Noise on the Border: Narcocorridos and Cumbia Dub

Steve Wishnia Jun 28, 2005

I’m driving through the desert in Coahuila, Mexico, with my friend Ioni from Austin, listening to Los Tigres del Norte’s double CD Jefe de Jefes. “Los Tigres. Good music,” says a clerk in the music store in Ciudad Acuna. The music feels like it grows directly out of the land, the accordion riffing around the spiky yucca, the bajo sexto (12-string bass guitar) waltzing with the mesquite and purple sage. And it’s easy to imagine that the men sweating tar on the road crew have cousins who miss Mexico even though they’re making hundreds of dollars a month in the fields of Arizona or the factories of New York, like the “well-off wetback” of Los Tigres’ “El Mojado Acaudalado.”

This sense of the connection between music and place continues after we cross the border where the Department of Vaterland Security searches our car for hierba. (“Tell me, who certifies los Estados Unidos?” Los Tigres sing.) Bobby Blue Bland’s Houston blues are the perfect soundtrack for passing the cotton fields of South Texas, Roky Erickson’s garage psychedelia for cruising the neon boulevards of South Austin.

The miracle of music is that it can reach anyone from anywhere, but people who come from the same place and culture are still going to feel special ties to it. A Jamaican who grew up playing “police and thieves” instead of cops and robbers is going to feel more resonances with Junior Murvin’s reggae classic than will a punk-rocker who learned the song from the Clash. And to an old New York punk-rocker, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders and Patti Smith are always going to sound like home.

I loved hearing soul music on the radio when I was in junior high on Long Island, but I didn’t really get it until I moved back to the city and danced to Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” at house parties. I drank my way through a divorce with a Hank Williams double CD, but country music didn’t really click into context until I was driving through Arkansas with a Steve Earle tune twanging out of the radio.

This works the other way too. I loved hearing ranchera music on the radio in New Mexico, but back in New York, its polka rhythms seemed corny. When I did a video with a North Carolina singer-songwriter a few years ago, the music sounded perfect up in the Appalachians; back in the city, it still sounded good, but it also felt like it was severely lacking Afro-American DNA. (One of the other musicians on that tape was harmonica virtuoso Eddie Gordon, who played on the theme to Sesame Street. Gordon, an avid pothead, claims that Jim Henson was “being green” when he conceived the character of Kermit the Frog.)

Anyway, all this ultimately means that there’s good globalization and bad globalization of music. Good globalization means that people can hear vital and unique music from anywhere in the world; bad globalization wants everyone buying the same ten corporate megastars. Good globalization creates exciting cross-cultural hybrids: Celso Pina’s 2001 Mexican hit “Cumbia Sobre el Rio,” based on the Colombian rhythm that has spread as far as Buenos Aires and Jackson Heights, mixes in dancehall-style vocalizing, while his “Cumbia Poder” lifts the “weya-weya-weya” chorus from an old Manu Dibango tune, itself a Cameroonian crossover. Bad globalization obliterates local scenes, reducing local styles to an “exotic” flavoring on top of vapid, homogenized product.

DESPEDIDA: Traditional Mexican corridos end with a despedida, a farewell verse. The one in Manuel C. Valdez y Juan Gonzalez’s “Por Morfina y Cocaina,” a 1934 prisoner’s lament that may be the first recorded narcocorrido, begins with “El corrido aqui se acaba/ya no quiero atormentar/cuando se estarán deseando/que termine de cantar.” Translation: “The ballad ends here/I no longer want to torment you/when you are probably wishing/that I would stop singing.”

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