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Book Review: "Narcocorridos: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas"

American music listeners are familiar enough with the drug-laced lyrics and spaciness of stoner rock and the gritty drug war milieu of gangster rap, but most non-Spanish-speaking gringos remain totally oblivious to the narcocorrido, a musical genre drenched in the Mexico-US drug trade whose leading stars sell millions of albums on both sides of the border.
 
 
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Musician and music writer Elijah Wald doesn't have a lot to say about drug policy, but his book "Narcocorridos" opens up a whole new vista for those whose interest in the topic extends to the cultural phenomenon to which the drug war has given rise. American music listeners are familiar enough with the drug-laced lyrics and spaciness of stoner rock and the gritty drug war milieu of gangster rap, but most non-Spanish-speaking gringos remain totally oblivious to the narcocorrido, a musical genre drenched in the Mexico-US drug trade whose leading stars sell millions of albums on both sides of the border.

Wald will cure that. In the course of 300 pages, he takes the reader on a vivid, dramatic journey into the history of the narcocorrido, criss-crossing Mexico and the US Southwest as he searches out the roots of the music, its legends and its contemporary masters. Hitchhiking into remote villages with a battered guitar and a bag full of cassettes, he encounters simple singers and slick music businessmen, communities of marigueros (marijuana growers) and gun-toting traficantes. Among other marvels, Wald visits the shrine of San Juan Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, located in the heart of drug trafficking center Sinaloa in northwest Mexico and maintained with funds donated by anonymous beneficiaries of the saint's protection.

As a musical form, narcocorrido isn't exactly hip. Part of the broader musical style known as norteno, popular in northern Mexico and Texas (where it's called tex-mex or tejano), narcocorridos are typically ballads sung to a polka or waltz beat, accompanied by accordions and guitars. It's the Mexican equivalent of country music, and sophisticated urban Mexicans consider it square, while Americans consider it Mexican.

But it isn't the music that has drawn the attention of fans and the ire of scandalized authorities -- it is the lyrical content. The corrido form, descended from medieval Spanish ballads, is a storytelling form. Early in the last century, corridos were sung to describe the exploits of the great generals of the Mexican Revolution, and ever since they have served as a popular news service, telling of government corruption, the struggles of immigrants in El Norte or the rise of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas.

The narcocorrido, however, sings of the drug trafficker, the mariguero, the law and death. And despite the half-hearted protests of some of the genre's stars, many of them glorify the wealth and power of the successful trafficker, the bravery and cunning of the macho, the fatalism of the desperado. From "Contrabando y Traicion" (Contraband and Betrayal), a 1972 hit for Los Tigres del Norte (The Tigers of the North); through the hard-edged Sinaloan sound of the legendary Chalino Sanchez, prototype of a legion of gun-toting, SUV-driving imitators; and on to the current masters of the genre, such as Los Tucanes de Tijuana (The Tijuana Tucans), Grupo Exterminador, and the gangsta-corrido Rivera clan of Los Angeles; the theme of the drug trafficker surviving betrayal and outsmarting the gringos remains constant.

Here is LA artist Lupillo Rivera, punning on LA street slang in which a pelotero (ballplayer) is a hustler or drug dealer: "Un pelotero senores, tira bolas en el parque, Yo tambien soy pelotero, pero soy de otra clase. Si no me entienden amigos, permitenme explicarles.

"Las bolitas que yo tiro son de puro polvo blanco, Es vitamina muy buena para andar buen atizado, Y el toque de mariguana sirve para relajarlos."

Translation: "A ballplayer, gentlemen, throws balls in the park. I am a ballplayer, but of a different sort. If you do not understand me, friends, allow me to explain.

"The little balls I throw are of pure white powder, It is a very good vitamin to get you stirred up, And a toke of marijuana will serve to relax you."

The Partnership for a Drug Free America and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have their own media campaigns. So do the drug traffic and the broader culture from which it emerges. Elijah Wald masterfully and engagingly exposes this vibrant and powerful cultural artifact that has for too long flown under the radar, like the drug-laden planes it celebrates.

If you're interested in exploring the genre, try beginning with "Corridos Prohibidos" (Forbidden Songs) by Los Tucanes de Tijuana, "El Estilo Norteno" (Northern Style) by Chalino Sanchez, and "Puros Corridos Perrones" (Pure Badass Corridos), a Rivera family compilation on Cintas Actuarios records.

"Narcocorridos" is available in English and Spanish and is published by HarperCollins.

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.