Tech Mex

Hans Fjellestad loves making a run for the border, especially if he's heading for Tijuana.

One could conjecture the 37-year-old San Diego-based filmmaker and musician, whose documentary Frontier Life screens Friday, July 8, at Modified Arts, journeys down Mexico way for a narcotic-fueled binge of illicit behavior and sexual depravity; but in reality, Fjellestad's destination isn't the gringo fantasyland of Tijuana's infamous red-light district. Instead, he's usually bound for some ravelike affair at hip nightspots like the historic Jai Alai Palace, where he'll hang with homies like Panoptica or Plankton Man.

Fjellestad's friends aren't part of some lucha libre league, mind you, but rather musicians with peculiar pseudonyms who're also members of Tijuana's Nortec Collective, a seven-group musical cooperative of performers of "Nortec," a hybrid of the brassy and waltzy polka-esque troubadour sound of traditional Mexican music, like norteño and tambora, with the frenetic electronica of techno.

Along with inventing the genre, members of the collective -- including DJs such as Pepe Mogt, Ramon Amezcua, Maelo Ruiz, Fritz Torres, and Claudia Algara -- have been bonding Baja-based folk tunes and breakbeats with mixers and laptops for audiences across the world, as well as providing Nortec remixes of artists such as Beck and Robbie Williams.

They also sparked something of a cultural revolution in their city, where all manner of imaginative types -- from visual artists to architects -- have joined the fold after being inspired by what Fjellestad calls "the Nortec aesthetic" of Tijuana-influenced works.

"It's like this third or fourth generation of Tijuanese that are growing up, looking at themselves and creating their new identity and expressing it through arts and music," Fjellestad says.

This mojo even rubbed off on Fjellestad -- a classically trained pianist and jazz aficionado who's collaborated with collective members since the early '90s -- causing him to conjure up Frontier Life, a 2002 documentary exploring both the music scene and other facets of Tijuana culture in an attempt to defy its sin city stereotypes.

"There's all this creative energy there that's just really intense, and I wanted to see if I could put the audience in the middle of it," Fjellestad says.

In the 83-minute flick, Fjellestad and co-producer Ryan Page (a Valley native who also helped the auteur make the critically acclaimed documentary Moog) alternate between the collective's efforts and the automobile artistry of underground street racing clubs, who've cannibalized American car parts to creatively customize their hot rods.

Intertwined with these dual narratives are "impressionistic" images of Tijuana's wastewater system, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and the massive border wall with America, which Fjellestad says respectively serve as metaphors for the city's growth problems, how creativity flows throughout its "veins," and how status as a border town symbolizes a vast confluence of cultures as evidenced by the "Nortec aesthetic."

"That's one of the more exciting things, with the kind of ingenuity and invention here," Fjellestad says. "Especially in terms of fusing all these different aspects of culture, it's an exciting place to be."

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.