Norteno stars find success combining storytelling, musicianship

Marijke Rowland
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Ask members of Los Tigres Del Norte the secret to their nearly 40-year career and they will tell you quite simply that it's the stories.

"We do (songs) of real stories of real people," said the group's director and lead vocalist, Jorge Hernandez, in a phone interview. "We insist on doing new stories; we insist on doing whatever makes people more happy and brings new stories to life."

Last week, the five-man band learned it will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammy Awards on Nov. 8.

"It means a lot to us," Hernandez said. "It means recognition of the job that we've been doing, our songs and the meaning of the songs we record It is very hard work - we work touring 50 to 49 weeks a year. We are pressing all the time and we never try to go away for a while."

Indeed, the group - formed by a band of brothers led by eldest child Jorge - has been working hard since it first immigrated to the United States in 1968 from Sinaloa, Mexico.

The band's name came from an immigration official who called them "little tigers" as they crossed into California. Because they were headed north, the name Los Tigres del Norte (The Tigers of The North) was born.

The brothers settled in San Jose, which remains their base, and were discovered in the early 1970s by an aspiring music producer, Art Walker.

Los Tigres del Norte became the first artist signed to Walker's upstart Fama Records. Since then, the group has released 50 records, recorded more than 500 songs, sold millions of albums and and played packed shows across Mexico, the United States, Latin America and Europe. Along the way, members picked up two Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards.

Hernandez said that over the years, the group has seen the popularity of its norteno style of regional Mexican music grow in popularity worldwide. He said the music, too, has evolved.

"I think there have been a lot of changes since we began," he said. "This music, it wasn't recognized before. Through the years, we've been working very hard to make sure we open the doors for other groups."

For those unfamiliar with norteno music, he said Los Tigres plays an open, upbeat, almost rocklike take on the traditional style punctuated by the accordion and the bajo sexto (12-string guitar). The lyrics highlight the everyday struggles of the Mexican-American and immigrant communities.

"We talk about problems, stories, drama. We speak about politics. We speak about problems between families, between generations. We speak about everything," he said.

"We try to put in our songs hope, so people don't feel so alone here in the United States. I try to give them hope."

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