Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Hit Parade

It seems that the legislature of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, took advantage of some down time during the current narco war to pass an important bill. Introduced by Chihuahua Congressman Ricardo Alan Boone the bill bans the genre of music known commonly as narco corridos or drug ballads, it is aimed to stop "endorsing  and exacerbating organized crime actions through music."  Passage of the bill will prevent radio and television stations from playing that kind of music "As citizens of the State of Chihuahua we have suffered firsthand the negative effects of a fierce battle set up by organized criminal groups in our own community." a congressional spokesman stated. In a written press release, lawmakers declared that the narco corridos genre "Praises the deeds of so-called heroes for our young people, mainly in regions living in poverty and facing scarce education opportunities." Congressman Boone then added "These so-called musicians take advantage of freedom of speech, putting together songs aimed to glorify crime and encouraging approval for those criminal groups." Does that sound familiar?, the very same thing was said about gangster rappers in the U.S., back in the early 1990's.   It's still unclear how the new legislation will be enforced, The legislature and government of Chihuahua, though they would never admit it, are basically powerless. Although, in a land without law enforcement agencies capable of enforcing the law, things have a way of sorting themselves out. Mexican radio stations know that to play the wrong song could send the the wrong message to the wrong people.
This has led to a curious role reversal, some stations along the U.S. side of the border started to broadcast prohibited corridos deep into Mexico. The romanticizing of traffickers and the glorification of the drug trade has irritated the Mexican government to the point that narco corridos are banned from most Mexican airwaves.  However, on the home front, the F.C.C., at least for the time being, has chosen not to censor the lyrical content of Spanish music being broadcast from the U.S.  Not that it's risk free, Texas disc jockey, Jaime Zavala explains: "It's dangerous to play certain songs on the radio, there could be reprisals." Zavala also added  that any mention of Los Zetas could offend their rivals or the Los Zetas gang itself, it's a dicey proposition anyway you look at it. Narco corridos evolved out of the norteno corrido tradition. It's accordion-based music with a polka rhythmic base. The polka being the everlasting legacy of German immigrants to Tex-Mex and Norteno music on both sides of the border.  The corrido served as an oral form of story telling for many illiterate Mexican campesinos. This early form of corrido had it's golden age during the Mexican Revolution, whereas revolutionaries like Pancho Villa (Ya llegó, ya esta aquí, Pancho Villa con su gente, con sus dorados valientes, que por él han de morir.) once inspired corridos, today  it's the narco traffickers that get all the attention.
The rise of the narco corrido can be traced to the early 1970's. With the groundbreaking hits of the venerable Los Tigres del Norte, the narco ballads went mainstream. While Los Tigres were instrumental in getting the genre off the ground, it was Chalino Sanchez and Los Tucanes de Tijuana who made it gangsta. Chalino Sanchez is thought to be the most influential of corrido singers, with hundreds of imitators, called Chalinillos following in his footsteps. Sanchez was born in Mexico, but emigrated to Los Angeles, Ca. where he literally shot his way to fame, this following an onstage gun battle in Coachella,Ca. Chalino's quick rise to fame and his lifestyle made him plenty of enemies on both sides of the border.  In 1992 he was murdered after a concert in Culiacan, Sinaloa at the age of 31, the first of many narco corridistas that would meet the same fate.  Mario Quintero and Los Tucanes de Tijuana upped the ante for narco ballads by singing not only about the drug trade but also about the drug parties.  Los Tucanes introduced code words into their songs to make them safe for radio, the best example of this is their hit song "Mis Tres Animales or My Three Animals" Cocaine becomes Perico, Marijuana is Gallo and Heroin is Chiva. Others in the narco corrido scene took up this practice to navigate their way around government censorship.
By 2006 as the war between the cartels started to spiral out of control, narco corrido musicians started getting killed at an alarming rate. Valentin Elizalde, "El Gallo de Oro" was gunned down following a concert in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Elizalde who had recorded songs eulogizing several drug lords appears to have fallen victim to Los Zetas.  That murderous gang of ex-soldiers had taken offense to one of his best known songs "A Mis Enemigos" or "For My Enemies"  "Para hablar a mis espaldas para eso se pintan solos, ¿por qué no me hablan de frente? Elizalde was almost begging them to bring it on "vengan a rifar la suerte". Sergio Gomez the lead singer for the Chicago based band "K-Paz de la Sierra" was abducted and murdered following a performance in Morelia, this after receiving several death threats and warnings not to appear in that city. Sergio Vega also known as El Shaka, was gunned down in Sinaloa shortly after he had denied reports of his own murder.  In response to rumors about his death, Vega did an interview with "La Oreja"  a music website, reassuring his interviewer that he was very much alive, and that he was taking precautions to remain that way. "It's happened to me for years now, someone tells a radio station or a newspaper I've been killed, or suffered an accident" he added "And then I have to call my dear mother, who has heart trouble, to reassure her." On his way to an appearance that evening, Vega was chased by assailants, who after he lost control of his vehicle and crashed, finished him off with several point blank shots.
 For one reason or another, numerous lesser known musicians have been killed across Mexico. However, the most tragic of the murders, had very little to do with narco corridos or drug gangs. Zayda Pena was the lead singer for the group "Zayda y los Culpables" their music was more pop oriented than narco corrido. Although, her murder is often reported as a drug gang killing, it was in fact a crime of passion, though her killer may well have been in a drug gang.  On December 1st. 2007, Zayda Pena met up Ana Bertha Gonzalez at El Motel Monaco in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. It was common knowledge within music circles that Pena was bisexual, as the two women met up for their rendezvous, neither knew that it would be their last moments together.  A former boyfriend of Pena's who was angry at having been spurned for a woman, arrived at El Motel Monaco, he stormed into Zayda's room and shot both women, killing Gonzalez. The motel manager who tried to intervene was also shot and killed, somehow Zayda Pena survived the attack and was rushed to the local hospital. There through emergency surgery, doctors were able to save her life, but just minutes after Zayda was wheeled into the recovery room, her attacker and some other armed men barged into the hospital, went straight to the recovery room and shot Pena multiple times, this time Zayda did not survive. The ex-boyfriend and his accomplices made their getaway and still have not been captured or charged with the triple murder. 
If you do put the name of a powerful drug lord in your song, you'd better be well connected like Mario Quintero of Los Tucanes de Tijuana or Chuy Quintanilla. He's a singer from Reynosa whose brother is the late narco corrido superstar Beto Quintanilla, a man who actually died of natural causes. In the current climate of caution, Chuy a former federal judicial police commander belts out corridos other artists wouldn't whisper. Chuy doesn't call them narco corridos "Let's do away with the term, narcocorrido; it's vulgar," he says. "A narco is a person who's guilty of a crime that you or I can't ascertain." Chuy Quintanilla prefers to think that in the time honored tradition of corridos, he's just singing about current events. With all due respect to Chuy, who seems to be a real badass, that's hogwash, but I would love to hear his take on the killing of Osama Bin-Laden or the near nuclear melt downs in Japan. The multitude of cd covers that show musicians in mock western attire holding AK-47s, proves that the common folks do love their narco imagery. However, the line between musician and narco does tend to get blurry, who's play acting and who's for real?, it seems that sometimes even the drug gangs can't make that distinction.