I wrote this a couple years ago for Maura Magazine; I reprint it here with their kind permission.
“He’s really good,” said my librarian Fatima, handing me the new Noel Torres CD. She’d seen him live in Chicago a few months back. I’d never heard of the guy — when it comes to library CDs, I have no standards and few expectations. La Estructura, featuring Torres’s perfectly trimmed hair and penetrating scowl, immediately moved to the top of my stack.
Fatima knew what she was talking about. When you hear La Estructura, the most appropriate response is awe, followed by abject humility and despair because you will never create anything as good or alive or technically accomplished, as upending of your expectations. “I can’t even fathom what his band is doing,” went my first attempt at an explanation. Torres is a young man from the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. He sings, plays the accordion, writes most of his songs, and leads a four-piece norteño band as well as an occasional brass band. His unadorned singing gets the job done; at all other tasks he is a motherfucker. Tossing off blazing accordion riffs with the “top this!” spirit of ‘80s hair metal, he leads his band through variations on polkas and waltzes. But while much Sinaloan norteño music simply bounces along, arid and sparse, the Torres band fills every instant with rambunctious noise. Tuba and bajo quinto fall all over each other, the drummer bashes like he’s playing on a John Zorn record, and somehow all this craziness congeals into steady pulses and familiar forms. My second attempt at explanation was one word: “brutal.”
After grappling with the musical achievement of Noel Torres, the next natural response is to Google him as you would any inexplicable phenomenon. You’ll quickly learn that he likes to pose for pictures with his accordion, faceless women, and a big fucking arsenal of guns. This is not uncommon for young Sinaloan men who sing narcocorridos, or drug ballads, just as it’s not uncommon for them to be singing drug ballads in the first place. (In his book Narcocorrido, Elijah Wald visits Sinaloa and discovers “drug ballads here are simply called ‘corridos’; it would be tautological to append the ‘narco’ prefix, since in Sinaloa there is no other corrido theme.”) Torres belongs to a loose affiliation of wannabe millionaires called El Movimiento Alterado, compiled and branded with commercial savvy by the producers Los Twiins, the Valenzuela brothers of Southern California. Since 2010 the milieu’s released 12 compilations plus numerous individual albums, their covers full of steely scowls, impassive body language, jackets and lapels. There’s also an underground movement, musically rougher and even more gun-obsessed, represented by the Fresno label Hyphy Music Inc. (That’s where the word “hyphy” went!) [Note: I would later learn that the gun obsession isn’t true of all Hyphy acts; but more on that later/elsewhere…] All these guys — and they’re all guys, even if their fans aren’t — take publicity shots holding accordions, guns, and copious amounts of ammo, with a few exceptions. Pretty boy band Los 2 Primos seems to favor kung fu moves, for instance.
Musically, they’re the horrorcore movement of corridos, rooted in the turn-of-the-’90s realism of Chalino Sánchez. Wald writes, “Older corrido fans in the Sierra Madre or the northern deserts were attracted [to Chalino] by the same thing that excited the young punks in LA: Chalino was the real thing, a fiercely accurate corridista chronicling the world around him.” Chalino is well known for getting into a gunfight from a Coachella stage, then winding up assassinated four months later, dumped beside a ditch in Culiacan. He also liked being photographed with accordions, guns, and ammo, and his lyrics savored the gory details of cartel hits. In one of those ironies that’s defined parent-child musical tastes since forever, Fatima’s dad is a big Chalino fan but thinks these new guys are a bunch of idiots. Those old school corridistas knew how to tell a real story.
When I went back to the library, mind blown, to rave about Torres to Fatima, she nodded sensibly like I’d just discovered Lake Michigan and told me to check out Gerardo Ortiz, another movement guy who’s bigger than Torres. You never see Torres in a hat, but Ortiz wears his cowboy hat a lot, and he just scored a giant hit — #2 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs, which also tracks reggaeton, bachata, Latin pop/rock, and occasionally something weird like “My Humps” — with “Dámaso,” a speedy and glorious banda waltz that Ortiz sings in character, as the son of one of the Sinaloa cartel’s most powerful officials. Fatima’s dad is right: Ortiz doesn’t tell any sort of story in “Dámaso,” opting instead for character study and power-by-association, turning himself into the big man of the corrido scene by impersonating “El Mini Licenciado.” (“The little lawyer” — imagine, in The Godfather, if Tom Hagen had a hothead son.) If you’re thinking “this sounds like rap” you’re not far off, at least in terms of iconography and swagger and blurring the lines between personae and real life. Case in point: Ortiz himself became the target of gunfire back in 2011, in an attack that killed his driver and his cousin. The case remains unresolved.
“Dámaso” is unusual for a Hot Latin hit because it’s explicitly in the corrido tradition. More often, corrido acts sneak into the top 10 with romantic songs but see their corridos stall in the teens or 20s, sort of like hard rock acts hitting with power ballads. Fatima says when she first saw Noel Torres in 2012 “he was a nobody, he was playing a sports complex.” Less than a year later, he was playing Chicago’s Aragon ballroom and “everybody was screaming for ‘Adivina’” — Torres’s first big single, a pretty banda romántica that sounds vaguely sociopathic in his unaffected voice. “Adivina” did its job; it got Torres onto the radio [Ed: this isn’t exactly true, see the comments below], raised his profile, and lured more young women to the Aragon to witness his accordion heroics and hear corridos like his second 2013 single “La Estructura,” a blazing documentary peek inside the workings of a cartel. “La Estructura” went nowhere on the singles chart, but it did inspire a big budget video with opening credits and sets and shit; it reminds me of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” video. A romantic hit also hipped Fatima to Ortiz, when she “fell in love with ‘Amor Confuso.’” Now she enjoys most of their music, even if she has problems with the general subject matter.
