Deserts laugh at borders. In the Arabian peninsula, where the natives know a thing or two about the desert, this is abundantly clear. No cartographer nor diplomat has ever bothered to define the Saudi-Yemeni border deep in the heart of the Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter). Somewhere out in the whispering sands of that broiling void there is an international frontier, but nobody knows or cares where. Until quite recently, it was the only undisputed, undefined border on earth.
Along the Arizona-Mexico border there is also an area the locals call the empty quarter. As Joey Burns of Tucson-based Calexico, who had never heard of the Arabian Empty Quarter but knew well the Sonoran one, says: "It's universal. An empty quarter is an empty quarter." But here the idea of the border, at least in the minds of politicians, is sharply defined. Though its fairness is bitterly called into question by la gente on its southern side, the border is no longer in dispute, at least in Mexico City and in Washington, D.C. Defining the border in reality is somewhat more difficult. Where does Mexico really end? Where does the United States really begin? Does either capital have much relevance in the universal desert?
These questions help drive Calexico's unique sound, which fuses laid-back country with haunting and fiery mariachi, topped off with references to Southwestern literature (from both sides of the border) and the music of Ennio Morricone. Picture an opera scored by Gram Parsons, Vicente Fernandez and Morricone, with a libretto by Carlos Fuentes and Cormac McCarthy, and you have the Calexico sound. A classic example is the song "Crystal Frontier," based on the novel by Fuentes of the same name.
"There are times when literature comes up in our music," says Burns over the phone from an Oregon, tour stop. Calexico's "John [Convertino] will talk about what he's reading. In 'Crystal Frontier,' one verse talks about a maquiladora, and also about some characters that work there on the Mexican side. And they're pulling the weight for the whole family, and the way they see this border, this horizon, as their great hope for survival, or maybe their kids' survival."
The song's first verse touches on a couple of characters well known to devotees of Texas history. "There's the story of Cabeza de Vaca. Fray Marcos heard de Vaca's story and went [with the slave Esteban] looking for the Seven Cities of Gold."
And we all know now how that adventure turned out. The Zuni Indians deemed Esteban a sorcerer and sliced him to bits. Fray Marcos faced down a mutiny and returned home empty-handed. Nevertheless, he wove a fable for the viceroy about how he had glimpsed an El Dorado close by. An inspired Francisco de Coronado then launched one of the great fool's errands in history, which found the would-be conquistador quixotically wandering primordial Kansas seeking a nonexistent Oz or seven.
For all too many south of what is now the Mexican border, El Norte has since proved to be a land of illusions, a mother lode of fool's gold. Fuentes calls the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo, the "river of shifting floors," a gaping wound inadequately stitched by too few international bridges.
Burns is privy to the illusion, and these days that chimera takes the shape of the border. The only demarcation Burns sees is the one between border laws and actual border life. One character in "Crystal Frontier" is a composite of various smugglers Burns read about in the Tucson paper. "If people down on the Nogales side want real-deal Nikes, they can get it from him. And vice versa, for the Americans he can go down to Mexico and get whatever they want: social, material, sexual, drugs It could be illegal drugs, or it could just be a big bottle of cheap Zantac."
Told the story of one Houstonian's codeine-buying trip to a Matamoros pharmacy at which the Texan was told to check what he wanted off the pharmacy's menu, Burns laughs. "You've gotta love the way people take these situations and make them more human and more personable," he says. "I love that 'Here's the law, and here's reality. Here's how we're gonna live.' There's the positive, and there's the negative."
Burns is a natural ponderer of borders. Born on North America's other linguistic fault line in Montreal, Burns stayed there only a couple of months. After their French-Canadian sojourn, his upstate New York-bred parents wound up in Los Angeles.
Burns's family exposed him early and often to the City of Angels' bounty of diversity. "My mother's a social worker," Burns recalls. "When I was a kid she would take us with her to different barrios where she taught English and helped out with the PTA. It was really cool. You got to hang with different kids, and my mom and dad would go down to Mexico and bring back songs. My mom used to play piano and sing all these songs in Spanish to us. So I heard all these songs from a long time ago. So they've always been there in my memory, as well as all the standard rock stuff like KISS and Zep. And then all the folk tunes. My mom's favorite lullaby was 'All the Pretty Horses,' which was one of the only lullabies in a minor key."
Eventually Burns soured on life in L.A. and found a home in Tucson. "Moving to Tucson seven years ago and moving into the Barrio Viejo, it hit me, 'Wow this is such a beautiful, beautiful place' [B]eing surrounded by the local Hispanics I felt comfortable in Tucson, and I loved it. And I was fascinated, and I wanted to learn more and am still learning more, so much so that we have done some work with a local mariachi group called Mariachi Luz de Luna."
Luz de Luna accompanied Calexico on a trip to Europe recently. "We had a blast," Burns says. "They showed us so much about their music, and the spirit behind it. That inspired me so much to learn more and to appreciate the mariachis way more. And then I started learning those tunes, and I'd be out somewhere in Tucson, and I'd recognize one and it made me feel charged. And I felt more excited about living in Tucson."
And Arizona loves Calexico back. "We did a concert in Phoenix, and a critic said here are these [Anglo and Hispanic] musicians, and they are getting together and setting aside their differences. And if only our governments could do the same thing."
Carlos Fuentes likely would agree.