Los Tigres del Norte: Pacto de Sangre

Matt Cibula

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.

Los Tigres Del Norte

Pacto de Sangre

Label: Univision
US Release Date: 2004-03-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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