Friday, January 14, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 14 2005

The music glorifies criminal behavior and loose morality. It’s a terrible influence on the youth of the nation. Something must be done to wipe it out.

Sound familiar?

Here in the U.S. Such things have been said about rap, Marilyn Manson, early rock ‘n’ roll, latter-day rock ‘n’ roll, the blues and, back a couple of centuries ago, “fiddle music.”

Down in Mexico for the past few decades, the musical culprit for the downfall of civilization is the narcocorrido, musical stories of drug smugglers popularized by such bands as Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Grupo Exterminator and Los Aces.

Just like gangsta rap in this country, the people eat up the narcocorrido (it’s a major part of the Spanish-language record industry on both sides of the Mexican border), though politicians and other upright citizens denounce it and occasionally try to censor it.

(And, naturally, the anti-narcocorrido hysteria emboldens censorship aimed at politically embarrassing music. Just last year, Victor Valencia, the president of the Chihuahua, State Congress spoke up against Los Tigres del Norte’s corrido, “Las Mujeres de Ju├írez,” -- which wasn’t about drugs, but concerned the murders of scores of young female workers from the maquiladoras. The song, he said, would “contribute to creating an atmosphere of greater terror in our city,” and “discourage investment” in the region.)

Narcocorrido didn’t just spring from the head of some Mexican record producer. As shown in the recent Arhoolie CD The Roots of the Narcocorrido, compiled by James Nicolopulos ( a Spanish professor at the University of Texas), the style comes from a long musical tradition.
On this record, Nicolopulos includes songs going back to the 1880s and recordings going back to the 1920s.

In the case of hardcore gangsta rap music in the U.S., the musical form itself -- the repetitive pounding beats, the scratching, the sampling, the indecipherable slang and the frequent lack of melody -- adds to the fear factor in older censorship advocates.

But even narcocorrido recently has begun to add elements of hip hop and rock, the basic form of the music is very traditional -- polkas and waltzes played by bands employing accordions, guitars, sometimes brass.

And thought the narcocorrido didn’t arise until the 1970s, the lyrical content of such music is based on a type of song long known in Mexico, the corrido or ballad.

(Indeed outlaw ballads have been an essential part of traditional folk music in the English-speaking world as well. As for “glorifying criminals,” who do we love here in America: Jesse James or the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard” ? Stagolee or the whimpering Billy DeLyons?)

The first song on The Roots of the Narcocorrido is “”El Corrido de Heraclio Bernal,” a tune dating back to the 19th Century about a Robin Hood-like bandit from Sinoloa, who was betrayed for a reward of 10,000 pesos by one of his own men. This version of the ballad was recorded in 1953 by Dueto Adan & Eva in Mexico City with mariachi horns and violins.

If “Heraclio Bernal” is a typical “social outlaw” celebrated in song and legend, Mariano Resendez represented another type of outlaw hero to inspire Mexican corridos: the smuggler.

But the hero of the tune “Mariano Resendez” -- dating back to the 1890s, this version being recorded in 1948 by Timoteo Cantu & Jesus Maya -- didn’t smuggle contraband from Mexico into the U.S. He and other early smuggler corrido heroes smuggled stolen luxury items from the U.S. into their homeland.

When Prohibition hit the United States, Mexican smugglers reversed course, and started bringing illegal substances -- namely alcohol -- into this mighty land. The phenomenon is documented in songs like “Los Tequileros“ (which lambastes “despicable” Texas Rangers who shoot down brave tequila smugglers) “Corrido de Juan Garcia” (about a liquor smuggler killed in an ambush by the Border Patrol in 1931) and “Corrido de Mier” which mocked sleeping customs agents.

It’s also worth noting that smugglers aren’t the only ones to become the heroes in these songs. Sometimes lawmen get respect in corridos.

Such is the case of “The Ballad of Juan Menses,” a brave cop who was “cut down by the cowardly machine guns of the smugglers” in 1946. This song was recorded in the 1960s in Alice, Texas by Las Hermanas Guerro with Jimmy Morgan;s conjunto.

Then there’s Nieves Hernandez, the man who arrested Mariano Resendez. However Nicolopulos in his liner notes points out that the song “Mariano Resendez” (represented here in a 1960s recording by a band called Los Satelites) was probably commissioned by some of Hernandez’s ancestors to vindicate his memory. In some earlier Resendez ballads Hernandez is “responsible for or at least complicit in the extra judicial execution of the defenseless hero.” But in this song, Hernandez was “a man worthy of respect (who) wasn’t afraid of anything.”

This collection also includes some songs that reference narcotics, cocaine marijuana. Some are tragic and melodramatic like “La Cocaina,” by Pilar Arcos (1927) a string-laden song about a coke-addled senorita who ends up stabbing her unfaithful lover.

Some are comic like the surreal “La Marijuana,” (by Trio Garnica-Ascencio, 1929) which starts out with the image of a pot-smoking frog.

And some corridos are like scenes from Scarface, Traffic or Blow. Such is “Carga Blanca,” a 1949 song by Los Cuatesones concerning a drug-related shootout in San Antonio. (“Three dead and two wounded/were hauled off by the ambulance/but the roll of cash/disappeared completely from the scene.”)

This collection includes several “prisoner lament” type songs in which the captured smuggler regrets his life of crime. But there’s also Francisco Martinez, the hero of a 1949 song sung by Juan Gaytan y Felix Solis, a “good” and “determined smuggler” who says he “fought for my woman” and lived “without fear.”

Martinez is at the end of his life here. But he’s undoubtedly bound for an eternity where he’ll happily plunder the cosmos with Mariano Resendez and Heraclio Bernal. And perhaps it’s an outlaw paradise without borders, where he’ll join up with Jesse James and Stagolee.

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