Ballads Nuevo

The late 1950s was the true ballad's last bask in the American sun. Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins each had a gunfighter hit or two, while Stonewall Jackson sang of "Waterloo." Not to be outdone, Johnny Horton released whole albums full of songs like "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Sink the Bismarck." Ever since those days, though, with the glaring exceptions of some hip-hop songs and 1967's "Ballad of the Green Berets," both the country and pop charts have been pretty much bereft of songs about anything but love. (Overmoussed "epic" late-'80s power ballads like "Living on a Prayer" and "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" are misnamed.)

But south of the border, and wherever Mexicans have settled to the north, the ballad tradition continues in the form of corridos. Tracing their roots back to medieval Spain, corridos can be about anything, although gunfights, assassinations and other spectacular crimes are the most popular topics. "Basically, corridos are the National Enquirer of Mexico," says author Elijah Wald, whose book Narcocorrido (on sale November 6) explores the new twists the ancient genre has taken. "It's this medieval tradition and it's alive in more than just the backwaters. This is as alive as contemporary pop music, and it just fascinated me."

Since the 1970s so many corridos have been written about the drug trade and its players that a new subgenre -- the narcocorrido -- has arisen. "The odd thing about this stuff is that it's [musically] the square oldies, but it's also hip in that like rap there's lots of drugs and lots of guns," continues Wald. "But if you don't speak Spanish, it sounds exactly the same. It's still just accordion, bajo sexto, bass and drums."

Bands like Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Grupo Exterminador have taken the corrido and thoroughly updated it to chronicle the lives of both the big-time drug dealers in their mansions and the small-time grunts in the field. Many of the smugglers pay corridistas to write up their exploits in song, Wald says. Even in the midst of pitched gun battles, the combatants are anticipating how their deeds will sound set to music. That these songs are nonjudgmental and even celebratory of the drug trade has angered the authorities, and the genre is unofficially banned from the airwaves in the drug-producing states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua and Baja California.

Like gangsta rappers, the narcocorridistas are also fashion plates, and their cover art tends toward the lurid. Wald includes several pictures of cassette covers in the book. On one, narcocorridista Pepe Cabrera is pictured in the foreground smiling cheerily while two narcotrafficantes, standing near the dead bodies of four comrades, blast away at a narcocorrido staple -- a black helicopter hovering overhead. El As de la Sierra ("the Ace of the Sierra") is pictured on the cover of his Puros Corridos Chacalosos ("100 Percent Jackal-like Corridos") in a natty cowboy suit brandishing a banana-clipped M-16, with a pistol tucked in his belt for good measure. SUVs with tinted glass and great big pickup trucks are also popular narcocorrido accoutrements.

The narcocorrido trend is strongest on the West Coast, both in Mexico and in the States. While the narcocorrido's spiritual home is in the drug-ridden Mexican state of Sinaloa, its business capital is in Los Angeles. To use a blues analogy, Sinaloa is to L.A. what the Mississippi Delta is to Chicago. In L.A., Sinaloan fashions have made inroads into the long dominant cholo gear.

As gangsta rap has its Tupac Shakur, the narcocorrido has Chalino Sánchez. More than any other artist, it was the Sinaloa-bred Chalino who popularized the genre north of the border. "Chalino is completely the ghost hovering over this scene," says Wald. "He was the original gangster. He was the guy who, when someone tried to assassinate him at one of his [California] concerts, pulled out his gun and returned fire."

This very public display of steely machismo gave Chalino the push he needed. Los Angeles radio programmers, put off by his wheezy, countrified singing style (Chalino once said, "I don't sing, I bark"), caved in to the sheer volume of requests for his songs. At his next L.A. gig, the club had to start turning away overflow customers some six hours before showtime.

Four months after the botched assassination, Chalino's luck ran out in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán. After a show he was taken for a ride by some heavies who had shown him police ID. As with Tupac, nobody is sure why he was killed or by whom, though there is no shortage of theories. A handful of interviewees in the streets of Culiacán each told Wald a different tale. Meanwhile, almost ten years after his death, an homage to Chalino by El Original de la Sierra topped the Billboard Latin charts in the United States and became the first Latin record to crack the Top 10 pop charts in the L.A. area.

L.A.-born and -bred Lupillo Rivera, whose Despreciado CD topped the Billboard Latin chart a month or so ago, has crafted a more urban style that has become the L.A. trademark. Gone is Chalino's simple western wear, as Rivera favors Scarface-cum-gangsta rap Mafia chic (though Rivera does don a cowboy hat). His head is shaved clean à la Tupac, and his chosen vehicle is not a rustic Suburban but a cosmopolitan Rolls.

"Since I did that chapter on Lupillo he has become one of the two biggest stars on the U.S. scene," says Wald. "He has done it I think by just being the most urban of them all. The average Lupillo Rivera listener is not the average old-time Mexican music listener. Lupillo's fans will walk into a record store and buy his new record and the one by Eminem. [Lupillo's] is a very much Mexican-American bilingual audience."

Wald believes that narcocorridos are so popular among young Mexican-Americans because many want to assert their identity yet hold on to their street cred. No one can accuse them of being dorky for listening to old-timey accordion-based music when the subject matter is so streetwise and tough. As Lupillo's sister Jenni (a rare female narcocorridista) puts it in Wald's book, "They like the bad [lyrics]. It gives people an adrenaline rush, they get hyped up and it makes them happy. It makes them feel tough and like really, really Mexican. And I think we all like to feel that."

A look at the Latin charts indicates that she's right. Yes, Marc Anthony, Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin have all had No. 1 hits this year. But so have narcocorridista acts like Los Tigres del Norte, El Original de la Sierra and Lupillo Rivera. Everybody's heard of the pop stars, but as Wald writes, probably not 1 percent of the Anglo population has heard of Los Tigres.

Nearly two-thirds of all Latin music sold in the United States is Mexican, but that's not reflected in the American music media. Wald sees a subtle racism involved: "Latin" elicits romantic visions of rich, handsome men and sexy supermodels boogying in South Beach, while "Mexican" connotes either sombrero-clad mariachis in a restaurant or workaday images of yardmen, maids and poverty. While songs of drug violence will provide only another stereotype, Wald writes that "even this is less annoying to many Mexicans than the picture of the sleepy mariachi in his big sombrero. The violence is terrible, but at least it does not suggest that Mexicans are stupid, lazy or incompetent."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax