“I’d been wanting to play corridos all my life but I kept denying it to myself…like a lot of musicians, I used to have my sight pointed to the U.S.” said Juan Cirerol in a recent conversation. With a trailblazing attitude, the 24-year old native of Mexicali – a border town in the middle of the scorching dessert east of Tijuana – has become a staple in the indie scene in Mexico.
“Miguel y Miguel covering Johnny Cash – I’ve heard my music described that way, I like it,” says Cirerol of his unique sound: heavy on the strum, nasal voice, Bukowskian lyrics, all interposed by conjunto licks…songs both recognizably yet playfully set within norteño music structure. For the common observer, this is a sound that often clashes with the hipsterish cosmopolitan crowd that follows him. And yet, it is precisely this contrast, as well as the self-denial Cirerol talks of overcoming, that serve as a first signal of a potential sub-genre in a stage of emergence.
As a matter of shorthand, we can label this sub-genre “alt-norteño” (going off the term “alt-country” used in the US). Without getting too caught up in the name, the point is that there seems to be an opening for a ‘renovation’ of norteño music (in itself an imprecise catch-all term) along the aesthetic logic of avant-garde music. This entails finding virtue in a piece on the basis of its originality as opposed to how well it reproduces tradition (valuing, for example, an expansion of accepted chord progressions, thematic variation, or adventurousness in the arrangements).
To be clear, this is not to deny the changes that norteña music has undertaken in the past or to dismiss the innovation running through, say, tex-mex; the intention is much less to be oblivious of the cultural vibrancy emanating from the Sinaloa-Southern California corridor (which actually partly explain why alt-norteño is a possibility) – but there is something to be said about David Aguilar’s 2010 album El Ventarrón, making coffee shop intellectuals listen to banda sinaloense, or commercially successful drug-balladeers, like Régulo Caro, talk about “anti-corridos” and “corridos progresivos” (yep, prog corridos).
Cirerol, Aguilar, and Caro — our focus for this piece — are not together part of anything like a defined cultural movement; each of them moves within very different scenes.
And they are clearly not the first ones to have ‘experimented’ with norteña (as will be clear shortly). What I venture to say is unique — and why I see it worthwhile to think about them as one same phenomenon – is the absolute comfortableness with which they innovate from within the norteño structures. In this sense, it is possible that the fact that these projects have sprung up more or less at the same time is not mere coincidence, but that – to indulge in hyperbole – the time for alt-norteño has come.
ALT-NORTEÑO PREDECESSORS AND THEIR LIMITS
The list of artists that have sought to incorporate elements of norteña within something that could be labeled an “alternative scene” is a long one.
Setting an arbitrary timeline, works such as Mexican cult-figure Jaime López and his 1999 album Nordaka comes to mind…so does Café Tacvba’s 1994 smash hit single “Ingrata.” Sufficient to say that more than a decade ago there was an entire “tribute album” dedicated to Los Tigres del Norte that included tracks from the likes of Ely Guerra and Maldita Vecindad.
More recently, Norte Sonoro, a workshop set up by Nrmal in Monterrey, saw artists like Algodón Egipcio and Zizek’s Chancha Vía Circuito collaborating with Los Cardencheros de Sapioriz or Javier Villareal from Bronco (a promising EP is set to come out soon).
However, running the danger of over-generalizing, most of these attempts have not been able to approach the norteño genre without at least a whiff of irony. From a certain “cultured” middle-class vantage point, norteño music is thought to be “low brow” and hence somewhat humorous to adopt; often, this top-down view is casted as an attempt to “rescue” norteña by infusing it with “legitimate” music forms (basically, rock or electronica).
Take Nortec Collective – perhaps the obvious example to come to mind. It is hard to deny that the norteño aspect in Nortec is more or less a pun, while the electronic side is thought of as the serious artistic side. The collective’s project has been drenched in intentional kitsch from the beginning — from the borderline offensive Maquiladora de Sueños event (a border-sweatshop themed rave in 2001) that marks a keystone in their early career, to the more recent title of Clorofila’s solo album Corridos Urbanos (erasing in one instant the fact that corridos have long gone bypassed the ‘rural/urban’ dichotomy).
