Mexican Folk Songs Immortalized Smugglers’ Hard-Knock Lives Way Before Hip-Hop Stopped Knocking Hustlers
Before there were gangsta raps extolling the glories of blunts, ice, and firefights, or rock odes to pushers, lines, and dime bags, there was the narcocorrido, a Mexican narrative ballad devoted to illegal substances. This self-contained genre splintered off of the even longer-standing corrido tradition of immortalizing heroic figures, dating from the days of the Mexican Revolution. And it gets surveyed over a century—from the 1890s through the present—on The Roots of the Narcocorrido, a song history on the culture of contraband, be it cocaine, marijuana, morphine, Prohibition-era alcohol, or even Ceylonese cinnamon.
Here you find tales about trafficking down highways, over borderlands, through corrupt customhouses, and across the Rio Grande. Ambushes and shell-spitting shootouts with the “rinches,” a derogatory grab-bag term for Texas Rangers and border patrols, abound. And the smugglers, thugs, and bandidos lie at the dark heart of it all, badass hall-of-famers who walk once again in these songs. You meet Mariano Reséndez ,”El Contrabandista” of the 1800s; the fearless, pistol-blasting Francisco Martínez; “Nacha,” the 1930s morphine queen of Juárez; and a charming latter-day character known as “the Toad,” a weed runner who’d hide the stash in the tires of his red tractor trailer.
For all of the menace and violence here, you’d never suspect a thing from the surrounding melodies—supple, lilting, and deceptively bright enough to mask all the lurid activity beneath. It all sounds so delightful you can hum or tap a foot to it. It’s only the lyrics that openly confess the inherent horrors. And, luckily, even if your Español isn’t so excelente, no problema: Narcocorrido provides English translations for every Spanish line. Plus, the 40-page accompanying booklet never leaves you stranded, offering a detailed history for each selection. It’s a thoroughly researched anthology that captures a near century’s worth of narcoculture.
These 26 corrido ballads are by no means a homogeneous bunch. The manner of singing is the main common denominator. Precision-crafted two-part harmonies strikingly crest and fall in mirrored reflection; they’re real works of beauty. Their musical environments, however, vary. Turbocharged mariachi horns add an extra zip in some places, but the bulk of the accompaniment gets mixed and matched from danceable pulses punched out on snappy button accordions, the deep drive of a 12-string bajo sexto, and a guitar’s strum.
And there’s mucho guitar, providing the thick, rhythmic backbone to support songs as important as “White Cargo” or the bold and utterly unstoppable “Because of Morphine and Cocaine,” about a San Antonio hotel room one hot August day in 1934. Yet guitars also lay the foundation on which ornamentation gets laid, as when Adán and Eva go decidedly uptown to spin the legend of the pillager Heraclio Bernal and put on the ritz with trumpets and strings.
In unvarnished contrast, Los Satélites unleash a 1960s cantina corker set to polka time in “Nieves Hernández,” a glorious drum-smacked romp dedicated to a fallen lawman. And keeping in that same sweaty Tex-Mex vein are other more traditional three-piece conjunto units led by peppy accordion, such as Los Alegres de Terán and Los Pinguinos del Norte, with master accordionists whipping the beat around and ’round, nonchalantly flipping summersault finishes onto the end of their phrases. It’s the perfect rhythmic vehicle for “La Canela,” a bloody story of reverse smuggling of cinnamon from Texas into Mexico via a Ford truck some 70 years ago.
The surreal aberration of this collection is “La Cocaina,” sung by Pilar Arcos, a virtual nightingale with a voice rich with operatic formalism. The quasi-symphonic backing heightens the strangeness of such stateliness for the lowly, murderous evils of the cocaine woes she sings. It’s nearly as sublime a presentation as that of Trìo Garnica-Ascencio’s excited ladies who chirp, squeak, and, ultimately, cough out “La Marihuana.” Both these songs make for quite a display of late-1920s exotica, before the time when, across the border, the United States would find itself in the infamous throes of Reefer Madness and Cocaine Fiends.
Today, the narcocorrido is king in not only its native Mexico, but also in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California. Thanks to a narco-renaissance that thrust the genre into celebrity status, current bands such as Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana sell their albums in the millions, hover on the Billboard Latin charts, and incite social controversy.
In all of this accumulated prehistory—especially the pre-1970s roots that get most emphasized here—is a mutual experience that binds new with old, forming an evolution of popular morality and documenting its battles along the way. Once were the days when these songs portrayed their subjects—some at their dying breath—in lament and repent for their self-confessed wrongs.
But even in the oldest songs here are the seeds for a perspective shift that blossoms over these tracks, where traffickers walk a line between outright criminal and protagonist of the people. The ease with which the anti-hero gets not only exonerated but celebrated is the big rub nowadays—romanticizing the drug and drugged-out underworlds. When in “La Marihuana” the women of Trìo Garnica-Ascencio race to lodge complaints over the cottonmouth and red-eye side effects of the marijuana they’re pre-dating everyone from Los Tigres and Tucanes to cross-genre narco-friendly amigos like Cypress Hill and the Kottonmouth Kings. Virtually unknown outside Spanish speakers until now, these three-minute Mexican melodramas collected on The Roots of the Narcocorrido underscore the vices that still get hearts racing, and the price of harsh reality oftentimes paid for the thrill.