Juan Mora Torres: Your book Narcocorrido was published a decade ago. Can you tell us what attracted you to Mexican corridos and, more specifically, narcocorridos?
Elijah Wald: There were a few different things. I had been playing Anglo folk music since I was a kid and had sampled some old ballads in English. I had spent some time in Mexico. When I first heard norteño music I didn’t really make the connection between English-language ballads and corridos. What turned it around for me was hearing Los Tigres del Norte’s album, Jefe the jefes. I still think this album is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. I don’t know if it is music or poetry. I heard that record and it seemed to be speaking more eloquently about the modern day Mexican immigrant experience than anything I’ve ever read. I wanted to know more about that and I found that there was essentially nothing written about it. Everybody talked about it as if it was some sort of stupid pop music. In the time I spent in Mexico I was acutely aware that the sort of people who Los Tigres del Norte were singing about represented over 90% of the Mexican population and most had never heard of Carlos Fuentes. I thought that Los Tigres del Norte’s songs were not just intelligent literature but really poetic literature that deserved to be treated that way.
Moreover, nobody was talking about the song writers (the corridistas). Literally I couldn’t find anything written on Paulino Vargas (a corrido writer) and that you couldn’t ask people about who is Paulino Vargas. Of course people in the Mexican music business knew the answer to that. The knowledgeable people were Djs, record store owners, musicians. With the exception of a few professors such as Luis Astorga and Helena Simonett, you couldn’t find professors who had heard of Paulino Vargas. I went to the International Conference on the Corrido in Los Angeles and the vast majority of people were, with few exceptions, talking about the corridos from the Mexican Revolution. If you mentioned Los Tigres del Norte, they would say “oh yeah those are movie corridos. Those aren’t real corridos.” Jesus Christ! The corridos in “Jefes de jefes” are not movie corridos. The stories told in these corridos are on the newspapers right now, just like the real corridos of the past.
The Mexican ballad, the corrido, has a very long history. One can make the claim that it is a product of the pre-modern era, but it continues to flourish in the present. How has the corrido adjusted to the historical changes of our times?
I think there are two answers to that. One of them is that the corrido has changed less than, for example, Anglo music. In the Middle Ages music was a way of carrying the news, a way of giving opinions of the news, and a sort of giving a picture of what the world looked like. I don’t think that tradition was ever lost in Mexico. I do need to say that there’s a few people in Mexico who argue that the corrido in Mexico comes out of pre-Columbian tradition. All I can say is that none of the corrido composers say that. They all say that it is an “herencia de los lugares medievales españoles.” I agree with them on that. The corrido has maintained true to that tradition that has been lost in most parts of the European and American worlds. The other part is that corridos have adapted to the modern media. It used to be something that people just sang in their villages. Then it became something that could be sung on the radio, followed by records. Now the most prominent way to disseminate corridos is YouTube. So there has been a huge change in the dissemination of the corrido, more so in some places than others. There are still people in Guerrero that are writing 15 or 20 minute long corridos. Once records came in most people started writing 3 minute or 6 minute ones if they were going to be recorded in 78s (long playing record).
Besides getting much shorter, corridos have become a lot more general. In the past you could assume that if you were singing in your village, everybody in your village knew who you were talking about. Now if you’re trying to write corridos that will sell, the commercial corridos, you have to write about what is in the national or international news. That has become a big part of corrido production. So if you’re Los Tigres del Norte or any group that wants to actually make money, you have to sell in the United States because the level of pirateria is high in Mexico. The sales are in the U.S.
As you have written, the corrido of the Texas-Mexican borderlands has historically dealt with issues of violence such as contraband and outlaws as heroes. A few examples come to mind such as “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” “El Contrabando de El Paso,” and the outlaw corridos of Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte and Los Cadetes de Linares. Today the production of popular corridos dealing with borderland issues, such as contraband and migration, have shifted from the Texas-Mexican northeast area to the Sinaloa-California corridor. What led to this shift in musical production?
I think there are two answers to that. One has to do with the shift of the recording industry. There was a huge recording industry in Texas and Monterrey and it simply has lost an awful lot of power to what is coming out of Los Angeles. That is where the multi-national corporate music is centered. There are lots of corridos being written in the Texas border region and one thing you have to think about is the difference between where corridos are being produced and which corridos are being heard internationally. In the past “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and the corridos of heroes and violence survived better than the ballads of horse races. I don’t think there were more corridos of heroes and violence than horse races. It is just that the ballads of horse races weren’t interesting to anyone outside of that world that was fascinated with horse races. Horse races were not fascinating to everybody. But you know people are still writing corridos about horse races. At the Texas border region there was a guy writing wonderful corridos on Texan football teams. These type of corridos do not have the audience like those of Los Tigres del Norte.
