Clutching his young child in a sweltering second-storey concrete apartment on the outskirts of Culiacan, a city beset with drug violence, Jorge “El Imperial” Rivera’s modest life seems at odds with the gang-land assassinations, fast cars and high-end drug deals he sings about.
A performer of narcocorridos – traditional Mexican folk ballads sung about the exploits of drug runners, smugglers and hit-men – Rivera has performed at private parties for characters of dubious repute. But, like struggling musicians from the ghettos of Los Angeles, the images of wealth, power and life in the fast lane in Rivera’s songs don’t always match with the reality of his own life.
“Sometimes I can make 5,000 pesos ($380) for playing a party, sometimes much less,” he told Al Jazeera. “I love the music but it isn’t always easy.”
Initially sung from town to town about the heroes of the Mexican-American war in the 1840s and other Robin Hood-style figures, corridos have grown increasingly associated with Mexico’s drug violence which has claimed more than 55,000 lives since 2006.
Masked wrestling free of ‘narco culture’
Traffickers often commission artistes to write songs about their glory. But like everything in the drug world, the payments come with a price. “For musicians in Sinaloa… it can get dangerous,” Elijah Wald, author of Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas, told Al Jazeera. “You don’t want to p*ss off the wrong people.”
Well-known corridos singer Valentin “the Golden Rooster” Elizalde had his song “To My Enemies” used as the soundtrack for a YouTube video produced by allies of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most well-known trafficker, to threaten the Zetas, a notoriously brutal gang.
Elizalde was gunned down in a hail of bullets after performing at a 2006 concert in Reynosa, a violence-plagued border city. It’s unclear if the killing was retribution for his lyrics and allegiances, but the murder underscored some of the dangers faced by corridos singers as bloodshed rages.
“Traditional corridos were almost a news or editorial ballad sung about the heroic exploits of common people, and about injustices,” Mark Edberg, an anthropologist who studies the music, told Al Jazeera. “Banditry, even violence, was often woven in with populist themes. That aspect of corridos is just not there when they become soundtracks for public violence.”
In a packed Culiacan nightclub, a seven piece band – wearing white and black tuxedos emblazoned with pictures of the iconic (and fictional) gangster Scarface on the back – play corridos songs without much trace of politics or populism. The audience, comprising men dressed in upscale cowboy hats and women wearing revealing dresses, sit at private tables sipping Hennessey.
Keeping the populist tradition alive, murals on the wall depict Emiliano Zapata, a moustached anarchist hero of the Mexican revolution from 1910-1920, swigging from a bottle of beer with a sultry lady draped across his shoulders. Large red pick-up trucks are parked outside the club and patrons are carefully frisked upon entry.
“If you don’t speak Spanish, corridos just sound like German beer garden music; accordions, brass bands and polka style music,” Wald said. But polka aficionados probably wouldn’t be impressed with the content. “The average young guy in LA listening to narcocorrridos is also listening to gangster rap. They will say this is the Mexican version of the same thing.”
Los Tucanes de Tijuana, a popular group, sing admiringly about drug dealers with “a bag of grenades, a pistol on each leg and a bulletproof vest, dressed in black, ready for battle”.
As in the rap world “street cred” – living the life one sings about and facing adversity – are key to the image of performers. Chalino Sánchez, a corridos pioneer and an idol for many up-and-coming musicians, got his start writing songs in prison in return for cigarettes.
Known for packing a pistol, his popular tune El Crimen de Culiacan describes a murder victim being eaten by dogs in Sinaloa. Staying true to his grisly lyrics, Sanchez was murdered in 1992, facing the same fate as gangster rap stars Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur.
Like US hip-hop, which gives voice to grievances from the ghettos, corridos are used by artistes to articulate the experiences of Mexicans at home and in the US.
The rap group Dead Prez may consider the heroes of corridos songs “revolutionary gangsters” – rebels who use criminality to outsmart the establishment, allowing those who feel oppressed to take what they want regardless of the law.
The US-Mexico border, in particular, is a point of political contention and a source of lyrical inspiration for corridos singers.
“To Mexicans, this was an imposed border,” Wald said. The US conquered much of Arizona, New Mexico and California in the Mexican American war in the 1840s and many are still bitter. “Celebrating people who move back and forth without paying attention to the government has a deep meaning to Mexicans on both sides of the border,” he added.
Many other songs about the border are apolitical. In their hit tune “Contraband and betrayal”, Los Tigres del Norte, a legendary corridos band, tell the story of two smugglers, Emilio Varela and Camelia “the Texan” who hide marijuana inside the tyres of their car and head for the US.
After selling the drugs in California, the two get into a Shakespearean dispute as the song climaxes: “Seven bullets rang, Camelia killed Emilio, the police only heard a gunshot, of the money and Camelia, they never heard a thing.” So it goes in the world of drugs and betrayal.
There are legions of stories of corridos musicians being abused by their patrons, and like many elements of the drug war, they are difficult to confirm.
“One musician had a story of being asked to play at a party in the Sierra [mountains often controlled by criminals] in Sinaloa,” said Helena Simonett, professor of music and Latin American studies at Vanderbilt University. “They were driven out and had to walk miles and miles to get back. One clarinet player said he was lucky he only had to carry his instrument; imagine the tuba player.”
Traffickers are often rural people, more content on a guarded ranch than in a city, and their predilection for country music usually doesn’t change as their wallets swell.
Tales of musicians asking for food during a private performance and then being forced to eat mountains of tacos at gun point are exaggerated or false, Rivera, the musician, said.
“There is a lot money in this music business. Who do you think sponsors the musicians?“
– Helena Simonett, professor of music at Vanderbilt University
Attacks on musicians in Mexico, coupled with the higher spending power and stronger laws against music piracy, have made Los Angeles, not Mexico City, the centre of the corridos industry.
“They were first recorded in small studios and distributed at flea markets and record shops,” Edberg said of the early corridos industry. “But when it became clear that the music and narcotrafficker characters were gaining a lot of street currency, they were picked up by bigger record companies – like EMI Latin. The bigger media commodified them, turned the characters into a sellable products.”
There are indeed plenty of characters in the narco underworld who can garner interest from audiences. “El Chapo” [“shorty”] Guzman is a billionaire fugitive running an international syndicate who escaped from prison in a laundry truck. Amado Carrillo Funtes of the Juarez cartel was deemed “the lord of the skies” for managing a fleet of planes flying drugs into the US. And Jesus “The King” Zambada owned more than 200 animals, including mules and ostriches, on his 16-acre luxury ranch.
Musicians are happy to write songs about these exotic major criminals. “Playing private parties for multi-millionaires is a huge part of the business,” Wald said. “If you have a huge national hit about Chapo Guzman it might mean people in his operation will hire you to play parties.”
Lower level thugs, however, need to commission artistes to write songs about their exploits. “Every kid who has a successful drug run will hire someone to write a corridoro to impress his girlfriend,” said Wald.
In Sinaloa and other Mexican states, radio stations have banned narcocorridos on the airwaves, in a move which barely affected the music’s popularity. “There is a lot money in this music business,” Simonett told Al Jazeera. “Who do you think sponsors the musicians?”
Illicit drug sales in the US, controlled primarily by Mexican cartels, net revenues of between $18bn and $39bn annually.
Despite the culture of violence, and a life of relative poverty, Jorge “El Imperial” Rivera still hopes to make it big in the corridos world. Handing me a self-produced album, he doesn’t seem likely to pay heed to the words of murdered rap star Notorious BIG who noted: “I don’t know what they want from me; it’s like the more money we come across the more problems we see.”
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris