Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Los Tigres del Norte: El Tahur, 1986

This album comes from Los Tigres' arguably least remembered period following their break into stardom with Contrabando y Traición. Chalino Sanchez had not yet transformed the narcocorrido into the international sensation that it has become. I firmly believe that although Los Tigres were the first to popularize the genre on a large scale, they would not be the superstars they are today without Chalino's help bringing the genre to the Chicano audience. This record contains both corridos and dance songs, and the title track is a ballad about a fair, honest, and respected gambler who one day falls on bad luck and loses everything. When he gets a good hand and feels he can't lose, he bets his wife out of desperation. When his opponent shows four aces, he becomes distraught and takes his own life along with that of his wife to spare them both the pain of his mistake.

El Tahur was written by Adolfo Salas, who as far as I can tell was one of the songwriters who Los Tigres contracted writing responsibilities out to. The song is very unusual in the sense that its protagonist owes his downfall more to fate than social injustice. In this regard, it is different from all other narcocorridos and classic corridos that I have heard. I should go further into the significance of this before I discuss the song. My explanations of two primary subjects in corridos, misfortune and morality, both start in the same place, the divide between what is called la plebada and the elite, or "educated" class, made up of politicians and licenciados, or degree holders. Many see the elite as encompassing American business interests as well. La plebada is a term that roughly correlates to "the people" or the "popular class," a class of people disenfranchised and/ or marginalized in one way or another for one reason or another. In Mexico, la plebada by this definion makes up a large majority of the population.

According to narcocorridos, all cartel members originate in la plebada, even if the drug business eventually makes them rich. Narcocorridos portray the elites as the cumulative holders of legitimate power and the controllers of legitimate industry. The songs allege that these people have no interest in sharing access to economic mobility with la plebada. They blame members of the elite for the actions of cartels, alleging that if poor people had the opportunity to make money through legitimate channels, they would not need to turn to illicit activity. Many narcocorridos also include premonitions of an early death for their protagonists. The idea is that by entering the business, they trade wealth for longevity. In this sense, the elites have sealed the narco's fate from birth: he could follow the law and barely scrape by or try to make something for himself by risking his life. The moral argument that follows is obvious: saying that narcos choose to enter the drug industry might be something of an overstatement, (although some songs do attribute a genuine enthusiasm for violence to their protagonists,) because while violence might be a preferable option to starvation, it is not an easy living compared to that of a politician. Along these lines, narcocorridos portray la plebada as honest and the elites as dishonest. A quick explanation is that the elites rely on twisted language to maintain their power whereas the people are more given to hard work and have no use for dishonesty among themselves. In many narcocorridos, honesty has become a class marker. Narcos who break the laws and mores of the rich do so because this code fundamentally disenfranchises the people. Classic corridos are a little bit different, but the essential facts are the same. The heroes come from the lower class and struggle against powerful outsiders, both Americans and Mexico City elites, but value hard work and honesty among their own people. The main difference is the degree of the protagonists' antiauthoritarianism.

As I say above, fate rather than social injustice led to el tahur's downfall. Given the stigma against heavy gambling in our society, some readers might fully fault the gambler for his loss. However, I believe that Los Tigres intentionally leave the responsibility for the gambler's misfortune ambiguous. Of course, the gambler is at least somewhat accountable because he chose the gambling lifestyle in the first place. The only hint of class identity comes at the beginning of the song when the narrator describes the gambler as "unfailingly honest, a man who knew how to win and lose," i.e. how to take his losses in stride because he was fully aware of the risks he took. As an honest member of la plebada, he would not cheat another member of his own class. Even with his final defeat, the gambler did not try to cheat his opponent out of his winnings by skipping town with his wife and starting over elsewhere. Although he did deprive his opponent of the spoils by killing his wife, the gesture of suicide also indicates that he took responsibility for his actions. To the end, he remained an honest plebe, respecting his gambler's code even after it ruined him. By this logic, he committed no social wrongs and thus did not deserve his sad end in a karmic sense; at most, he was guilty of mismanaging his personal affairs.

