Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas

The thuka-thuka-thuka of a low-flying helicopter and the sudden wail of a police siren. My heart skips a beat and the adrenaline is already dripping out my pores. This is going to be exciting! The siren screams up closer, almost catching up, and suddenly there are a few surprising loud blasts from a tuba that begins the exchange. The pedal hits the metal as Jenni Rivera begins singing and floorboards the supercharged “La Chacalosa”. Corrido! This is corrido! Trumpets play en doble, clarinets carry signature lines, and lots of cymbals crash for emphasis: “Me buscan por chacalosa, soy hija de un traficante / Conozco bien las movidas, me creí entre la mafia grande / De la mejor mercancía, me enseñó a vender mi padre”.

¿Que? (“I am wanted for being chacalosa, I am a trafficker’s daughter / I know all the moves, I grew up around the top mafia / My father taught me how to sell the best merchandise”.) This is corrido, but the lyrical content has been updated. And so began my introduction to a new form of corrido known as narcocorrido, where Mexican polka meets gangsta lyrics and huge sales result. When it comes to sales and popularity, the Recording Industry Association of America tallied for the year 2000 that more than half of Latin music sales in the U.S. are for Mexican Regional styles. (Please, read that last sentence again and let it sink in.)

Mexican Regional styles sell almost four times as many records as all the “tropical” styles (salsa, merengue, cumbia) put together. Perhaps not all of those records sold are corridos. But drugs and people singing about them are big business, and you’ve probably already read a review of Elijah Wald’s book Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas in the Wall Street Journal. The book is available in both English and Spanish editions.

Author Wald also compiled a separate companion piece for Fonodisco, a 16-song CD by some of the artists he wrote about, called Corrido y Narcocorrido. All the lyrics are on the Fonodisco website. You may have to hunt for the record. As it carries a parental advisory label due to “explicit content”, you won’t find it in your local Walmart. There is the song that started the latest trend “Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal)” by the massively famous Los Tigres del Norte (who provide accordion, guitarra, and a gunfight soundtrack near the end of that song, plus 8 of the 16 tracks on the compilation).

But don’t overlook the rarer treasures, such as “El Rey de la Tierra Caliente” (The King of the Hot Country) by Los Hermanos Jiménez. A very popular style of playing which will probably never make the charts, their Michoacán corrido fuses the norteño sound with the locally-popular harpa grande, or large harp. The song praises a prominent local hero who is a cowboy, landowner, and composer of corrido in Apatzingán, the main town of the Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Country”. In this song, the hero is celebrated for being an honest man, a great lover, and a protector of the poor; a man who defends the campesinos even at the risk of his own life.

But I can’t imagine a soul who wouldn’t want both the well-written, colorful book and a sample of the music the book is about, if only to stay on top of the real trends.

Elijah Wald is single-handedly defining the narcocorrido phenomenon. It’s a pretty well accepted premise that the corridos have been “the musical newspaper” of Mexico. Or better, as others have lately refined, more like “a musical newsmagazine, since they comment on and amplify the news rather than simply transmitting word of the latest events.” I spoke with Elijah Wald just prior to his leaving on his current book tour.

Just by way of introduction, Elijah Wald is a writer and musician with twenty years experience covering roots and world music. He was writer and consultant on the Smithsonian multimedia project The Mississippi: River of Song, and is the author of the award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues. He was awarded a Grammy recently for his liner notes to the Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000.

Elijah Wald: I got into corridos while I was working as a peace observer in Mexico. There I was in the mountains, with no electricity, and they had this boombox and they were playing this one tape of corridos over and over, using batteries (which were expensive) to listen to the tape. I was astounded. I had been involved in what we call folk music all my life; I’d grown around the left and protest music. But the protest music was people like Pete Seeger who had put all this protest music in folk forms as way of putting a bridge between the intellectual left and the actual folks, and it never worked that way. The actual folks paid no attention whatsoever.

So I was sort of astonished to find that people were singing these sorts of songs in the middle of the rain forest. And that began to get me really interested. I began paying attention to Los Tigres del Norte, which I’d always thought of as a punk group, and began noticing the lyrics.

They were really less about drug trafficking than they were about contemporary Mexican society, Mexican pride, the little guys winning out against the big guys. And I began to feel this was a window into Mexican culture from the point of view of people who don’t write books, who don’t write newspaper articles, whose voices don’t normally turn up even in Mexico. And that’s what really inspired me. Especially when Los Tigres put out an album called Jefe de Jefes a panoramic picture of contemporary Mexican life on both sides of the border. So I wrote a piece for the Globe about the corrido revival.

I love Mexico.

PopMatters: I love corrido and norteño. That music has always been so very popular and there’s always been social commentary in it. The songs allow people to make comments outside of a system about the system that isn’t willing to listen their comments, but everyone kind of agrees with the basic truths of the comments, and that’s why the music is so popular.

EW: That’s absolutely right. And it was so fascinating when working on this project in Los Angeles to find that this was overlapping with gangster rap, which was completely unexpected to me. But of course rap does the same thing but in a very different way, and without the feeling that it is an ancient tradition which is very much a part of corrido. But that was even more fascinating to me when I found this overlap.