The images used in their album covers and screens during live shows, for example, tend to caricature and exoticize norteño cultural elements. As a poignant example of all of this, their first album did not include liner credits for the norteño musicians who actually produced the sounds used in the tracks (something that has been corrected in subsequent albums). Bostich and Fussible have admitted to begin delving into norteño records after the success of their first release as members of the Collective.
Indeed, even in the laudable Norte Sonoro project mentioned above, there’s still a sense in which the actual “artists” – the creators – are the electronic musicians who see the norteño musicians as more passive “material” to work with.
Musical merit aside, kitsch poses a limitation. If something like an alt-norteño is to emerge, it must find virtue in the norteño form itself…it must be directly drawn to the possibilities it offers. And this is what becomes immediately exciting about the batch of new projects presented below.
In a recent interview with Juan Cirerol –finding a corner in the busy offices of Discos Intolerancia, where he crashes when in Mexico City – I asked about his often riveting live performances:
“There seems to be something special going on, like there is a little bull or lion wanting to get out.”
He pauses for moment. “You are right,” he answers in a pensive tone, pausing once again before adding: “There’s a lot of things I haven’t been able to bring out with my music or with anything else…I think I am going to have to get on stage with a machine-gun and shoot at the crowd.” By the end of the phrase, Cirerol has a subtle smirk on his face knowing he has stepped over a line, finding some enjoyment in it. Admitting to having started writing songs to show people “how much he hated them,” Cirerol’s music is traversed by a sense of urgency like very few artists out there.
True, he jokes, he doesn’t hate people as much now that he has a bit of money, but there is this raw surface quality to his sound that is made all the more evident by the endearing and haunting passages that lurk around each turn in his songs – where frantic strumming and bravado can turn into a gentle waltz melody in an instant.
To be sure, there is much more than norteño going on in his music. Indeed, music critics delight in listing comparisons (the growing convention is to list one norteño artist, one punk-rocker, and one country singer). The comparisons do not provide an entirely incorrect description, but they are much more telling of a rare quality in Cirerol’s music: its tendency to send ‘mixed signals’ — making it possible for different audiences to pick up different references while missing others.
Cirerol himself is well-versed in the intricacies of norteño: in the interview, he was keen to point out that his music is really closer to “sierreña” than to conjunto (citing as references Miguel y Miguel, Los Alegres de La Sierra, and Tigrillo Palma) and pointing to Los Pikadientes de Caborca as “one of the most innovative bands of the decade” (he has incorporated at least 4 of their songs into his repertoire). It is also true that his grandfather, who has had a big influence in his life – and who spent some time as a bracero in the U.S. – listens to American country music. Cirerol himself spent part of his teenage years playing in punk bands.
The key to his work, however, is not so much that he has mixed and matched these sources in equal parts, but rather that he has undertaken the much more radical move of channeling disparate influences through norteña structure – finding in corridos the perfect venue for his quasi-beat poetry, submitting the “down and out” personae of the country singer through the prism of norteño swagger.
The album El Ventarrón (2010) opens with a joyful and upbeat burst of horns that quickly enters into contrast with a soft and gentle voice.
David Aguilar sings, “Se ha soltado la música del viento/wind music is out on the loose,” almost as an invocation. The brass is laying out bouncy riffs common in banda sinaloense, but they lack that raspy drag so present in contemporary banda. It throws the listener off. By the time the snare drum kicks in and starts its build-up it is obvious that we are listening to sinaloense — but it is one that is underpinned by a nuanced retro feel that is both disconcerting and captivating.
Himself originally from Culiacan, Sinaloa, at 28 Aguilar is already well positioned within the trova scene in Mexico, touring the country and amassing internet followers. By the time El Ventarrón came about, he had four albums plus a couple collections of songs floating around. These albums were mostly based on acoustic guitar arrangements and spanned from an almost gimmicky experimentation in an early period to beautifully crafted songs that subtly built on a series of popular music genres (bolero, ranchera, South American folk).
In “Diálogos de Metralleta” from the album Tornazul, Aguilar superimposes a corrido melody over an abstract chord progression, which foreshadowed what was to come: a full-blown banda sinaloense record which was somewhat of a curve-ball, and the results: impressive. The harmonic variation and arrangements throughout the album make sinaloense music connect to both banda oaxaqueña and east European music in an effortless and seamless flow.
