Today we extend a warm NorteñoBlog welcome to Manuel Martinez-Luna. Manuel is a 31-year-old New York native, having cut a swath from Yonkers to Queens. You know him as the blog’s top commenter, which has led to an exciting new job (tambora roll…) writing for NorteñoBlog! (First article coming soon.) (No, there’s no money in it.) In his spare time, Manuel works as a compilations coordinator for The Orchard, a digital distribution arm of Sony Music, creating Regional Mexican compilations under the brand name Club Corridos. (Nice logo.) In alphabetical order, his favorites artists are Los Alegres del Barranco, the Beatles, Vicente Fernández, Ratt, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
We recently talked by phone for almost an hour about growing up in Yonkers, how Manuel came to love norteño music, how Hispanic and white people view narcocorridos, and his karaoke triumphs and fails. Here’s the edited transcript:
NorteñoBlog: What was the first popular music you ever remember loving? How did you hear it? What did you love about it?
Manuel Martinez-Luna: I would say it was hip hop. I got more aware of the artists and particular songs in middle school. Jay-Z and, when I used to live in Yonkers, the Lox — I still listen to them. For the most part it was the beats, the instruments they used, but also the lyrics — some songs might have been a little bit more street-oriented or violent, but a lot of the the things they said I could definitely relate to. The struggle, growing up in the inner city, was not that uncommon from the type of life I had — and not just me, but a lot of people can relate to not having enough money to get school clothes for the new year, or whatever it may be. Your plumbing doesn’t work during the winter, so you have to heat up your bath water in a big pot and then pour it over yourself to take a shower. Like the landlord, sometimes you ask him, “Come by and fix my damn pipes!” You know, they take a while, and you can’t show up to school smelly.
NB: What kind of music did your parents listen to? Did you find yourself liking what they liked, rebelling against their taste, or what?
MML: All Mexican music, primarily rancheros — you know, Vicente Fernandez, Antonio Aguilar — stuff like that. My dad would listen to corridos, but mostly more old school stuff — Los Alegres de Terán, Los Huracanes del Norte, like those guys? My mom would listen to very obscure female groups, I can’t remember their name right now. I think their name was Las Jilgueras something… [NB note: Las Jilguerillas?]
Honestly, when I was younger, I just didn’t get it — I thought it was kind of hokey and too old school or whatever. I would hear it in the background all the time, Saturday mornings my mom and dad would put on their music and we would go about our business, but at that time I just didn’t get it. You know, I wasn’t into it.
That changed around 2006, 2007, I heard a — I think the very first corrido that I heard where I actually paid attention to it was Los Tucanes de Tijuana, “El Centenario.” Even though it’s a narcocorrido, talking about drugs and all that, it’s also the story of this particular guy who comes from very humble circumstances and he doesn’t like his way of life. He can’t attain formal education or he doesn’t see any other way to progress in life, so he turns to drug trafficking, which I don’t necessarily condone. But I guess in that situation, where your back is against the wall, and you don’t wanna earn pennies a day, this guy figures, “I could make a lot more money this way. I went from making pennies a day to now making a ton of money” — I definitely understand it.
That’s the first song where I listened to the lyrics and got the picture. That’s my introduction to the whole thing, and after that I went searching for more stuff, whether it was love songs, narcocorridos, whatever it may be.
Two or three years ago, I was talking with my dad, and I was like, “Dad, the music you listen to is cool and all but have you listened to these new artists?” and he was like, “Uuuum, all right, I’ll take a shot,” so I burned him a CD — newer stuff, I think I put Arley Perez, I put in Los Buitres de Sinaloa, Los Herederos del Norte — not as well known groups, but things that at the time I was listening to. He hated it — “Not really my cup of tea.” Just smiled and said, “Thanks, thanks anyway for the CD.” He’s not really into the new school. They’re both not really into it — I guess the new school that they’re into, it’s mostly love songs, like Jenni Rivera-type.
NB: I guess I should just clarify — your parents’ ancestry goes back to Mexico?
MML: Yeah, both my parents emigrated here.
NB: How did you first get into Chalino Sanchez and Los Alegres de Barranco?
MML: I’ve been listening to Los Alegres since around 2009 — I don’t know how I came across them, probably on Youtube, something like that. I really like them because of three things:
1. They just have some of the best lyrics in my opinion — their lyrics are not as overt, they don’t push it in your face, certain subjects. I don’t know if you’ve heard a song they’ve made called “Las Dos Fincas.” I like that song, it obviously talks about trafficking and cartel structure, but they use a [farm] property to take the place of actually stating that lifestyle.
2. I love the way the accordion guy plays his accordion, he’s great, I think he’s the best right now, or one of the best. The rest of the members too, they’re great. A lot of the groups I feel like they stick to certain notes throughout their career or throughout a song. [With Los Alegres,] especially the accordion guy has mastered his instrument, it comes out really smooth. Also their voices — some bands will be a little too nasally, some will be a little too deep, it just sounds a little “off.” These guys just have the right voice for this genre.
3. They don’t do the stupid gimmicks onstage — some groups will dress up in camo, wear a bulletproof vest or whatever, a fake bazooka.
