Ballads and Bullets 

Despite controversy, narcocorridos remain popular on both sides of the US-Mexican border.

"Crime is always a good story," says author Elijah Wald, when asked about the rise of the infamous Mexican drug-running folk ballads he chronicles in his latest book, Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas (Rayo/HarperCollins). It was the San Jose-based Los Tigres del Norte who turned a hit into a genre with a song called "Contrabando y Traición," a song that today draws critical fire, much like black gangsta rap, for glorifying the drug trade, gangsterism, and violence.

"I think Chalino Sanchez [the slain Sinaloan singer-songwriter] and what happened after Chalino," continues Wald, "really turned things around by putting the focus on Los Angeles." Wald sees numerous parallels to rap: "Both are very much driven by the words and coming out of the same kind of neighborhoods, about the same kind of guys, but [narcocorrido] was completely Mexican. This was something that was just as tough but it was theirs."

Wald is the author of Josh White: Society Blues -- this year's Grammy winner for best liner notes on the Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary box set -- and until recently was a longtime music writer for the Boston Globe. The book is a travelogue, ranging around Mexico and the American Southwest, interviewing many of the principal songwriters of contraband folk ballads. With an accompanying CD, Corridos y Narcocorridos (Fonovisa), the phenomenon shines a spotlight on the rich wit and metaphor of the corridistas and their culture.

In the East Bay, narcocorridos are quite popular with performers at nightspots like El Reventon and Fandango Latino. But at the Oakland Coliseum Flea Market, where there are several stands that cater to Mexican regional pop, the narco-songs are usually tucked away in corners. Spanish-language radio first fostered the controversial songs in the 1990s, but has since stopped because of criticism and threatened boycotts across Northern Mexico and the United States.

Wald is skeptical: "There was an article in the LA Times that said that the narcocorrido is dead, and how all the narcocorrido guys are abandoning it because it's become repetitive and a disgrace. It said Los Tigres used to do that, but [that] if you go to their concert they won't be singing narco songs. I felt like calling and saying, "You think Los Tigres will go on stage and not sing "Camelia La Tejana"?' Like hell they're not going to sing those songs! They haven't been recording much of it lately, but I'll tell you, the day Tigres records stop selling, they'll record narcocorridos again. Corridos Prohibidos is their biggest-selling album."

Locally, Spanish-language radio stations stopped playing songs like "Mis Tres Animales" by Los Tucanes de Tijuana in the late 1990s when San Francisco Chronicle writer Robert Collier denounced them, after a show in Salinas, as somehow being complicit in the drug trade. With this kind of controversy stirring around narco-songs, Wald brings an important perspective to his subject by going beyond the academic and putting himself as an intermediary between cultures.

"The reception has been great," he says. "Only one negative review [on Amazon.com] but the person wrote it as a corrido. His response was that I'm just glorifying a lot of bullshit, that it's counterproductive music, that I don't understand the politics of how bad this is, and that I don't explain enough about the music. The last comment is true. I hardly talk about the music, just the words."

Elijah Wald talks about Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas on Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m., at City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Ave., SF, 415-362-8193 and Friday, May 10, 8 p.m., at the Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission St., SF, 415-821-1155. For more info: www.elijahwald.com.

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