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Mexican Connection
By Carlo Wolff

By Elijah Wald, Rayo/HarperCollins, 352 Pages, $24

In Narcocorrido, Boston-
based musician-critic Elijah Wald details a fascinating musical world that in some ways parallels North American pop but remains largely invisible in the United States. In exploring the expanding outreach of Hispanic popular culture through its drug-industry-based folk music, Narcocorrido (the title itself is Spanish for “drug ballad”) underlines and clarifies the symbiotic relationship between Mexico and the United States, which Mexicans call el otro lado.

Wald launches his vivid “journey into the music of drugs, guns, and guerrillas” by describing a 1999 concert in Mexico City in which Los Tigres del Norte perform for an audience of 150,000. North of the border, the era of the monster rock show (which peaked in 1979 at Watkins Glen, N.Y., when the Allman Brothers, the Band and the Grateful Dead performed for 600,000) is dead. Now, it’s only on pay-per-view or over the Net that pop acts play to such crowds.

In Mexico, however, large audiences for music are common. Wald writes: “In this world, Los Tigres (‘the kings of norte–o’) are like Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones combined, the enduring superstars of down-to-earth, working-class pop.”

The narcocorrido spans numerous permutations, from the accordion- and polka-flavored norte–o of Los Tigres to the rustic rap analog of Chalino Sanchez, a rough-hewn chronicler who, like his U.S. counterpart Tupac Shakur, was fatally shot, in 1992. His death elevated Sanchez to legend, inspiring more than 150 corridos and spawning numerous imitators, or “chalinitos.”

“Just as rap was forcing the Anglo pop world to confront the raw sounds and stark realities of the urban streets, the corrido was stripping off its own pop trappings to become the rap of modern Mexico and the barrios of el otro lado,” Wald writes.

Narcocorrido gives fresh meaning to “local” and “regional,” delineating a culture totally separate from that of el otro lado. Wald draws parallels between the countries and their different styles of folk music. He also, provocatively, investigates his own methods and attitudes.

He writes, reflecting on a religious pageant he witnessed in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan, where the manufacture of methamphetamine by local cristaleros has inspired a new narcocorrido variant: “The great attraction of my corrido ramblings was the way they put me at the intersection of the old and new Mexico, and the surrealism of the pageant was just one more in a flood of odd and interesting anachronisms: medieval ballads about cocaine-filled 747s, harp and violin bands with accordions and electric rhythm sections, mountain peasants cooking meth to earn money to buy fancy cameras to take pictures of themselves alongside dancing horses to send to relatives working in Silicon Valley.”

His journey brought the intrepid Wald to some wild places. “For anyone interested in doing corrido research, I really cannot recommend hitchhiking highly enough,” he writes, recalling a bizarre truck ride he made to Monterrey in northern Mexico, where narcocorrido has a cowboy flavor. Wald hits it off famously at a party thrown by Julian Garza, prime exponent of “the classic cowboy style, with a traditionalism that links it to the border heritage of the nineteenth century,” in the Monterrey suburb of Guadalupe.

Wald does plenty of coke and drinks plenty of beer; meanwhile, his notes grow less legible as the party evolves into a band rehearsal and the stories and songs issue forth. Finally, Wald sleeps. The scene, rendered with colorful specificity and peppered with quotes from Garza songs, affirms the authenticity that gives Wald’s book its power, currency and political acumen.

Wald admits that the narcocorrido preoccupation with the drug world, and its attendant glamorization, can be wearying. But he’s not surprised by the genre’s strength:

“The United States’ drug policy is so riddled with hypocrisy, so casually racist and so oblivious to reality, that it is worthy of no respect,” he writes. “In a country that exalts wealth and celebrity while providing ever fewer chances for poor kids to get ahead, and that directs far more of its antidrug funding to flashy military hardware than to treatment centers, it is delusional at best to blame pop music for the fact that many barrio youngsters want to become big-spending, gun-wielding narcos.

“Drug-related violence and corruption are another story,” Wald says, “but I would argue that they have their roots in the situation north of the border, and what one finds in Mexico is an effect, not a cause.”

Wald is a fearless explorer and masterful explainer. These talents converge effectively in this loving, interpretive overview of a popular and populist musical genre far more representative of contemporary Hispanic culture than the trendy dilutions that pass for the real thing on U.S. radio and television.

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