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El Komander y Los Twiins: Hombres de Negocios

adolfo valenzuela

If you haven’t used up your monthly allotment of free articles over at Bloomberg Businessweek, NorteñoBlog encourages you to check out journalist David Peisner’s profile of El Komander, the Blog’s 2016 Artist of the Year, and Los Twiins, arguably the most influential producers in the genre and noted purveyors of Candy Everybody Wants. Warning: It has the clickbaity gringo-scandalizing headline “This Guy Made a Fortune Off Mexican Drug Ballads. Now He’s Selling Love Songs.” Second warning: That headline pretty much sums up the article. But within that framing, you get highlights like:

— Adolfo Valenzuela, one of Los Twiins, reminiscing about some of his adolescent banda gigs. “‘We used to play for Chalino,’ Adolfo says. ‘I remember him being always surrounded by mafia people. He’d hire us to play and be sitting the whole time, just drinking. Then he’d sing one song and go into the restroom to do cocaine or something.'”

— The “Star is Born” account of Komander’s audition for the Twiins. “‘My cousin was calling me saying, “I have somebody that works for me that comes from Sinaloa, that has no papers, and says he wants to do music,” ’ Omar [Valenzuela] recalls. ‘I told him, “Please don’t bother me. I’m busy.” ’ Eventually he relented and invited Ríos in to sing for him and his brother. ‘We were blown away,’ Omar says. ‘He’s not that much of a singer, but he was real. He writes whatever he feels about whatever was going on in Culiacán. Mexico at that time was really dangerous, as it is now, but you never heard people [singing] before about decapitating.'”

— This article also supports the contention, which I first heard from Sam Quinones when researching Ariel Camacho, that “movimiento alterado” has moved from being a proper, Twiins-associated brand into a more generic realm. “Alterado” corridos aren’t just the bloody decapitations found in songs like “Sanguinarios del M1.” They’re also the narrative-free corrido style we live these days — celebrations of wealth and glamor, often praising or impersonating real life cartel bosses by name. In this sense, Gerardo Ortiz‘s “Dámaso” could be a defining song of alterado movimiento, even though Ortiz recorded it after severing formal ties with Los Twiins.

los twiins snoop— Quinones and the Valenzuelas disagree as to whether this is a good thing. Quinones told me the alterado style is “a corruption of the corrido’s original intent,” which is to celebrate underdogs. But in the Bloomberg article, Adolfo says that’s the point. “’It’s not like before, when they were like, “I’m going to work hard like my parents,”’ Adolfo says. ‘This new generation has learned they can make more money, have luxuries, be bigger or better than their parents. They all love that feeling of power, which had never been felt before in Mexican music. Because before it was love and sadness. It was never about power.'”

Peisner sums things up with an excellent point: “It’s possible to see the alterado movement as a defiant howl from fans who’ve frequently felt marginalized, threatened, and even emasculated by the immigration debate on the U.S. side of the border and by the raging war on the other side.” So read the whole thing. If you faithfully follow Mexican music, you’ve probably read some of it in articles elsewhere: the capsule summary of Chalino’s career; Adolfo Valenzuela justifying his work by saying he’s just giving the people what they want; the comparisons to “gangsta rap”; the real life violence that’s killed musicians and their associates; the Mexican government haplessly demonizing narcocorridos. Peisner wrote the first ever regional Mexican article for this general interest publication, so he pretty much had to cover those bases, even though they hog the spotlight in story after story.

The Blog tends to side with Komander himself, who complains late in the article, “The term ‘narcocorrido’ bothers me. El Komander sings about horses, about cockfights.” But I still learned plenty, and besides all their musical virtues and ethical conundrums, the Valenzuela Twiins are among the most quotable interview subjects around.

VALE LA PENA

Julión Álvarez’s Frozen Assets and the U.S. Treasury’s Overheated Rhetoric

alvarez press conference

NorteñoBlog top commenter Eric encourages me to address the current legal and financial travails of the continent’s best voice, Julión Álvarez. Challenge extended! If, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, “anybody with a computer can be a journalist,” her operative word remains “can.” Speaking from personal experience, most of us “computer havers” maintain such extensive to-do lists of huapango videos and jazz podcasts that important stories can fall between the keys. But I’ll give it a go.

In 2007, after singing with Banda MS for three years, 24-year-old Álvarez went solo. With a drumless, tuba-bottomed trio, he released his first album Corazón Mágico under the name Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda. Since then he’s remained as prolific and consistent as Electric Six or someone, releasing a studio album almost every year — including the best album of 2014, Soy Lo Que Quiero…Indispensable — along with several live albums and collections. He’s grown into the biggest solo norteño star who’s not named Gerardo Ortiz, reliably scoring romantic radio hits in two countries, plus mentoring young singers and judging La Voz… México. Until his recent troubles hit, he was set to judge the latest season of La Voz Kids, too. In 2015 he was Spotify’s most-streamed artist in Mexico.

