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Narcocorridos: The Songs of Mexico's Drug War

Aug 10, 2010 – 7:05 AM
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Ben Muessig

Ben Muessig Contributor

(Aug. 10) -- It's like gangsta rap with accordions.

As Mexico grapples with a lengthy and increasingly bloody drug war, tunes glorifying drug runners, gang enforcers and narcotics cartels have emerged as the songs of an era.

"Narcocorridos" are in many ways a continuation of Mexico's long "corrido" tradition of lyrical storytelling. But instead of singing the praises of folk heroes like Pancho Villa or a woman who saved her village from a flood, these ballads are musical tributes to the generals and foot soldiers in a drug war that, according to the U.S. State Department, has claimed some 23,000 lives since December 2006.

"The ballad is completely alive in the present day, and it's about things going on in the present day," said Elijah Wald, author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas."

Corridos first emerged in the 1800s as a kind of historical ballad that honored famous people and notable exploits. Though there were some Prohibition-era crooners who sang about booze smugglers sneaking liquor across the border, modern narcocorridos only emerged in the 1970s as drug trafficking became increasingly lucrative in Mexico.

That's when groups like Los Tigres del Norte began documenting the drug trade with tunes like "Contrabando y Traicion" ("Contraband and Betrayal"), a song detailing a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple who smuggle drugs across the border, only for the girlfriend to gun down her man and escape with the money.

A decade later, Mexican immigrant and Los Angeles resident "Chalino" Sanchez brought a gruff voice and a tough persona to the world of narcocorridos. While earlier singers of narcocorridos became popular as documentarians of the drug trade, Sanchez became a star by acting as if he was a part of it himself.
Los Tigres del Norte
Eduardo Parra, WireImage
The Mexican group Los Tigres del Norte has been singing about the drug trade with narcocorridos for more than 30 years. The band, pictured here playing in Spain in 2009, started with a Bonnie and Clyde-style tune called "Contrabando y Traicion." Newer tunes include political commentary about Mexico's drug war.

"Chalino Sanchez was a little more like Tupac [Shakur] in a sense," said Mark Edberg, author of "El Narcotraficante: Narcocorridos and the Construction of a Cultural Persona on the U.S.-Mexico Border."

"He was a little bit more in that world, unlike some of the other singers. In fact, he pulled out a gun and fired at the crowd at one of his shows," Edberg said.

Sanchez was shot and killed in 1992 after a concert in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a major drug-running region. But his violent death only added to the mystique of narcocorrido songs and their singers.

"After some of the original narcocorrido heroes like Chalino Sanchez, the record companies realized that there is street cred and street value in these things, and they started marketing them and playing them up, looking for the most exaggerated and extreme form of the character," said Edberg, an associate professor at George Washington University. "The marketing becomes the reality -- like gangsta rap."

Since then, narcocorridos have continued to gain fans both north and south of the border.

The tunes themselves aren't bound to a distinct sound -- they can be performed over a number of different musical arrangements, from brass-heavy "banda" stylings to "norteno" backings featuring an accordion, a 12-string guitar called a "bajo sexto" and other instruments.

That said, many narcocorridos have powerful lead vocals, a steady, polka-influenced beat and intricately crafted lyrics filled with evocative language and thinly veiled puns.

For instance, if you ever hear the words "cuerno de chivo" -- literally a "goat horn" -- the singer is really talking about an AK-47 assault rifle.

"Corridos are an old, traditional form," said Edberg. "There are little subtexts and humor that you find in these things. At a concert where narcocorridos are played, there may be exaggerated gunfire sounds -- but people are dancing happily and treating it almost like pro wrestling, almost like a cartoon."

It's the lyrics that make a tune a narcocorrido, and like the historical corridos of yesteryear, today's songs often describe specific events such as shootouts and drug runs.

Narcocorridos can also be boastful "corridos de amistad" -- songs of friendship -- that are reminiscent of many boastful gangsta rap songs.

"Corridos de amistad don't tell a story, they just say, So-and-so is the greatest ever, he has the biggest guns, the fastest cars, the prettiest girlfriends," said Wald.

"The big advantage of the corrido de amistad is that [the subjects] don't have to have done anything impressive," he said. "It means they can hire someone to write one. A lot of corrido writing is done for hire -- particularly the corridos de amistad."

In a music market largely demonetized by piracy, connections to drug traffickers can prove lucrative for musicians and songwriters. For the narcotics cartels, the songs serve as a kind of an ad, according to Edberg.

"The traffickers commission them," he said. "They are like advertisements in a cultural form that are known."

As narcocorrido musicians have emerged as historians of the drug trade -- and sometimes even hire court singers for drug cartels -- some musicians have met the same violent fates as the characters in their songs.
Mexican singer Sergio Vega
Gregory Bull, AP
Ballad and narcocorrido singer Sergio Vega was shot and killed while driving on a highway near Los Mochis on June 26 -- just hours after he contacted the press to refute rumors of death. The gunmen who murdered the singer have not been apprehended.

Singer Valentin Elizalde was murdered in 2006, and many fans of narcocorridos believe his death was linked to his song "A Mis Enemigos" -- "To My Enemies" -- which mocked the Gulf Cartel drug gang.

The following year, Sergio Gomez, the lead singer of the group K-Paz de la Sierra, was kidnapped, tortured and strangled to death after a concert. Gomez wasn't known for his narcocorridos but rather his love songs. However, some speculate that the 34-year-old was murdered by drug gangs in the Michoacan state because of ties to rival narcotics traffickers.

In June, narcocorrido singer Sergio Vega, 40, was killed hours after he gave an interview to a news website, denying rumors of his murder.

"It has happened to me for years now -- someone tells a radio station or a newspaper I have been killed, or suffered an accident," Vega told La Oreja shortly before gunmen ambushed his vehicle with automatic weapons. "And then I have to call my dear mother, who has heart trouble, to reassure her."

Wald doesn't think narcocorrido singers are necessarily being targeted because of the content of their music -- unlike many American gangsta rappers from the 1990s.

"These are people who play at parties for the drug lords, they do songs for the drug world," he said. "They are in that world, and that is a very dangerous world to be in. Whether the murders have any connection to the music, nobody you ever talk to will know the answer to those questions.

"Once you are in a world where they are killing a dozen people a day, it doesn't take a lot to get killed," he said.

As the Mexican government has attempted to crack down on drug cartels, there has been a push to limit the radio play of narcocorridos, and even imprison musicians who sing them. But according to Wald, the tunes were never big radio hits -- instead they were performed live and distributed on bootleg tapes, CDs and now YouTube.

"Now they are talking about a national ban in Mexico," he said. "Nobody in the business is bothered by the concept of a ban. The government is just posturing."

Despite governmental opposition, the music remains popular in Mexican regions where the narcotics trade thrives, like the states of Sinaloa, Sonora and Michoacan. The tunes are also popular in Mexican neighborhoods around the U.S.

Why? Well, for the same reasons that gangsta rap, crime movies and violent video games have found audiences, said Edberg.

"You do get a lot of people saying, 'This is horrible, this is terrible,'" he said. "But you also have people saying, 'This just reflects reality -- we're just telling stories about what we see every day.'"
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