Everybody knows about Mexico’s bloody drug cartel wars, the narcotics mafia, executions and the state’s often inadequate attempts to curb the menace. But did you know about the controversial genre of music that all this has spawned?
A narcocorrido is a narrative song that probably has its origins in Mexican folk corrido songs—songs that tell a story about what’s going on around the singer or composer’s society. Add “narco” to that and the meaning becomes more sinister.
Corridos have had as their subject things like illegal immigration to the US and gangsters or the lives of Mexico’s homeless, but narcocorridos are about the country’s notorious drug cartels and their activities, very often with lyrics that are approving of such things.
The narcocorridos that I heard were sung in Spanish—and I don’t know that language—but had catchy tunes and seemed perfect to dance to. I heard guitars, of course, but also accordions and perhaps a harmonica too.
After searching the web and reading up on the genre, I found that this wasn’t such a new stream of Mexican music. The first drug ballads showed up as early as in the 1930s when folk singers began writing songs about the early marijuana smugglers.
In more recent years, as the drug mafia has become stronger and multiple cartels have been embroiled in bloody internecine battles, this had provided more fodder for the narcocorrido exponents. Their albums are believed to fly off the shelves of music stores and have flamboyant pictures of the musicians—dressed in studded cowboy shirts and often posing with AK47s or similar weapons.
After sampling the music of ‘El Chapo’, I got to listen to songs by one of the greatest narcocorrido composers, a legend called Reynaldo “El Gallero” Martinez. At 71, Martinez is like a reigning guru of the genre, his compositions covered by a host of younger singers and bands. One of his popular songs is about Rafel Caro Quintero, a notorious drug baron who was arrested in 1985 for killing an US drug enforcement agent and is now in jail.
Singing about such worthies is not bereft of risks. Many narcocorrido singers or composers have lost their lives, presumed to be killed because the songs they sang or wrote about a particular drug cartel enraged its rivals. One of them was 25-year-old rising star, Valentin Elizalde who was murdered in 2006. Consequently, corridos have lyrics that are more cautious—not directly naming their “heroes” and using nuance to make their point. But there are exceptions.
On a podcast I heard about Chuy Quintanilla. A former police commander in Mexico, Quintanillia doesn’t shy away from calling a spade, well, a spade. One of his songs is a current favourite among his fans and it is called the Ballad of Antonio Tormenta Cardenas, about Antonio Cardenas widely regarded as the present chief of the Gulf cartel.
Not surprisingly, narcocorridos are most popular along the northern border of Mexico, along the boundary the country shares with the US and the area that is the hotbed for drug smuggling activity. But although the genre is hugely popular, the Mexican authorities have banned narcocorridos from being broadcast on radio or television channels.
Curiously, this has given rise to a kind of reverse smuggling. In a Texas town, less than 20 miles from northern Mexico, a radio station, Radio Papalote, airs a daily programme called Killer Corridos, which cocks a snook at the Mexican ban and blasts the music over the airwaves that fans across the border can receive.
Alas, airwaves from south Texas aren’t strong enough to reach where I am, so fascinated by the drug ballads, I tried the internet. And I wasn’t disappointed. I found several websites and a couple of internet radio stations that had several tracks to sample.
Contrabando y traicion, Los Tigres del norte.