Along the way, Álvarez started operating some music-related businesses. Germane to our story, his name is on the paperwork for the company that produces his concerts, Noryban Productions; a small ticketing agency, Ticket Boleto; and his publisher, JCAM Editora Musical, “JCAM” being the initials of his birth name, Julio Cesar Alvarez Montelongo. Also along the way, he met a friendly businessman named Raul Flores Hernandez. “If you met him [Flores Hernandez], you’d probably like him,” says one former official of the U.S. DEA. A lot of people liked Flores Hernandez, including fútbol star Rafael Marquez, who also now finds himself in the shit.

Unbeknownst to these innocents (or so they claim), Flores Hernandez also ran a cocaine cartel. Business Insider describes how he operated independently of the big, more violent cartels, while also skillfully mediating between them. In March, he was indicted in D.C. and California for trafficking and money laundering; he was then arrested in Jalisco in July. Shortly after that, on August 9, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) List, the registry of people it prevents U.S. citizens from doing business with. Of 21 Mexican citizens and 42 companies, the two biggest names were Rafael Marquez and Julión Álvarez, along with those three Álvarez-owned companies listed earlier. The charge was money laundering.

Money laundering is, of course, a time-honored aspect of the music industry, which until recently has been lathered in obscene amounts of money. Hilarious stories abound, inovolving everyone from Australian promoter Andrew McManus to Spanish singer Isabel Pantoja to American rap exec Irv Gotti. (“Mr. Gotti’s friend, Kenneth McGriff, known as Supreme on the streets of Queens… would simply send bags of cash to Mr. Gotti’s label, Murder Inc.”) The Treasury contends Álvarez and the others have “held assets” on Flores Hernandez’s behalf, and that’s why they’ve canceled Álvarez’s visa, frozen all his U.S. assets, and forbidden Americans from doing business with him. Seriously — try finding his music on U.S. Spotify any more. (Eric adds, “His music was removed from my iTunes account…”)

After the accusation of laundering has come the inevitable spin cycle. Álvarez admits he met Flores Hernandez years ago, at a club in Guadalajara, but thought the narco was a concert promoter. He denies they ever did business together. Whether his assets will ever thaw remains a cold, delicate question. (A Mexican judge recently ordered Marquez’s assets unfrozen, but that was before the world discovered Marquez’s madre once bought a substantial hunk of property with Flores Hernandez. Ay-yi-yi.) Álvarez continues to play concerts in Mexico, but the loss of U.S. streaming and touring revenue has gotta hurt him financially.

As NorteñoBlog tries to iron out this story’s wrinkles, my feelings are a wash. (OK, I’ll stop now.) On the one hand, I can totally believe that Álvarez, as an inexperienced businessman, unwittingly laundered money for a narco, especially given how closely the Mexican cartel world associates with the Mexican music world. Similar things have happened all over the world, so why not in Mexico too? Maybe Álvarez even knew what he was doing. Given the sad history of other Mexican singers who, wittingly or not, got too close to the cartels and were shot for their trouble, give Álvarez this: if frozen U.S. assets are his stiffest penalty, his fate could be infinitely worse.

On the other hand, I could also believe our over-zealous Administration is making an example of some famous Mexicans by overstating the dastardly nature of some trumped-up “crimes.” And I’d still believe that, even if this operation began under the Obama regime. For American politicians, the spectre of dark skinned people selling us drugs is an irresistible excuse to act tough, rather than effectively. Our Treasury Department is sure making a point of crowing: “This action marks the largest single Kingpin Act action against a Mexican drug cartel network that OFAC has designated.” And some of the coverage given this story has been predictably awful, with Breitbart’s Warehouse of Questionable Capitalization (no link) sanctimoniously calling Álvarez a “Narco-Music Superstar,” “known for praising the drug trafficking lifestyle in his music.” Bullshit. If they’d paid attention to Álvarez at all before turning his name into racist clickbait, the computer-havers at Breitbart would know that, while the singer excels at corridos and romantic music, he’s far better known for the latter. Then they’d publish a list of white singers they love who have praised the drug consumption lifestyle in their music, and they’d ask themselves whether the two repertoires are in any way linked.

I don’t hold out hope.

Nice Going, 2016! (NorteñoBlog talks politics)

shia-trump

Trump Is President, the Cubs won the World Series, and Shia LaBeouf can freestyle… 2016 in a nutshell, I guess. I never thought in a million years this buffoon would get into the White House. I thought, “This country can’t be that stupid.” Boy, do I have pie on my face!

Every feeling has surfaced from the anti-Trump side, everything from anger to sadness to denial. There is apparently a petition to abolish the electoral college, but who knows if that is even possible to do.

One feeling is more common than others: Uncertainty. For millions of undocumented people and their families it means a very uncertain future. Will Trump keep his promise to deport all 12 million undocumented immigrants? Will he only go after habitual criminals? No one knows and that is what keeps people up at night.

I have family that is undocumented. I know undocumented people who have careers and stable jobs, planning their futures; that have been able to use their college education as a direct result of President Obama’s DACA executive action in 2012.

All of that can go flying out the window with the stroke of Trump’s gold plated pen. Muslim Americans are also feeling unsure of their future, along with African Americans. Will Stop and Frisk become a federal initiative with someone like Sheriff Clarke at the helm? Continue reading “Nice Going, 2016! (NorteñoBlog talks politics)”

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