Mexican popular music is one of the best-selling Latin music genres in the US. A big part of this success is due to the current popularity of Narcocorrido, a controversial music style that deals with the stories, lives and dramatic episodes surrounding drug trafficking. The following is an overview of the music, history and ethical dilemma related to Mexico's popular drug ballads.
The Music of Narcocorridos
In terms of its sound, Narcocorrido is a style that seats in the the middle of the musical foundations of Norteno music and the traditions of Mexican Corrido. Musically speaking, these drug ballads are heavily influenced by Norteno music with an accordion leading the way through a heavy Polka beat. In terms of its lyrics, narcocorridos are heavily influenced by the oral tradition that defined Corrido music at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Roots and History of Narcocorrido
Although Narcocorrido is a modern phenomenon, the roots of this Mexican music style can be traced almost a century back. These roots were forged by the melodies of traditional Corrido music, a style that glorified the 1910 Revolution and the battles of popular heroes such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
According to musician and writer Elijah Wald, the author of the book Narcocorrido: A Journey into The Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas, Corrido was kind of a "musical newspaper" produced after each single battle with the intention to tell the story of the locals heroes and their victories.
With social conditions changing throughout the 20th century across the US-Mexican border, Corrido evolved into a musical tradition shaped by the lives and stories of illegal immigrants moving into the US. By the 1970s, this flow of people brought with it an emerging traffic of drugs. It was precisely from this context that the first narcocorridos made their debut.
Back then, a recently formed Norteno group named Los Tigres del Norte came up with the idea to record a single about the life of a female smuggler who brought marijuana into the US and killed her partner in crime before escaping with the money of their transaction. That single was called "Contrabando Y Traicion" and became a sensation soon after its release.
Although the 1970s witnessed the birth of modern Narcocorrido, the consolidation of Sinaloa as the center of both drug trafficking and Regional Mexican music styles such as Norteno and Banda created additional room for the development of this genre. Sinaloa provided artists with the stories and the musical environment where they could become the next heroes of the Corrido style.
One of those new heroes was the legendary Narcocorrido pioneer Chalino Sanchez, an artist from Sinaloa who escaped to California after killing the drug lord who raped his sister. While in California, he was discovered by a local producer and soon after became a leading name of the Narcocorrido movement. Chalino moved to history as a legend when he fired back and shot dead his wannabe assassin during a concert in 1992. A few months after that incident, he was killed in Mexico.
After Chalino Sanchez, there was an explosion of bands playing narcocorridos across the US-Mexican border. Some of them include groups such as El As de la Sierra, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and El Potro de Sinaloa. Although the genre took off during this time, violence soon became a problem surrounding these popular drug ballads.
Violence and Censorship
From the very beginning, Narcocorrido has been a musical style exclusively focused on everything related to drug trafficking. In particular, this genre deals with the lives of famous drug smugglers. As stated by Elijah Wald on a BBC article about Narcocorrido, "the first thing a drug runner would do after a successful run was to hire someone to write a corrido about it".
Before the Mexican drug war turned really ugly, Narcocorrido was somehow absent from the violence surrounding drug trafficking in Mexico. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, several artists and people involved in the making of these drug ballads fell victim to the violence provoked by the Mexican drug war. Some of these stars included Valentin Izalde, Sergio Vega, and Sergio Gomez, a former singer of the Duranguense band from Chicago K-Paz de la Sierra.
With all these violent episodes, and pressures from the Mexican and US governments regarding a style that was considered an apology of drug trafficking and gangsta lifestyles, Narcocorrido has been subject to strong censorship for the past decade.
In spite of this, this genre is still very popular and emerging artists are trying to get their way around this music. Stars like Gerardo Ortiz and Lupillo Rivera are trying to present their music as Progressive Narcocorrido, which basically depict reality as it is without glorifying or promoting the violence and lifestyles behind drug trafficking.
An Ethical Dilemma
Narcocorrido is a genre trapped in the middle of an ethical dilemma similar to the one that has surrounded rap music. Antonio Mejias-Rentas from the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinion has described this dilemma saying that "there is a mixed feeling about them in the Mexican community; while there is an appreciation for the art form, there is also concern about the glorification of violence and drug consumption, much like in the gangsta rap world".
Although Narcocorrido is trapped between this moral dilemma and its musical appeal, this popular genre will probably continue to thrive in the middle of this controversy. If you want to express your voice regarding Narcocorrido, I invite you to cast your vote in the following poll.