Mexico's forbidden songs

Mexico's forbidden songs

Valeria Perasso, BBC Mundo

First there was Camelia, a gutsy Texan heroine on the margins of the law.

While trafficking her "weed", Camelia shot her partner in crime, EmilioVarela. Seven bullets. Camelia and the money were never seen again.

Members of Los Tigres del Norte

With 30 years of history, The Tigers of the North are considered founding fathers of the narcocorrido

Narco Mexico

Far from dying, Camelia became part of popular imagination. "Contraband and betrayal", the song which immortalised her gave birth to a musical genre: the narco corrido.

It was also the first commercial hit for "Los Tigres del Norte" (Tigers of the North), the region's most representative band with more than three decades' worth of records and a legion of followers.

Heroic tales accompanied by the accordion is nothing new: the waltz and polka-inspired ballads and corridos have formed part of Mexican folklore for at least a century.

They are heard in every rural bar, their catchy choruses repeated to the strident notes of the brass instruments.

Language academic Jose Manuel Valenzuela explains that for the largely illiterate population of 19 century Mexico, the corrido served as a constant supply of information on tragedies and other events of the time.

To the narco heroes

Then, when the heroes began to boast about other kinds of exploits, the corridos simply reflected that reality. With illegal crops and traffickers on the border, the narco got to have his own sound.

Many people say that the cartel bosses handed over fistfuls of money in order to get bands to write songs to perpetuate their misdeeds.

The author of the book "Narcocorrido", Elijah Wald says "the first thing a trafficker did, following a successful deal, was to contract somebody" to write a song about his exploit.

The majority of the bands however, have always denied all links with the cartel bosses and their underlings. They are, they insist, contemporary entertainers who simply tell stories and repeat gossip - including narco stories.

The corridos, formerly rural tales, thus made their way into urban culture, as if underworld drug stories gave it a kind of "narco-chic" feel, making the songs palatable to new audiences.

This change of direction together with accelerating globalisation of the record industry made the narcocorrido the leading genre of the "most listened to".

According to Wald, more than two thirds of records of Latin music sold in the US in the 90s, were Mexican narcocorridos and Los Angeles became the epicentre of the genre beyond the Rio Bravo (Grand). Many voices, one style: narco exploits sung to Northern rhythms.

The post-Chalino era

The death of Rosalino Sánchez in 1992 marked the end of an era for many.

This gravel-voiced singer with his trademark sombrero, nicknamed "Chalino", built up his business in the 80s, based on the composition and distribution on cassettes of narcocorridos. He was 31 years old when he was murdered after a concert in Culiacán.

The confusion surrounding his death helped fuel the media frenzy and the fervour of his followers. More than merely rocketing the sale of his records, the assassination of Chalino set off alarm bells: all was not well with the explosive mix of the music and the narco.

From then on many popular northern singers received threats. Others were set upon, kidnapped, had their throats cut. Between November and December 2007, the press reported nine violent deaths in the music world of Northern Mexico.

Accused of idealising gang culture and the trafficking and consumption of illegal drugs, many singers began to defend their music which, they claim, has its roots in tradition and all they are doing adapting it to reflect the times.

There was talk of links to the cartels, tailor-made compositions, private concerts for drug barons and skirmishes amongst bands loyal to rival cartels.

Back in 2002, during the Vicente Fox government, in an effort to eradicate the growing violence, corridos were banned on some local radio stations, especially in the north and centre of the country.

But far from keeping quiet, the music went from strength to strength. Millions of dollars in record sales, huge concerts, with fan clubs becoming international and empowered by the internet. Even the writer Arturo Pérez Reverte publically vindicated the genre, saying a narcocorrido had been the inspiration for his latest novel "La Reina del Sur" (The Queen of the South).

Others however, point out that the glorification of the illegality, even though its intention is to reflect the times, can only have a damaging effect on a society under threat by drug-related violence.

In the clubs and bars of the northern frontier states you no longer hear of the exploits of Camelia. Nor do you hear of other stories that came afterwards, corridos with far more provocatively explicit lyrics celebrating the drug barons, from the Arellano Felix brothers to "Mochomo" Leyva.

The bar owners have self-imposed a ban on them, by demand of customers who do not want to dance to songs depicting what they see in newspapers and on the streets.

Chief of chiefs

In the meantime The Tigers of the North continue with their records and tours, despite the controversy.

Together with "Los Tucanes de Tijuana", the Hernández brothers' quintet is one of the longest standing corrido bands.

This is borne out by their 47 albums, 130 Platinum discs and more than 32 million copies sold, as well as extensive tours in Spain and the US in 2008.

The band from Sinaloa who have always classed themselves as simply chronicling Mexican daily life, say they shun the glorification the drug traffickers.