PM: You already had some interest, but what was it that made you decide to take a big leap and write the book?

EW: In between the article and the book, I went to this corrido conference where all the academics get together, and I discovered nobody was working on contemporary corrido. Everyone was still talking about historic corrido. I realized I had this opportunity which would never happen to me again as a music journalist, to have a major pop style essentially all to myself, and one in which virtually all the key figures were still alive and I could actually interview them. Most of the people I interviewed, in fact all of the people I interviewed, had never been interviewed in any depth before. They were thrilled, and I was thrilled, we were all happy.

It’s not your typical book about musical form; it’s a combination of travel book, history book.

I play folk-blues and that’s similar to corridos. Sort of like discovering the ballad of Jessie James was gangster rap corrido down in Mexico. Music was a bridge to some of the performers; in fact I played guitar for them while they sang. It made me feel to them a little less like some weird outsider.

PM: I appreciate the companion CD. That made for a multi-dimensional approach.

EW: Very proud of the CD.

Living on the bank account when writing a book is a good deal easier when you’re doing your research in Mexico. It took me about a year for the research; most of the research was done in Mexico. I was hitchhiking everywhere. And the hitchhiking was a combination of business and pleasure, and all of the truck drivers were corrido nuts. Norteno is like the country music of Mexico. Same way I learned about Merle Haggard hitchhiking in this country.

One of the pleasant surprises of this book is what a good reception I’ve received from academic community. I’m doing a lot of readings, being invited to a lot of classes at universities, and I had wondered, because this is such an informal project in some ways, whether it would be frowned upon by some people. But everybody seems to understand however popularly I’ve tried to write it, that the research is valid.

PM: If I may bring up some negativity that I’ve heard. Some criticize the book because they say you present only one side of the story.

EW: I’m not glossing over the fact there are a lot of bad gangsters doing bad things. I do feel it is not as simple as drugs cause crime and are the root of all the evil. I do argue, certainly, that if there are a lot of guns and gangsters involved in the marijuana trade that’s because it’s illegal and not because it’s a horrible drug. It’s very much like Al Capone and Chicago during Prohibition. You could say that people were killing each other all over Chicago due to the evils of alcohol, but we don’t. We say they were killing each other all over Chicago because of the failed politics we called Prohibition. I’m not talking about crack … which is a whole other question. In the case of crack, it is clearly the solution that it is illegal, highly policed, the numbers of people using crack are going up and not down. Even in that case, I would separate out the drug from the law enforcement ties in terms of the damage being done to society.

What the corridistos kept saying essentially is it’s about cops and robbers and that is what Hollywood has been selling since the silent film days, that’s what the tabloid newspapers are selling, and that’s what the corridos are selling. The fact is the average young gangster on the street is modeling himself as much on Scarface and Al Pacino as all the music put together. So I’m not necessarily celebrating that. But I do think it’s odd to single out rap and corridos, which are coming from the street, when all the rappers and corridistos are trying to imitate Hollywood movies.

This is something most people aren’t really aware of. The whole way the drug war looks is completely different when you’re down in the producing countries. Because their drug problem has everything to do with the legal side because it’s virtually non-existent in terms of drug use. The only drugs majorly abused in Mexico are alcohol and cigarettes. The other drugs are a cash crop. Their position is this: If the Yankees want to stop this, then they should stop buying the damn stuff. They say we’re just trying to sell them what they happen to be buying. Now I grant you this is a singularly self-serving position for somebody in the trade, but it’s also a fairly accurate one. What they do say and what is absolutely true, and what should be repeated over and over to people if you’re to understand what is going on in Mexico and Colombia: If Mexico or Colombia stopped producing drugs, that would hardly change the situation in the U.S. at all. Whereas if the US stopped consuming drugs, the Mexican and Colombian drug business would end. Cause and effect is transparent.

PM: This book (and record) is a very important project, important for people to become aware of. Why?

EW: A couple of reasons. The big reason I got involved in this — We hear all the time about Latin music and Latin culture, but then due to the way the U.S-ers and some of the Latino populations likes to interpret these things, it all gets translated into essentially Cuban, Puerto Rican, colorful beach, African rhythms, and the reality is it’s Mexican. The reality is there’s a Latin record movement because of Mexican music, the Latin American population is Mexican and Central American, which is basically the same thing.

It was so crazy to me that there was this immensely popular music that was never being written about, even in L.A. It’s changing a little now, but not that much. And by even the Los Angeles newspapers when they said “Latin music” they meant “salsa” though there was virtually no salsa being danced by Latinos. The Latinos were all dancing the Lambada. It’s just an invisible population. That’s changing and that’s going to keep changing. As a way for myself to immerse myself and bring other people into the fact that this is where America is going, but essentially everybody in the United States better get aware of Mexican culture because it’s not only the country next door, but the country we’re going to be most wrapped up with in the foreseeable future

Not yet in Boston, but already in New York. There are a lot of people working rather hard to keep their finger off the pulse. A lot of people involved in Latin media who feel it would be counterproductive to be represented by Mexicans. The Cubans are the obvious ones to point the finger at.