This is the extent to which the gambler is responsible for his downfall, but there is still enough blame left over that some of it can be pinned on fate. In order for the gambler to lose his wife, three events had to converge in a single moment. First, the gambler had to lose all his material possessions, so that the only thing he had left in the world was his wife. Second, he had to pick up a hand so strong that there was no doubt in his mind that he would win with it. The song implies that his hand made him so confident that he did not even consider the possibility of losing. Finally, his opponent had to get a nearly unbeatable hand at the same time. The setup was such that any desperate person, even one with no inclination for gambling, could have accepted the nearly negligible risk in order to win some semblance of his life back. By this reading of the story, it was not a rational gambler who lost his wife, but a desperate man. The gambler was guilty of losing almost everything, but fate took his wife from him. What is clear is that whether fate or the gambler is to blame, the rich have nothing to do with the gambler's demise. I consider this song something of an anti-corrido because in the end, it leaves us without a moralistic commentary about class and without a clear moral. Maybe the author means to warn us that fate can strike us when we are most vulnerable. In this sense, this song might not be so far removed from the narcocorrido after all: if the gambler stands in for la plebada by analogy, then even though he played by the rules all along, he ended up with nothing. At the end of the day, he is left with his wife, (read: "life,") to wager, and indeed, when push comes to shove, he is gambling with his own life, much like the narco who risks his life to escape poverty. Maybe I've gone too far looking for meaning where it doesn't exist with this last parallel, but in any case, the very role of fate in this corrido sets it apart.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Holt: Police in Helicopter/ Youths Pon the Corner, 1983/ Un saludo a la dea

Great reggae. The production is really clean on this single, but you can hear fire in John Holt's voice. On the A side, John Holt threatens that if the police continue to burn down marijuana fields, smokers will retaliate by burning down plantation cash crops. It seems like drug enforcement offends Holt on two levels, both because it is yet another form of oppression and structural violence against the poor (listen to the B side for more of this) and because it is a cultural battle with religious dimensions. When Rastafarianism pushes back against Western hegemony, the religion itself comes under attack (via the sacrament marijuana) along with the people who practice it. Youths Pon the Corner is a version that didn't appear on the Police in Helicopter LP.

The idea of burning down the corn fields to get back at the powerful for destroying marijuana crops calls to mind certain themes in some modern day narcocorridos. First, like John Holt, a lot of musicians who sing of the Mexican drug war don't try to hide their contempt for governments. The reliance on drugs, both economic and spiritual, by protagonists in narcocorridos and in Holt's song automatically casts them as opponents of governments that aim to eradicate the manufacture and consumption of certain drugs. John Holt and the corridistas both see drugs as part of the fight against what rastas call Babylon and traficantes call la calaca, but for the rastas, the marijuana they smoke is something they choose for religious enhancement. Cartels chose drugs because their prohibited status makes them valuable and, according to some singers, because narcos were born to pursue wealth in the most anti-authoritarian way they could. Second, the opposition that Holt sets up between rastafarianism and conventional capitalism (represented by corn farming) gives the struggle a classed dimension as the rich and economically entrenched wage a cultural war against the poor on the basis that the rastafarian religion's acceptance of marijuana is a sign of immorality. Holt counters that because rastas do not interfere with capitalists' pursuit of wealth, capitalists should not interfere with rastafarians' pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. Narcocorridos maintain that their protagonists grew up poor and joined the cartels because they could not make enough money any other way. Many singers argue that legitimate business is a luxury possible only for the already established upper class. Furthermore, the elite class bear most of the guilt for drug violence because its members have systematically excluded poor people from legitimate sources of wealth through nepotism, corruption, and class-based discrimination.

In an open letter to the U.S. government by a panel made up of Kofi Annan, Ernesto Zedillo (ex-president of Mexico), Cesar Gaviria (ex-president of Colombia), and others encouraged Obama to end "the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others." Speaking about the panel's findings, Gaviria said "when you have 40 years of a policy that is not bringing results, you have to ask if it's time to change it." For more information: Other Mexican and American critics of current drug enforcement policies actually advocate legalizing or decriminalizing drugs in the U.S. because without American demand for a contraband product, cartels would be economically crippled. Whatever specific approach the governments of the United States and Mexico take in response to the tragic violence in Mexico, I hope that they take Gaviria's advice to heart. A series of militaristic offensives against drug organizations will only encourage militaristic responses, and this hemisphere is already plenty militarized. In spite of what some songs might tell you about men who are born for blood, most people join cartels because no other organization offers a comparable opportunity, and that opportunity owes itself to a high demand for illegal drugs in the United States. If the leaders of these countries want to get serious about addressing the drug war as a matter of damage control rather than elitist morality, they will have to come to terms with the economic realities of the war in one way or another. I'm sure John Holt would agree.

