Elijah Wald, Rayo/HarperCollins, 352 Pages, $24
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.”
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.
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:
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
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.