A fascinating journey south and north of the border on the trail of songs about marijuana, cocaine, and Monica Lewinsky.
“Though the Anglo media act as if the current Latin music boom were driven by Afro-Caribbean styles like salsa and merengue,” writes music journalist and blues historian Wald (River of Song, 1999), “Mexican bands account for roughly two-thirds of domestic Latin record sales.” And while there are plenty of Mexican rock, folk, jazz, and even rap acts, the bulk of those sales are in the norteño genre, Mexico’s equivalent of country music, which mixes elements of Central European polka and German oom-pah-pah with flamenco and other Spanish-born styles. A norteño staple is the corrido, a longish folk ballad often celebrating the exploits of Robin Hood–like bandits, revolutionary heroes, and other outlaws. Lately Mexican artists have taken to updating their subjects to include Zapatista guerrillas, drug smugglers, and other figures taken from the daily headlines; one group in particular, Los Tigres del Norte, with whose members Wald spends much time in these pages, has made a lucrative specialty of celebrating the very people American law enforcement has pledged to eliminate. That drugs should be such a popular theme is no surprise, according to Wald, for all of Mexico is awash in contraband and dependent on the income it brings; one resident of the city of Culiacán tells him, “There are only three wealthy families here that have no drug connections in their history . . . and that number is not just symbolic or poetic license.” That’s all well and good, the composers reply; did not the Kennedys, who also figure in corridos, make their fortune bootlegging and then investing in legal enterprises?
It’s a huge business, drugs, drug-fueled revolution, and singing about them, and Wald does a superb job of taking his readers into that world.