Musical Underworld

An American explores the gritty world of the 'narcocorrido.'

When I'm in Mexico City, in between required trips to the mercados and museums, bullfights and brothels, I always fit in a visit to Plaza Garibaldi. Located about a mile from the zócalo, Garibaldi is where Mexico City's mariachis gather every night looking for work. Packing the plaza and overflowing into the street, hundreds of musicians vie for the attention of potential customers, creating a marvelous cacophony of color and sound. Add the ubiquitous stray dogs and the plaza's mascot (a retard with a toy guitar) to the mix, and the pageantry is sublime.

The Garibaldi experience is spectacular, but a little goes a long way. So, after feeding the dogs and smiling at the lone girl mariachi, it's time to move on. Last time I found my querencia in a cathouse just up the block,where I wiled away the night tossing back tequila and Tecate, playing dominos with the madam and a teenage whore. The woman was funny, the girl was pretty, and both were friendly. But just as important to making me feel at home was the trio of street musicians who followed me in.

The guitar was missing a string, the accordion a button or two. The lead singer was an albino. And all three stunk to high heaven (musically, I mean). But boy, did they rock that whorehouse. In fact, they blew away everything I heard back at Garibaldi. The key for me: corridos. That raggedy-assed trio had great stories to tell and, at least according to the accordion, every one was true: Stories about girls and guns, mojados and mota, goma and coca.

The fact that so many of their corridos featured drug references was no surprise to me; in parts of Mexico the narcocorrido is such an important subgenre that it has become the genre. And, as if to footnote that fact, I experienced something that night which has happened to me in bars all over Mexico: When I went to the head, I was offered a snort of cocaine.

The narcocorrido is a fascinating subject, worthy of scholarly treatises and lively participatory journalism. Elijah Wald's Narcocorrido falls somewhere in between. Traveling through Mexico and the American Southwest, often hitchhiking, Wald spent most of 1999 interviewing narcocorrido composers and performers. From Mexico City to Monterrey, Chihuahua to Chiapas, Wald crisscrossed the country, tracking down his subjects.

A fan and an avid collector, Wald's knowledge and enthusiasm shine through on every page. But for all the grittiness of his subject--songs inspired by the violence of the drug world--he takes a decidedly hands-off approach. For all his excitement about the music, he seems tentative about its subject, like an archaeologist who's visited the best sites without ever digging a hole himself. With every turn of the page, I hoped he'd dig in and get his hands dirty.

Most of Wald's interviews are conducted in offices and living rooms, and when he encounters what seem to be obvious avenues of investigation, he often ignores them. On buses and in cop cars, at cockfights and at horse races, he misses opportunities to follow lively leads. Early on, in a harbinger of things to come, he declines an offer to smoke weed with a baseball player from Madera. Later he spurns the potentially valuable hospitality of a friendly rural chica.

Elsewhere, Wald seems uninformed. He's surprised to find liquor bottles at a shrine, incorrectly identifies the origins of the AK-47's nickname and inaccurately refers to Pancho Villa's "capture" of Columbus, N.M. He calls the strip clubs in Culiacán "the world's last bastion of classic burlesque," but the scene he describes can be found all over Mexico.

Wald does provide some valuable history lessons, and I especially like his colorful details concerning language: The bullshit factor in morbo; an embarrassing joke concerning te adoro, bello; an illustrative Spanish variation of ask/axe. And there is a nice photo section featuring some heavily armed corridistas looking more like gomers than gomeros.

For most of the book, though, Wald comes off less like an intrepid journalist and more like a music nerd, more interested in sharing arcana than offering adventure. By the time he cuts loose in Monterrey and visits with guerrillas in Guerrero and Chiapas, it's too late. Had he displayed the grit and gusto of the final chapters early on, he would've grabbed me from the get-go.

In the end, Narcocorrido is an informative but arid study of its subject. Musicologists and Mexico neophytes should lap it up, even if some others--those of us who like Mexico's back alleys as much as its back roads--find it a bit too dry.

In the Nogales bars that know me as a regular, you won't find many narcocorridos on the playlist. But you will find the narcocorrido's inspiration and influence: a blast of coke, offered as a friendly gesture, as part of almost every trip to the restroom.

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