’t got the wings” is a superb verse, but the chorus is better: “The wings!” repeated thirteen times. It’s inspiring, it’s basic, it’s puro rocanrol.

The two main lyricists are brothers Carlos (Cano) Hernández and Tony Hernández (not the same Antonio Hernández from Control Machete) — they play tag-team, alternating their songs and lead vocals throughout the record. The rhythm section of bass player Julian “Vulgar” Villareal (also known as Hernández…I’m admitting right now that I’m confused by the whole thing there) and Ezequiel “Eze” Alvarado moves things right along, but the true star is accordion player Isaac “Campa” Valdez, who turns the vallenato and cumbia 2/4 rhythms into full-on soundscapes.

Chuntaros Radio Poder has a wonderful concept: the album is a day’s worth of broadcasts from an imaginary radio station that plays nothing but El Gran Silencio. They got all their deejay friends to introduce each song, so the album flows perfectly. At six in the morning, we get “Beat Box Cazoo”, a Spanglish rap with awesome beatboxing skills by Tony; by 10:45 a.m., we’re rocking to the speed-polka of “La Kalaka”; at 5:15 p.m., it’s the heavy drum’n’bass slam of “Electronica”; and the day draws to a close at four in the morning with a sweet cover of “Déjenme Si Estoy Llorando.” They do everything in the course of 73 minutes and it all works beautifully. By incorporating local traditions and juicing them up with new styles, El Gran Silencio has created a masterpiece.

One of the musicians name-checked on Chuntaros Radio Poder is Monterrey legend Celso Piña, who is known as “The Rebel of the Accordion” for his forward-thinking style. So it was no surprise when EGS showed up on Barrio Brava, Piña’s celebration of 20 years in the music business that turns out to just be a big ol’ Monterrey party. Piña leads things off with “Cumbia Sobre el Rio”, which turned out to be a big hit in Monterrey — and all of Mexico — thanks to the contributions of Control Machete’s Pato and Blanquito Man from New York’s King Changó. This dubbed-out two-step ragga-flavored accordion groove gives way to the vallenato shuffle of “Si Mañana”, on which Café Tacuba pops up again. (They’re also around for a stirring version of the classic tragic-love song “Aunque No Sea Conmigo” — don’t these guys ever rest?) Then we go right into a Spanish-language version of a Brazilian forró classic by Dominguinhos, and then a made-up forró song by Piña collaborators Quem. Then on to Alfonso Herrera’s “Al Pensar en Ti”, which sounds an awful lot like the way Lyle Lovett would do it — it’s just a charming beautiful disc. Piña croons, he works his nimble magic on the accordion, he ties together all the disparate strands of Monterrey culture. By the time EGS shows up on “Cumbia Poder”, you want there to be more and more collaborations, more and more special guests, the party to go on all night.

But the clearest indication that the Monterrey scene is real is that there are a whole lot of bands that haven’t even been mentioned yet. Ely Guerra’s 1999 album Lotofire has just been released in the U.S. to stunning reviews — she’s a Monterrey-style mix of Julieta Venegas and Bebel Gilberto, and pretty sexy too. Zurdok has proven themselves a psychedelic combo of great chops and true songcraft, like a Mexican version of mid-period Flaming Lips. Jumbo is in much the same boat. There’s Genitallica, La Verbena Popular, Kinky, Plastilina Mosh — way too many to absorb without serious study.

But I suggest we all start studying. Monterrey and Tijuana are canny enough to take the best of what we’ve got, mix it with the best of what they have, and form new wild stuff that just might change the musical landscape. If we don’t keep our ears open, we might miss the revolution. And missing revolutions is always a bad idea.