The other answer, of course, is the drug money. The center of the smuggling in the Prohibition era was Texas more than California. The center of the tequileros’ smuggling (in the 1920s) was in Texas. These days Sinaloa is where the drug money is and the drug money is part of this story. If you are in Mexico and you are a corrido player or a band, those are the guys hiring you to play at a party. That is true for the Texas musicians too. I interviewed people in Texas and some of them get flew to play at parties.
As you have noted in your book, a good part of the narcocorridos are a product of Southern California, especially the Los Angeles area. You also argued that there is a connection between the narcocorridos and gangster rap. Can you explain the sociology of the rap and narcocorrido connection and why this connection is more a product of Los Angeles than Houston?
Part of this has to do with “things happen because they happen.” Gangster rap surfaced in LA before it surfaced in Houston and the Rivera family (a family record company) was there. Pedro Rivera was pretty much the only person focusing on corridos at that moment when gangster rap surfaced. The Rivera family was thinking of the corrido and rap connection. That was not the focus of the Texas recording labels. I don’t know Houston as well as I know LA so I can’t really talk intelligently about why that connection didn’t happen in Houston.
Why it happened in LA also has to do, to a large part, with Chalino Sánchez. A whole generation of kids basically told me that they thought of Mexican music as their parents stuff, as old fashioned, at least in my experience in talking with kids of the age of Lupillo Rivera. They were into rap. Then Chalino happened and that was really exciting for them because essentially Mexican kids in LA wanted to be Black if they wanted to be cool, just like White kids or Chinese kids. They wanted to act Black and, to suddenly, find that they could be just as cool by acting Mexican was really exciting to them.
Can you tell us more about the corrido and rap relationship?
I know people who say that, for example, hip hop is conscious and that rap is the gangster stuff. There is a world of rap that is made for people who go to college; for people who don’t want anything to do with street violence. The corrido has not gone that route. Latino college kids who are into corridos are like college kids who are into gangster rap. There is nobody in this time who writes and, I quote, “intelligent” corridos. Los Tigres del Norte are still speaking for the guy on the street.
If you were to rewrite your book Narcocorrido, how would it differ from the work you produced in 2001? Would it change drastically?
The answer to the first question is that I don’t really know because when I started researching Narcocorridos I didn’t know obviously as much as I knew when I finished. If I were to research it now, I’m sure I would learn a lot of things that I don’t know right now. For example, part of what got me excited was hearing corridos of the Zapatistas (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). I got interested in these corridos when I went to Guerrero and finding the corridos of the guerrilla movement in that state (the guerilla movement erupted in Guerrero during the 1960s and early 1970s), which interestingly enough had roots in Chicago. If I went back now, I would not be only looking for the commercial world, but for what people are writing on the street level. I assume that there are hundreds of corridos in Guerrero of the murder of the students (the 43 students from the teachers school at Ayotzinapa), for example. None of which I’ve heard, but I’m sure they’re there. How big a thing that would be? I don’t know, but I would be interested in finding out.
Obviously, the other huge thing that’s happened is the Movimiento Alterado (the hard-core narcocorridos). I haven’t talked to the Valenzuela twins (founders of “Los twiins,” a major enterprise promoting Movimiento Alterado music). I haven’t talked to El Komander (a major narcocorrido singer), so I don’t really know how they think about what they are doing.
Lupillo Rivera was just beginning to happen when I published Narcocorrido. I had no idea of how big he was going to be. One of the funny things is that you meet people that have this idea that they are going to become famous tomorrow and usually they are wrong, but once in a while you hit somebody who is right. I just got lucky talking with Jenni Rivera and Lupillo. When I did the interview, Jenni was just the girl who answered the phones at the Cintas Acuario record label, if you called that a record company. I would never have imagined that five years later I would see her fill the Kodak Amphitheater in LA. It was really funny when I gave my book to her.
I went to El Paso to give a talk on my book. A couple of people got up and said, “it’s interesting what you’re saying about LA, but that’s not what anybody is listening to here.” I didn’t believe what they told me. I thought people here were listening to Lupillo. They said, “no, nobody here is listening to the LA stuff”. I said, “well, could we call some bars?” and a guy pulled out his cellphone and called. He asked, “so are you playing Lupillo Rivera?” and they said, “Yes, that’s all we play.” He had completely blown up in Texas.
One thing I would do differently now is that I would do some of research in New York. The Movimiento Alterado has blown up in New York, mostly due to the whole YouTube thing. YouTube has changed the world for corridos because the big problem when I did my book was that there was no way to get out a corridos out into the world fast enough to cover current news. Anytime there’s a murder or a major arrest or anything like that there are corridos up within 24 hours with YouTube. So the world has changed and now I would go looking for those guys.
As a journalist, musicologist, and historian of music, you have written quite a bit about roots music, such as corridos. In this globalized age, what attracts you to roots music?