I don’t mean to suggest that Regional Mexican musical tastes divide neatly along some boy/girl split. By the time Fatima was three, she could discern her family’s cassettes of Los Tigres del Norte from Los Tucanes de Tijuana. The musicians themselves consider romantic songs chart bait for females, but plenty of women like corridos and plenty of men, including me, enjoy the bandas románticas that currently dominate Latin radio. They dominate, in part, because Sinaloan officials have often tried to ban narcocorridos from radios and concerts. Though the Mexican Supreme Court overturned one such ban in February, corridos still have underground caché and many critics.
Which brings us to a second, dicier, sociological issue surrounding this stuff: when singers glorify real-life violence, how far is too far, and who has the right to weigh in? As Chief Keef scholars can attest, such discussions get painful. Fatima isn’t too bothered by Ortiz and Torres, and she’d go to one of their concerts again, but she tries to stay away from most corrido singers because “they make it seem like a joke. You shouldn’t glamorize it, it’s something to take seriously and Mexico needs to deal with it. Where I’m from, we can’t go back there for a little bit.” Fatima’s family is from Durango, which borders Sinaloa to the east; the sparsely populated state is home to a million fewer people than Chicago, but suffered hundreds more homicides in 2011. At one point Fatima’s uncle found himself being followed and his truck stolen. She tells me a group of homeless people were found slaughtered, one hanged, in the mountains near her family’s ranch, and adds, “I don’t even want to go there because I’m scared I might not come back.” The U.S. government concurs: on July 12 of this year, the State Department advised, “You should defer non-essential travel to the state of Durango.” That’s easy for the U.S. to say; since the Sinaloa Cartel largely exists to feed America’s huge drug appetite, and since our dysfunctional drug policy has rendered the Cartel illicit, we’re not exactly helping the problem. A 2012 study by the Mexcian Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO) figured if the U.S. legalized marijuana, Mexican drug cartels would lose 30 percent of their revenue.
But we were talking pop songs. Radio friendly unit shifters. Though Fatima’s family is from Durango, she grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Starting about a decade ago, Chicago musicians with Durango roots got big playing duranguense, a super quick variation on banda music with keyboards taking the horn parts. The hits compilation Radio Exitos: El Disco Del Año 2008 was about one third duranguense bands, including Chicago acts like Grupo Montéz, Alacranes Musical, and Los Horóscopos de Durango. Though the comp also included banda, tierra caliente, and tejano songs, duranguense dominated the sound of radio exitos in ‘08. Not any more. Disa Records’ latest disco del año is half Sinaloan and overwhelmingly brassy, with even the opportunistic Los Horóscopos scoring a banda hit. (The Horóscopos show I caught in 2011 was half banda; the brass players did energetic little brass dances during the keyboard songs.) Duranguense singer Diana Reyes has also “gone banda” — her 2011 banda album Ajustando Cuentas features a duet with the late Jenni Rivera and a cover photo of Reyes standing in the desert, a bunch of ammo strapped across her bosom. One of Chicago’s five Latin music radio stations, La Ley 107.9, recently changed its slogan from “Más y Más Musica” to “Banda y Más.” Nationwide, seven of Billboard’s top 25 Latin songs are from Sinaloan acts, right up there with Puerto Rican reggaeton and modern bachata from the Bronx. Sinaloa — with its sounds, visuals, and nostalgia for edgy violence — has regained its hold on Mexican pop.
Bandas románticas aim beyond their ranchera roots, another factor behind their chart hoggery. Led by young songwriters like Luciano Luna (“Adivina”) and Espinoza Paz, they ignore drug violence, opting instead for the violence love wreaks upon men’s hearts. (Again, men. Los Horóscopos is fronted by two sisters, but as I write, the Regional Mexican Top 20 is a total chorizo fest.) As depicted on Disa’s excellent compilation Las Bandas Románticas de América 2013, today’s romantic banda singles rarely sound like the polkas and waltzes of narcocorridos. They have richer chord changes, for one thing: corridos usually orient themselves around three major chords (I, IV, and V) but these ballads borrow progressions and minor chords from U.S. pop music, so you get the full range of romantic longing and despair. They also have a bounce all their own: more backbeat than polka, more strut than waltz, and as Brad Shoup writes, “echoes of doo-wop in the tuba.” (He wrote that about Roberto Tapia’s “Mirando al Cielo,” which my wife’s music student Emily recently knocked out of the park on Telemundo’s singing contest La Voz Kids.) Listening on the radio, there are stretches where it seems these swinging beats and billowing horns could go on forever, futzing with chords and licks here and there as they asymptotically approach the musical ideal of amor.
Fatima chalks it all up to a fad. “People see that [narc] lifestyle as cool, and that music goes with that lifestyle,” she says. “You know the saying ‘sex sells’ — the whole corrido narc thing sells right now.” In turn, the vogue for Sinaloan narcocorridos has raised the state’s profile to benefit all its music, violent or romantic. Gerardo Ortiz’s “Dámaso” would concur. Striding into town amid brass charts that explode like fireworks, Dámaso declares himself the son of Culiacan and his gente, remembers el rancho of his youth, heaps respect and expensive jewelry upon las mujeres, and “trae la pistola al cinto” — “brings the gun in his belt.” Who’s gonna argue with him?