If you're not a Spanish speaker, "Contrabando y Traición" by Los Tigres del Norte on the Mexican-music anthology Corridos y Narcocorridos sounds every inch as innocuous as a wedding polka. Jorge Hernandez's sweet vocals ride a bouncing oompah bass while accordion tootles suggest a nostalgia-laden ranchera that wouldn't offend a cloistered nun. But even if you were unable to translate the title as "Smuggling and Betrayal," the seven gunshots near the end tip off the song as a narcocorrido. In fact, Angel Gonzalez's 1972 composition about a drug runner done in by his female partner was the spark that ignited a genre chronicling the exploits of traffickers and other outlaws on both sides of the Mexican-American border.
The narcocorrido finds its closest counterpart in American gangsta rap. Both celebrate the greed, glamour, violence and risk-taking of the drug trade, painting traffickers and dealers as common men who triumph in a society that provides few doors to success. But while gangsta rap is less than two decades old, narcocorridos lie squarely in the tradition of the 19th-century corrido song form, which gained wide popularity after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 with songs that eulogized the meteoric career of Pancho Villa. From the way Los Tigres, Grupo Exterminador, and Jenni Rivera extol the drug culture, you might expect they clawed their way out of the gangsta life. But with the exception of Chalino Sanchez, whose roughhewn, off-key voice on "El Crimen de Culiacán" signifies that he was the real thing -- as did his gun battle with a would-be assassin while performing on a Palm Springs stage -- artists on Corridos y Narcocorridos insist they have nothing to do with the narco culture and are simply performing the material that sells best.
In contrast to her hard-bitten "jackal woman" image, Angeleno singer Rivera comes across as a devoted mother and consummate pop professional in Elijah Wald's superb book Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. Wald travels deep into Mexico and the American Southwest in search of the performers that have made the narcocorrido the hottest trend in Mexican pop. Despite its immense popularity in that country, the genre is effectively banned on Mexican radio. And despite its popularity among the Mexican and Chicano population in our own country, narcocorridos remain invisible to mainstream America and shunned by events like the Grammy Awards that usually reward commercial success.
Wald's book tells a fascinating tale through interviews with colorful characters, including songwriter and B-film bit-player Julian Garza; uproariously uncouth minstrel of the Zapatista rebellion Andres Contreras; narcocorridos "clown prince" Francisco Quintero; Gabriel Villanueva, who sings his corridos to bus riders; and members of Los Tigres. Although Wald's vivid portraits make his book compelling even if you don't know the players, the companion disc, Corridos y Narcocorridos, pays off the book.
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Jenni Rivera's bragging signature tune, "La Chacalosa," shows how tough a tuba bass can sound in the brass and guitar banda style. "El Rey de la Tierra Caliente" by Michoacán ensemble Los Hermanos Jimenez augments the classic norteño sound with the region's rippling harp. Like calypso, the corrido functions as a kind of people's newspaper, disseminating information on street-level events unlikely to garner a mention in the mainstream media. Top examples here include the vanilla tale of two regular guys, "Los Dos Plebes," and the dramatic account of pressures facing Mexican immigrants, "La Jaula de Oro," both performed with unflagging charisma by Los Tigres. If narcocorridos seem too marginal to deserve attention, consider this: The best-selling Latin music in the United States isn't Cuban or South American. It's Mexican, and narcocorridos play a large enough role that one Los Angeles radio station now airs them around the clock. Read the book for its engrossing account of the complexities of Mexican music culture. Buy the CD for a collection of seminal and snappy genre songs you won't find anywhere else.