Narcocorrido: A Journey Into The Music Of Drugs, Guns, And Guerrillas

In 2001 the Great Mexican Drug War was not yet in full swing. That didn’t happen until 2006 when President Felipe Calderon decided to take on the independent “cowboy cartels” with the Mexican Army. In 2001 Elijah Wald published Narcocorrido, a Journey Into The Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. He had traveled through Mexico, in a way now that would be impossible, or at the least very inadvisable. That is he hitchhiked or rode buses, and not always the first class ones, but the second and third class as well…the kind that allow musicians and entertainers to play for tips from the passengers. The History of Mexico is in the music. The corridistas (corrido musicians) have been singing and declaiming to the people for a long, long time. And before them there were the minstrels and their more well of cousins, the troubadours that performed for the rich and elite. In the Middle Ages and even in present day Mexico, literacy is not that high. The balladeers were and in many ways still are the chroniclers and the founts of information, as well as providers of entertainment and many times, social commentators as well. Of course this could be dangerous and many a minstrel ended up in the stocks during the colonial period, flogged, or if luck would have it, just run out of town. The Church was just as dangerous as the secular authorities… and sometimes the more fearsome.

Of course these minstrels, balladeers, that in time became corrido singers, didn’t flirt with crossing the line and igniting repressive reaction just for the fun of it, or for whatever social consciousness they might have had at the time. The people loved to hear the powerful and mighty brought down a little bit, and to hear some of what was really going on…something resembling the truth. It would be hard to call it an art form, but in the modern world we have tabloid journals, that swing between gushing adoration of celebrities, be it sports, entertainment, politicians, or someone (usually female for some reason) that is famous just for being famous, and trashing and sordid revelations about the very same high and mighty. Here in the US we have these tabloids and a 24 hour news cycle that is increasingly tabloid, and internet and tv, and mobile internet and thousands of different distractions. In Mexico, in certain areas, not so much. Here the corridistas maintain much of their traditional function…

The life of a corrido singer, can be risky. Since the publication of Narcocorrido, some corridistas have lost their lives. Especially the local and regional writers that will do a song for hire, and if some gangster doesn’t like the vato (guy) being lauded in the song, well there you have an enemy. Other popular singers or their family members have fallen victim to crime, although some of that comes from late nights in nightclubs, and also the general chaos and lawlessness that rules Mexico now.

The book is not just a study and history of a musical form, but also a journey into the heart of Mexico and the people that make the music…and of the fans that make it possible. Regions have vast and subtle differences. The Rio Grande Valley and the northeastern border region in many ways gave birth to the corrido form. It’s popular here, but in a nostalgic kind of way. Compared to the Nortenos out in the deserts and mountains to the south, the modern day Tejano accordion sound has a definite bubble-gum sweetness. Not the same. Also it is a region that could be compared to a great caldo (beef soup) of sound as Hispanic-American culture collides with, and, at the same time colludes and mingles with Anglo-America.

There’s west coast and Los Angeles… The rough edge Sinaloa sound… Mexico City, the country that is a country within the country of Mexico. Also the political ballads of the revolutionary groups in Chiapas and elsewhere. The historical corridos of the Mexican Revolution.

Large portions of the book are transcribed from interviews of the corrido writers and singers themselves, along with many of their lyrics, both in Spanish, and translated to English.

Fortunately for us Elijah Wald got in under the wire. The research that went into this book would be very difficult to do today

The drug war that the Narcocorridistas sing about can’t be prettied up. It’s grim stuff. But it’s happening and la gente (the people) want to hear about it. Like much folk music, blues, real country music, and rap, and others, the charge has been made at one time or the other, that the songs glorify delinquency and criminal behavior, and are anti-social etc. There has been radio censorship in some places and condemnation from so called respectable society and publications

Elijah Wald writes: The United States drug policy is so riddled with hypocrisy, so casually racist and oblivious to reality, that it is worthy of no respect. 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 it’s anti-drug 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.

The rough edges, the uncompromising instrumentation and the in your face lyrics are at times harsh. But in this world north of the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) where unreality rules, and the horrors of wars both internal and foreign are ignored or covered up, the world of the Narcocorrido may just be some of what we need. Well worth the read: “Narcocorrido, A Journey into The Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas” by Elijah Wald.