You don’t know about Los Tigres del Norte? Or Los Tucanes del Tijuana, or Grupo Exterminador, or Beto Quintanilla? Oh, dude, hombre, seriously. Then you are getting left the hell behind como los dinosaurios. Norteño music is the most punk-rock thing going these days, norteño music is the key to understanding half of Mexican-American culture, norteño music is the naked truth.
On the face of it, the norteño sound doesn’t really grab hold of the first time listener: groups of dudes singing what sound like the nicest little inoffensive ditties in the world, silly music really, accordions on full blast and guys wearing big black ten-gallon hats singing in high tenor voices while their bands whoop and holler and go “ay yi yi” in the background. If you don’t understand the español, or if you hear one song too quickly, or you misunderestimate the power of subtlety, you will dismiss an entire genre: what the hell is this silly crap?
But it’s not silly. Norteño songs are very often about drug smuggling, or trying to sneak into an America that needs your labor but cannot officially admit it (or you), or about how your “American” children do not understand your foreign ways, or about lost love that burns you because your heart is alive. These songs sound completely unlike what they really are. These songs are about being a Mexican in America.
This year’s best norteño album, Los Tigres del Norte’s Pacto de Sangre, has sold millions of copies without you even hearing about it, both here and in Mexico, but also in Europe (they are huge in Spain) and Asia (they have toured Japan and Korea) and all over South America. They have been the target of controversy — some cultural commentators view norteño the same way some people look at gangsta rap — and their music has inspired Spanish highbrow writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel La Reina del Sur. So this damned fine album is a pretty good way to start.
They start in full-scale narcocorrido mode with “No Tiene la Culpo el Indio.” Los Tigres have been doing songs like this about the drug trade for more than three decades now, and when Jorge Hernández swaggers up to the mic and sings about going international, Madrid, how he’s a “toro grande” who can contact the big wheels. I think it ends with a surprise, but I’m not sure — it goes too fast. (I’m busy trying to translate the lyrics, which are thoughtfully included on the accompanying DVD.)
They do songs like this like some people breathe, but that is far from their only trick. “Amigo Juan” is a waltz to a dude whose woman is playing around, and “Cumbia Guajira” is a straight-up two-step boogie with funky drum breaks and lots of group shouting. When they are having fun, Los Tigres are about the funnest band in the world. “Liar Liar” is this way too, a little ditty about how it is more possible that the singer could breathe without oxygen or to grow flowers in the desert than believe someone’s lies anymore, because “I’m not anymore the tonto I used to be”. “La Manzanita” is bouncy rowdiness. These are party tunes for a multicultural society, and they go well with a few Coronas and/or tequilas. Trust me.
But they have a lot of tricks under their hats. “Las Mujeres de Juárez” is an impassioned cry for justice for the hundreds of serially-murdered women in Juárez. “El Niño de la Calle” is a monologue from the point of view of a street kid, abandoned by all, trying to find a better life. “El Santo de los Mojados” burns slowly to invoke St. Peter, “the saint of illegal immigrants,” asking him to open the gates of heaven for all who lose their lives trying to get into America.
And the album’s strongest song, probably one of the best songs of the whole year, is the story of one who did. “José Pérez León” finds a different sort of norteño groove, one I’ve never heard before, to tell the tale of one man trying to get into the U.S. illegally. He leaves his family, he leaves everything he’s ever known, he trusts his life to the “coyotes” … well, it doesn’t end well. It’s a tragedy that points to a higher tragedy, our failed and failing immigration policy. One can debate the issues all day, but this is a powerful piece of social reporting. Hail to José Cantoral, who wrote the song, and hail to accordionist/guitarist Eduardo Hernández, who steps in for lead vocal on this song and knocks it dead between the eyes. About two minutes in, his voice jumps an octave into outrage, and it never fails to hit me right in the solar plexus.
I am not Mexican. I have friends who are Mexican who hate this music. I know Mexican musicians who would rather die than ever even listen to norteño music. But I have been in the “Latin” sections of the big chain stores on the weekends and seen these families, watching first-generation families shop. The kids and moms are interested in Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Peña and Paulina Rubio and Inspector, and they dig lots of other kinds of music — from Morrissey to Linkin Park, from Jay-Z to Madonna — but the dads in cowboy hats always gravitate towards the norteño acts.
There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of this.