Chalino, I got into him fairly recently, about two years ago. I had obviously heard about him but for some reason I never go into him, and then I listened to “Desilucion” and that song is just amazing. It tugs on your heart strings. If you know what he’s saying, you’re gonna feel it. One of my top three personal favorites from that guy.
NB: NPR recently ran an article on new corridos about El Chapo’s escape, and they wrote, “Whether or not you listen to narcocorridos has a lot to do with where in Mexico you live: Teenagers in Sinaloa, El Chapo’s home state, often jam out to them, while teenagers in Mexico City are more likely to see them as crass.” This is a dynamic I’ve noticed in the U.S. too — not just different people liking different kinds of music, which you would expect, but some Latino people being actively embarrassed by norteno music — and I wonder whether this comes up in your own life.
MML: I could just point to my dad, and I sense that he thinks that all those bands that sing that type of music, that’s all they do. 24/7, that’s all they talk about. But there’s more to it than just the narcocorridos. These bands, they sometimes feel pressure to put in these songs because that’s what the younger kids expect from them. But once they get in that [narcocorrido], they also have a ton of really great stuff — romantic songs, heartbreak songs, party songs. There are Hispanic people that are embarrassed by it, but I think it’s because narcocorridos get all the attention, so maybe they figure, “That’s all they do.” And that’s not the case. I would say my library is about 40% narcocorridos, and the rest is love songs, heartbreak songs, party songs.
NB: Do you feel like, even if Hispanic people know it’s not just narcocorridos, they feel like the outside world or white U.S. culture sees it as just narcocorridos, and so that’s part of the embarrassment?
MML: It could be that. I mean, in this day and age where someone like Donald Trump says illegal Mexican immigrants are rapists and whatever else, I think… some Hispanics view narcocorridos saying, “You’re making it worse for the rest of us.”
It’s a weird thing because I think Hispanics know that narcocorridos are popular, but then when I talk to my [mostly white] colleagues at my job… When we first started creating this [Club Corridos] brand and I first started talking to them, some of the biggest songs on the catalog are narcocorridos, and they were like “Really?” They didn’t know about it. They thought because it has an accordion and because it has this bouncy rhythm to it, that it was just all party songs. I don’t know what the perception is from white America. In my own experience, they didn’t really know that narcocorridos existed.
NB: What are the most common misconceptions about norteño music?
MML: Maybe sometimes some car rolls by and you hear some guy blasting accordion corridos, you might get the impression they’re just talking about drinking tequila and living on a farm somewhere in Mexico — which, you know, sometimes that is the case. Maybe it’s not seen as sophisticated, or it doesn’t it have any substance to it, when in reality it does. A lot of times Los Tigres del Norte sing about immigration issues. Calibre 50 recently had a song called “El Imigrante.” They talk about social issues, it’s not just about one particular thing. I think one misconception is there’s no substance, but there really is. It’s definitely a genre of the streets, of the people, it’s got its good and it has its bad, but it definitely has substance.
Another misconception is that this genre is strictly a Mexican thing, but according to our numbers and sales data, a lot of the sales, maybe more than 60%, comes from the U.S. Mexican-American people, young people are huge fans of this, and it’s not — I think some Hispanic people have this idea it’s very crass, lower-rungs-of-society-type people, but it’s a mix of all kinds of classes.
NB: With El Komander turning to drinking songs and El Movimiento Alterado less popular, do you sense that narcocorridos are fading in popularity? Or just the ones featuring over-the-top violence?
MML: I think there was a backlash against them in particular. I kind of compare them to Puff Daddy in his whole shiny suit era — they just became way over the top, more into the look rather than the substance of the songs. Their look was glitzy. Komander in one video has on an assault vest custom tailored with a burberry pattern — I mean, come on! I get what he’s trying to do, it’s a music video, you can have a lot of leeway in your music videos, but sometimes it comes off a little stupid. I think a lot of people grew tired of it. You know, “The first time you mentioned the word bazooka, that was great, but what else do you have?”
I think they’re starting to feel it, because to me it doesn’t seem like their artists are as popular. I don’t think narcocorridos are going down in popularity. I just think that people are searching for songs that feel like the person put some real thought into them, and fit the puzzle just right to make this tapestry of lyrics and words in a way to describe a situation without hitting you over the head with it.
NB: Tell me about your karaoke practices: how often do you go? What makes a good karaoke jam?
MML: Where do i start? I guess I would say about three times a year. So definitely what makes a great karaoke session is a lot of people, alcohol of course, songs that you really feel, and it also helps if you already know the lyrics. A couple times I’ve nailed corrido songs, and nobody else knows what the hell I’m talking about, but I feel it. So that’s the key ingredients to a great karaoke session.
One of my worst experiences was when my friend and I, we decided to do [Jay-Z’s] “99 Problems.” [NB note: Many days this is NorteñoBlog’s favorite song.] But you gotta remember, we were pretty drunk at that moment. And we were like, “This is the song to end the night!” We went into it, and it was — oh man — it was really bad to look at. It was so bad, this random lady just walks up to my friend and takes his mic and shakes her head like, “No.”