Youths Pon the Corner by Easy Jams

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

El Chicano: Viva Tirado Parts I and II, 1970

El Chicano has recorded a couple versions of this song, including one on the album Celebration and another as the title track of a 1970 LP. The A side of this 45 is the same version that appears on the album Viva Tirado, and the B side is an extended version that sounds like it was recorded during the same sessions. El Chicano's choice of Viva Tirado as something of a signature song caught my attention in light of the song's history. The song was originally written by Gerald Wilson, the great LA big band leader whose record On Stage I posted last year. At a time when many jazz musicians were looking to musics of the Spanish Caribbean for inspiration, Gerald Wilson was more taken with the music and culture of Mexico, which he came into contact with once he moved to California. Although Wilson's musical nods to Mexico might sound less than authentic to those versed in different kinds of Mexican music, one cannot deny that Wilson's Mexican-esque compositions are, if nothing else, genuine expressions of his admiration for the Mexican people and their culture. At a time when few people of Mexican descent had broken into the jazz world, his band featured Mexican-American musicians like the great Anthony Ortega, and for most of his life, Wilson has been married to a Chicana woman. Throughout his career, the bridging of cultural boundaries through art has been a major if understated theme in Wilson's work.

Turning now to El Chicano, their use of this song strikes me as part of an effort to reciprocate the kind of admiration that jazz artists and other Black musicians like Wilson have paid to Mexican and Chicano artists over the years. I say this not only in terms of this song's particular history, but in terms of El Chicano's 1970's catalog in general. Most of the band's albums feature songs that walk the line between jazz, soul, salsa, and rock. El Chicano seem to have been acutely aware of the different streams of music going on at the time and of the ways in which these musics intertwined with various cultures and subcultures. The different genres of music that El Chicano nod to make up the musical and social world that they were playing in at that time. Though salsa came to the U.S. by way of immigrants from the Caribbean, it nonetheless became popular as a Latin music for all Spanish speaking people in the United States, including a Chicano population who at that time largely saw Mexican musics like norteña music as unurban, less a part of their life experiences which defied characterization as completely Mexican nor American. The rock that El Chicano played both indicates a proximity to mainstream American society, (they have covered songs like Brown Eyed Girl,) and the Chicano rock bands that made up a significant part of the East L.A. art renaissance of the 60's and 70's. Their use of soul and jazz recalls Wilson's use of Mexican themes as an attempt to bridge the cultural gaps between minorities in America though music.

To me, this project looks like an optimistic outgrowth of the Black and Chicano movements going on at the time. The fusion of these musics can be read as a part of a new multicultural urbanism that is equally constituted by its component parts and also distinctly American. And yet the ablums that I have heard from El Chicano do not feature lyrics or liner notes promoting racial harmony or anything like that. Whereas many musicians today who take inspiration from a diversity of cultural forms tend to be very explicit about the importance colorblind acceptance and love, El Chicano seem to promote a new American multiracial idiom by performing it, treating it as natural rather than a goal that society must pursue. This is what I mean when I call their project optimistic: they don't treat their vision of the new American melting pot as utopian, but rather as something closer to reality. In this sense, this 45 is a small piece of a very interesting body of work that responds confidently to a unique time in American racial history.

Viva Tirado Part II by Easy Jams

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Charles Mingus: Jazz and Cumbia Fusion, 1978

I usually try to avoid posting albums that are up on other blogs, but this one seemed so relevant to the last two posts that I wanted to say something about it too. First of all, the album itself is great, not one of my favorite Mingus albums, but a fun listen. It opens up with bird songs that slowly drop out as percussion instruments enter. That intro reminds me a lot of the first Accra Trane Station track on Steve Feld's Time of Bells 3 album, (couldn't find it on youtube, sorry;) it's jazz but the producer has a very present role. From there, the sound becomes more recognizably Mingus, but a lot of the first side in particular revolves around a couple cumbia-esque riffs. To me, the "cumbia" on this disc doesn't even really sound all that convincing. I see it more as a jazz interpretation of cumbia than a genuine attempt to create a hybrid music with strong roots in both genres.

The thing that stuck out to me about this album is Mingus's attempt to reach out to a music whose roots in the Black diaspora are well known but which does not have much of a history within jazz. Mingus's fusion attempt was different from Mustafa-Zadeh's work because Mingus was not a foreign musician trying to force his music into jazz from the outside. Like Mustafa-Zadeh, though, he was not drawing on a long history of cross cultural jazz hybrids either, so the composition process must have taken a fair amount of creativity and mold-breaking on his part. But overall, it seems like the inclusion of cumbia on this record was more of a way to freshen things up than to take a deep look at cumbia forms. This partial embrace of cumbia fits a theme that I've noticed in a lot of Mingus's music: he hints at or acknowledges a variety of genres (typically blues and subgenres of jazz) but ultimately adapts them all to fit his own artistic vision. In that sense, despite the uncharacteristic inclusion of a Latin American influence, this record is actually fairly conventional for Mingus.

Jazz and Cumbia Fusion by Easy Jams