The Beats of Baja


It’s just about 3 a.m. on a Sunday last month in Nortec City when a short, stocky, balding DJ-programmer named Bostich gets on stage in front of a dwindling crowd of post-ravers for his set of minimalist techno-meets-regional Mexican music—a drum ‘n’ brass sound designated “nortec.” Behind him on two large screens beam tweaked images of Mexican cowboys strumming guitars, squeezing an accordion, striking a snare drum, and balancing a tuba in a brick-walled cantina. Anyone living along the U.S.-Mexican border will recognize it: the ubiquitous norteño of Tex-Mex troubadours who play the oompah-like horn waltzes at every tourist spot in Tijuana. They’re much more crudo than the glossy Beatles of norteño, Los Tigres del Norte.

Against this backdrop at Tijuana’s historic Moorish-crafted stadium, Jai Alai Palace, now a converted dance hall, Bostich breaks into a crackling dubby pattern, over which a small herd of cowbells clatter and a drumroll barrels downhill, making way for a deflating accordion to punctuate the entire loop. He repeats this cycle for a good five minutes, teasing with horn farts here and there, rewarding the dancers with the signature line of his groundbreaking 1999 single “Polaris”—a stuttering tuba honk that sounds as if it came from a 16-wheeler crossing la frontera with maquiladora-made electronics.

The crowd responds immediately by whistling and applauding the veteran DJ, who acknowledges them with a waving fist in the air. In Tijuana’s underground electronic scene, “Polaris” is as recognizable to fans as Beethoven’s dah-dah-dah-DAH.

To celebrate the release of the Nortec Collective’s Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1, issued domestically on Chris Blackwell’s Palm label, organizers incorporated Nortec City as an electronica suburb of TJ for one night, inviting the international press. Jai Alai is City Hall, and Bostich, a/k/a Ramón Amor Amezcua (an orthodontist by day), presides as mayor. The rest of the Nortec City Council—about a dozen fashion designers, graphic illustrators, filmmakers, and writers—is laying down a vision of the future to somewhere between 2000 and 3000 constituents. The anthem of this post-utopian meltdown is a cheeky, warped-bongo techno-cumbia by Hiperboreal entitled “Tijuana for Dummies.”

Tijuana’s the city that Krusty the Clown calls “the Happiest Place on Earth.” Franco-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao wrote its jingle, a lament of the town’s Sin City heritage, which started in the days of Prohibition: “Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sexo, marijuana . . . “ The Nortec Collective cuts and pastes this environment indiscriminately: la migra, prostitutes, the assembly-line tech industry, FBI “Wanted” posters of the Arellano brothers drug bosses. U.S. teenagers rush to bars along Avenida la Revolución, the main boulevard, where at least 80 cantinas await; that Jai Alai is also on “La Revo” adds weight to nortec’s countering the typical tourist’s representation of TJ.

The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1 compilation offers a keyhole view of the latest chapter in an electronica history that dates back in Baja some 15 years. Terrestre offers a drunken, brass-heavy, and jazzy Wurlitzer-lined techno-polka entitled “Tepache Jam,” referring to the fermented-fruit Aztec drink used before cannibalistic sacrificial rituals. On Panóptica’s ambient dub “And L,” the snare drum, high-hats, and cowbell bounce through the snap and crackle of an analog filter. (“And L” is a bilingual pun: pronounced “AHN-da-lay” like Speedy Gonzalez’s war cry, the common Mexican term for “hurry up.”) And Fussible’s “Ventilador,” with compressed breakbeats and disjointed melodies cut by a washboard rattle, fans the winds that carry Mexicanness over any obstacle.

Like the Brazilian tropicalistas of 30 years ago, who cannibalized technological advancements from the invading pop cultures of America and England, these bicultural Mexican binationals have devoured influences from both sides of the sociopolitical boundary. And yet even more than the musical movement of Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Zé, nortec is an aesthetic: perhaps the first postmodern way of life with a south-of-the-border center. As Baja California artists from various disciplines adopt nortec as their own, it becomes not so much norteño-meets-techno as norteño eats technology.

The concept, the artists say, had been swishing in the back of their minds for years as they sought a Baja identity. In 1999, programmer Pepe Mogt, one half of Fussible (say it: foo-SEE-blay), finally started playing around with raw recordings of norteño and Sinaloan banda groups (usually characterized by tubas, trumpets, cymbals, and more-tropical percussion), with a grin on his face. At parties, most of his cuates would joke around about infusing Mexican hillbilly sounds into their electronica to pick up some local fans. When he took the recordings to his friends, they gorged themselves on the clankety beats and belching horns.

”The nortec sound reflects our reality on la frontera,” Mogt told me in New York, where he and Bostich played at Fun a few weeks ago. “It’s the same with big beat in London. The difference is, our hybrid comes from sounds we collect in our city.”

Just before Fussible played at Jai Alai, I wandered into the art exhibit areas to find plastered on hallways and doors colorful Warhol-style posters of assassinated presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio (Mexico’s JFK equivalent, killed six years ago in Tijuana) with a cowboy hat. Above his image reads, in Spanish, “I’ll be back.” One graphic-design piece had a space-age urban cowboy reclining on decorative furniture and holding a margarita. Another gallery showed the blueprints of nortec architecture, which rehashes the hillside shanty as a Frank Lloyd Wright design. In another room, fashion designers at a little swap meet sold their wares, including cyber-ponchos cut with nontraditional fabrics.

It’s midnight—the intangible border merging today and tomorrow, like la frontera merges Tijuana with San Diego. Three hours ago, a masked Mexican wrestler dressed in a shiny, silver business suit played cumbias on a Casio keyboard in front of the Jai Alai while he called out, “Bienvenidos a Nortec City!” Three hours from now, Bostich will take the stage, and twiddle some high-tech knobs to further globalize the nortec sound.

This new aesthetic is changing Tijuana’s image as a cantina-strewn throwback to the Old West. And Bostich may be the “godfather of nortec,” but he already speaks about life beyond that. “Nortec is not a genre but a way of life,” he insists. “We are just now seeing the fruit of all this. Who knows what it will transmute into next?”