Jun 6, 2010


"Norteno is not ingratiating music. In essence, it is Mexicanized polka. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, deposits of iron ore and copper were discovered in the north of Mexico, and Czechs and Germans arrived to work in the mines and in the smelters. They were dust-bowl types who brought the accordion, which fit into their luggage. They also brought the polka. The Mexican version is more exuberant than the European one, and has more flourishes. The Mexicans play it so that is sounds like music from a warm region instead of a cold one.

Norteno is also a little disreputable. According to Chris Strachwitz, the head of Arhoolie Records, who has collected hundreds of thousands of the songs - which are housed in a foundation at U.C.L.A...'Norteno is field-hand music, drunkard's music. Lower-class music... Class isn't so important in the gringo world, but in Mexico it is. Many people in Mexico look down on this music.' Mariachi, which features trumpets and violins and was a favorite of Richard Nixon, is a music of longing for the period of the haciendas, the great estates and plantations. Norteno is the music made by the people who sustained the haciendas with their labor. It began to be recorded in the nineteen-twenties. The modern norteno band, built around the accordian, was established in Monterrey, in the fifties.

The majority of Los Tigres' songs are corridos, a species of compressed ballad characteristic of norteno. Corridos are a form of bulletin. Something of consequence, usually violent, happened somewhere, and the corrido is the medium for broadcasting it. (One could think of the Iliad as a long-form corrido.) Corridos began to appear in Mexico in the eighteen-sixties and have a single reference, the border. They emerged to express the strife that ensued when a remote and unified territory was divided suddenly, following the Mexican War. No corrido has been written that is not somehow in the shadow of this circumstance. Antique corridos had bad men and cattle drives and border disputes as subjects, as did cowboy ballads - the explanation being that the culture of the region was an amalgamation of Mexican and Anglo elements."

-Alex Wilkinson on Los Tigres del Norte, who have been recording since 1972 and are based in San Jose, California, in "Immigration Blues" from the May 24th issue of The New Yorker

My parents' house in Napa is on a hill above the central part of town, not too far from the county fairgrounds. I will never forget falling asleep to the sounds of various fiestas floating above the houses, the relentless step of the amplified accordion preventing my slumber. I don't love the sound of norteno music, but there is something so effortlessly upbeat about it that I admire, seemingly smiling in the face of all subject matter.

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