Gangsta Polkas

The Wu-Tang Clan has just given $500,000 to NYU to digitize a collection of some 40,000 blues 78s and 45s from the '20s through the '50s. No, that doesn't sound right. Madonna has just given $500,000 to Miami-Dade Community College to digitize 40,000 old dance band records from the . . . ? Brooks & Dunn, Vanderbilt, hillbilly? Nah. American musicians don't give a fuck about the past (certain jazz musicians excepted—but I don't think Wynton, sleek as he may be, has got a spare 500 large). I mean, they'll maybe cover an oldie or two, even play a quick benefit, but they're not gonna cut loose with that kind of money, and give it to a university, of all things.

Yet, and this is no shit, last April Los Tigres del Norte gave UCLA 500K to digitize Chris Strachwitz's Frontera collection, "the largest and most complete collection of Mexican American vernacular music, including corridos, canciónes, boleros, and instrumental music recorded in the United States between 1904 and 1954," as the NEA calls it.

Los Tigres del Norte???? Out of Rosa Morada, Sinaloa (that's in Mexico, across the Gulf of California from Cabo), via San Jose; been plugging away since, like, 1968; made over 50 records; been in movies; won a Grammy (the kind that doesn't get on TV); made millions of dollars. The elder statesmen of norteño music. In short—never heard of 'em. This kind of thing really doesn't get much play here on the Right Coast. Latin music: Machito, Menudo, Ricky Martin, Tito Puente, like that. Horns and percussion, flash and funk. Not: accordions, polka beats, and Tigers of the North. Love songs and dance numbers, not ballads (in the Olde English sense): stories, narratives about individuals and things that they've done. Folk music.

Though, for folk musicians, the Tigres are not only suspiciously popular, but, well, scary. Look at their picture on the cover of, say, last year's Herencia de Familia. These are some hard-looking guys, more Dock Boggs than Livingston Taylor. They don't look like philanthropists or foundation-endowers. They look like gangsters.

The Tigres—Jorge Hernandez, two or three of his brothers, their cousin, and one of their friends—made it onto the map back in 1972 with "Contrabando y Traición," a spare little story about Emilio Varela and his girlfriend, Camelia "la Tejana," who drive up to Hollywood from Tijuana on tires stuffed with weed, sell the stuff, he forks over her share along with a brush-off, and—"sonaron siete balazos." She shoots him seven times. That's the last we ever hear of her, or the money. Instant classic. There was even a movie about her.

Their next hit, "La Banda del Carro Rojo" ("The Red Car Gang"), was about one Lino Quintana, who drives up to Chicago from "down south" with three of his buds and "100 kilos de coca." There's some trouble with law enforcement, in which an M16 features prominently. Lino & Co.: 3. Sheriff: 4.

So. Gangsta music. The Tigres essentially invented the so-called narcocorrido. (A corrido is a ballad, usually about a bandit; they go back in Mexico forever.) The genre has kinda moved beyond them—the Tigres are on the tame side compared to, say, the chart-topping Los Tucanes de Tijuana ("the Tijuana Toucans") or, especially, the late Chalino Sanchez, another hard man from rural Sinaloa who made it big in El Norte. Chalino wrote almost nothing but narcocorridos and lived the life to boot. He was found in a ditch outside of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, with a couple of bullets in his head. That was in 1992. After that, just about everybody wanted to be a gangsta, to be from Sinaloa—Mexico's Wild West. Barrio kids all over Southern California began sticking their Ice-T albums in the closet, sporting cowboy hats, and spitting out corridos perrones—badass—in English-accented Spanish. L.A. is now the center of norteño music.

But here's where Mexican—or, more accurately, Mexican American—music is different from Anglo music, and it has to do with that gift to UCLA. Even the most hardcore narcocorrido still has the same one-two polka beat, the same skirling accordion, the same riffing bajo sexto—a kind of 12-string baritone guitar—and the same agriculturally simple chord changes and harmonies as the stuff in the Frontera collection. The music, as music, is so traditional as to be virtually unchanged. Sure, the guitars and basses are electrified, but that's only for practicality—there's no electrical monkey business. In Anglolandia, music adapts to the modern world. In Aztlán, it's the other way around.

I don't have all that much to say about De Paisano a Paisano, the Tigres' latest. Aside from better recording and a certain elder-statesman quality to the lyrics (or what I can understand of 'em), it sounds just like their earlier stuff. A tight, driving beat, the voices slightly pushing it with an almost punky edge. A familiar mix of love songs, political songs, and mojado("wetback," a term they use with pride) songs, about being Mexican in the U.S. No narcocorridos far as I can tell, but these guys have no problem keeping it real—especially compared to, say, the Rolling Stones, whose longevity the Tigres are creeping up on. Still, for a band that's been around since 1968, it's a peculiarly humble record. No ego trips, no jerking off.

I guess that's the bargain here. If you "keep it low to the ground," as Judge Hay used to admonish the performers on the Grand Old Opry, you're not going to flower into something unexpected and glorious. But you're so close to your roots that you're not going to wither and die, either. ¡Que vivan los Tigres!

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