Think of Beirut’s March of the Zapotec but substitute indie-rock sensibility for chest-thumping chun-tan-tan chun-tan-tan melancholy. “Compadecete” is one of these pieces, opening with luscious brass arrangements that give way to an elegant waltz lullaby carried on the back of a wobbling tuba. Sure, the music is over-thought, but it somehow does not loose its honesty – indeed, “Compadecete” becomes hard to imagine played in any other way.
Aguilar’s music builds its innovations on the basis of a clear knowledge and appreciation for the sinaloense form.
Sporting a glossy Mad Max-like stage outfit (some sort of cross between a biker and a guerrilla fighter), Régulo Caro banks on shock value. His backing band often wears ski-masks and stylized bullet-proof vests, impersonating the hit-men of the Mexican drug cartels.
Caro is part of a wave of narco-corrido artists (like those of the Movimiento Alterado or his cousin Gerardo Ortiz) that have made a name for themselves in a very competitive niche with “corridos pesados,” known for lyrics ridden with crude and explicit images from the ongoing drug war in Mexico.
Given the current situation in the country, the commercial exploitation of the “aesthetics” of the drug war is off-putting, to say the least. But Régulo Caro hides a great deal of complexity behind the superficial shtick of the hard-core drug-balladeer.
Himself originally from Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Caro is no stranger to the violence that has taken the country by storm – in fact, his own brother (who was a norteño music promoter and manager) was gunned down after a show. But the immediate sign of something deeper going on in his music is the ambitiousness in the composition on both of his albums so far.
He has embraced the term “corridos progresivos” to describe a set of drug ballads that break with conventional corrido chord progression and lyrical structure while getting inventive with arrangements. In his songs, the tuba and accordion ricochet off each other creating a double kick pedal effect. The strumming on the bajo-sexto moves away from polka and takes on this spliced huapango rhythm that is mimicked by the drums, making the tune forge ahead in a permanent gallop.
Even in his admittedly less captivating “anti-corridos” (basically poppy love songs), there’s playfulness in the quirky chords he throws into the fray. The emergence of the term “anti-corridos” is interesting in itself, however, because it points to his awareness of an exhaustion in the narco-corrido palette and his attempt to overcome this. It is in his lyrics where we truly find bursts of a new era opening up in the genre.
Sure, for the most part, his songs are odes to the romanticized figure of the hit-man (even here, however, he stands out for shying away from the now conventional boasts of wealth and womanizing running through the narco-corrido genre; bragging instead about having gunman skills and delving into bizarre moralistic rants about the “rules of the game”).
Behind the shout outs to the hit-men and calls to get “calloused fingers” hide flares of powerful social commentary. In “Dinero por Sangre” out of his 2010 debut, Caro sings:
Cuando el hambre es perra, sobran los modales.… Cambian dinero por sangre…la misma plebada que traen de los ranchos ahora trae sistemas militarizados…al gobierno asustan…a esto se dedican estos mercenarios/ When hunger gets tough, manners stop mattering…they exchange money for blood…the same folks they bring from the small ranches are now the ones with militarized systems…scaring the government…this is what these mercenaries do for a living.
In an eerie moment of self-reflection in the opening track of his recently released Amor en Tiempos de Guerra, Caro warns:
Sociedad extrema …el heroe de tus hijos es quien sabe usar un cuerno/ extreme society…the heroes of your children are those that know how to use a machine-gun.
The track ends with a chilling chorus of boys and girls singing: “We are the children of war.” These passages in his songs do not erase the ‘ideological inconsistencies’ of his work, but – and perhaps precisely because of these inconsistencies – they infuse his songs with a raw political relevance that very few artists in any genre can pull off.
Cirerol, Aguilar, and Caro have shown a unique ability to innovate from within norteño form and structure. The creativity as well as the tensions present in these artists point to a continued expansion of norteño music. Whether this expansion will actually come to fruition as a self-standing sub-genre is still hard to tell.
Ultimately, Cirerol, Aguilar, and Caro, are making great music and this is all that should matter. But, one thing is certain, the final arrival of alt-norteño will depend on the existence of an audience ready to listen.