As a listener, I just find a lot of roots music exciting, but there’s also a lot of it I don’t find exciting. As a writer and historian, the interest is in the way it connects to communities who are mostly not being heard. That certainly was the excitement in corridos and to me even more than rap. Corridos are really a voice of people who you don’t normally see on television. These people are not being written in books.
What advice would you give to potential young writers who are interested in researching and writing on music, especially roots? In other words, how does one find a theme? What does it involve?
There are so many answers to that. The main thing I would say for anybody, and forgive me for using these terms, but words like “literate” or “educated,” who wants to write about roots music is that you have to go with the understanding that you may have some skills that the people you are interviewing don’t have. We are not talking about someone like Paulino Vargas. Vargas could not read or write, but he was obviously a wiser, more knowledgeable, and probably more intelligent man than I was or maybe than I will ever be. I think the most important thing is to go in with that kind of respect. It is important to understand that. Paulino Vargas knew his world in a way that I don’t know it. If I want to understand his world, step one is to understand that no matter how hard I study it: They are the real experts. People like Paulino Vargas and Julian Garza were brilliant; those men were geniuses. Paulino Vargas in particular. He was crazy, but he was a genius, a poet. He was a genius, and I’m not a genius! I think there is a tendency with people with a college education to have a little trouble remembering that people without college education are often smarter than they are.
Now that you mention Paulino Vargas, for me he’s the great corridista of the 20th century. What led Vargas to write such powerful corridos? Was it his life experiences? The people he came to know? The landscape?
All of those things certainly influenced the corridos he wrote, but when you’re talking about somebody on the level of Paulino Vargas, it’s like talking about The Beatles, Bob Dylan or Shakespeare. You can trace why their genius maybe went in that particular direction. I don’t know what made Paulino a genius. He was an absolutely brilliant man. There were lots of kids growing up in mountain ranches in Durango who played music and who liked corridos, and none of them became Paulino Vargas. He was funny, he was smart. I treasured every minute I stood with that man. He was just an incredible person. You had to be willing to go with him, his mind went very, very fast and it bounced all over the place. I’m not going to claim that I followed it all the time. First of all, my Spanish was not perfect, but even if my Spanish had been perfect, Paulino was amazing. When I was interviewing other corrido writers they tended to talk about how great they were, how great their corridos were, and they often spoke contemptuously about other corrido writers, but everybody agreed that Paulino was great. Everybody simply agreed that Paulino was somebody nobody understands.
When your book Narcocorridos appeared El Pasito Duranguense music was on the rise. As a product of Chicago, it became the most popular music in Mexico. I haven’t found much written on Duranguense music. Do you have insights on the rise and fall of Duranguense music?
When I did the book Duranguense music had blown up. It is not my favorite music on earth, but it’s pretty god damn interesting. Suddenly the most popular music in Mexico was coming out of Chicago. Actually you had asked me what advice I would give to a writer. I’ll tell you the advice I would give to a writer who wanted to write on stuff: Find stuff nobody is writing about. There’s lots of it. One of the weird things is that people writing about music don’t want to talk about Duranguense because they find it stupid. Well, whether or not the music is stupid doesn’t mean you have to write a stupid book. Duranguense music is an interesting story. I did this book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. I used to joke that if people wrote regular history the way they write music history, they would write the history of 20th century and leave Hitler out of it because they don’t like his work. Asking the questions you just asked: why did Duranguense music happened in Chicago?; why did people like it in Mexico?: why did it rise and fall? I find those questions fascinating and I would love to see somebody do a good article on that. I would love to see somebody do a good article on the Movimiento Alterado or on any of that stuff.
You are about to publish a new book. Can you tell us what is it about?
The one that is coming out right now is on Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. Bob Dylan appeared in the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar and a lot of people booed him. It is about the confrontation between Dylan and Pete Seeger at Newport, but also about how the world was shifting at that moment, and how important music was to people, and why they cared so much about that. One of the hard things you do in the exercise of history is trying to understand how people felt in a different place and time. Dylan was creating this wonderful modern thing and a lot of conservative people just didn’t get it or weren’t ready for it. I am sort of going back and saying, “you know the world is more complicated than that.” It is the same with narcocorridos. When somebody says to me “how can you support or be excited about this music that is celebrating these insane killers who are destroying Mexico?” I completely understand that point of view. My response always is, “I understand why you’re upset, but if you’re in LA, the gangbangers who are listening to corridos have a poster of Al Pacino on their wall.” As long as we agree to be as angry with Al Pacino as we are with the Movimiento Alterado, I can get on board with being upset since so much of our culture glorifies violence. Let’s not pick on these guys who are infinitely less intellectual. Jesus Christ! All the gods in Mexico have been smuggled across the border from the United States. Let’s not talk about how violent Mexico is.
Juan Mora-Torres. Historian and author of The Making of the Mexican Border.