Why do we look up to ‘bad guys’? Or let’s phrase that another way. Why are so called bad guys (outlaws, bandits, dacoits, highwaymen) so attractive to a certain class of people, especially the poor, disenfranchised and shat-upon?
In Mexico there is long tradition of corridos (ballads) being composed about and sung for all sorts of anti-establishmentarian figures like drug dealers, thieves and smugglers. In modern America and Mexico one of the most popular genres of music is the narcocorrido, a ballad that praises the exploits of the nasty drug kings that have unleashed so much violence all across Mexico and the southwestern American states. A more unappealing group of businessmen is hard to imagine, these guys who think nothing of decapitation and bloodbaths on urban streets. And yet when these narcocorridos are brought to the stage, the house is packed to the rafters.
Sociologists have puzzled over the appeal of the ‘criminal hero’ ever since (at least) Robin Hood did battle in Nottingham against King John. They say, by singing songs they are vicariously speaking out against the oppressive system. Or, when the level and quality of justice in a society is so unresponsive and unfair, the poor build up songs about these shady (but brave) figures. Some scholars have, in Mexico’s case, traced the corridos to times when times were so hard that good men were forced into a life of bad activities. Like those who can identify with the good man Walter White, of the hit TV series Breaking Bad, who does a terrible thing for a noble reason, these songs are sympatico signals of the ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ sort.
Scholar Chris Frazer in his book Bandit Nation: A History of Outlaws and Cultural Struggle in Mexico 1810-1920 posits that the driver of the creative spirit behind corridos was in fact a concept of masculinity. A man was supposed to be strong and accomplish great things for those whom he protected, the poor. In exchange for loyal service the patron provided strength and the necessities of life. Little did it matter if sometimes the patron crossed over the line that the establishment had said must not be crossed.
And since many of these illegal activities, especially murder, were seen by the singers as justifiable acts (retaliation against cruel bosses or grinding injustice from the system) it is often unclear whether the songs are indeed, glorifying bad guys at all. Rather they can be seen as truly heroic songs. Just depends which side of the table your sitting on.
Tonight’s musical selection is a collection of these 19th and early 20th century corridos that elevated the exploits of drug smugglers, ‘rebel leaders’ and criminals, like Heraclio Bernal one of Mexico’s most infamous folk heroes. The songs are sung in the simple folk style with guitar, accordion and every once in awhile a Mexicali trumpet. The harmonies are sweet and melodies too. But the songs are filled with references to robbery, marijuana, cocaine, tequila smuggling and death. There is something weirdly charming hearing a group of elderly women singing fondly of such things!
A fun collection this is. Take it as proto-gangster rap or genuine songs of the oppressed. Whatever suits your fancy. As for me, I hear a bit of both.
01 Corrido de Heraclio Bernal (The Ballad of Heraclio Bernal
02 Mariano Reséndez – Timoteo Cantu
03 Nieves Hernández
04 Corrido de Mier (Ballad of Mier)
05 Tequileros (The Tequileros) – Timoteo Cantu
06 Contrabando de El Paso, Pt. 1 (Contraband of El Paso, Pt. 1) – Leonardo Sifuentes
07 Contrabando de El Paso, Pt. 2 (Contraband of El Paso, Pt. 2) – Leonardo Sifuentes
08 Cocaína (Cocaine)
09 Marihuana (Marijuana)
10 Corrido de Juan García (The Ballad of Juan García)
11 García y Zamarripa
12 Pateros (The River Bandits)
13 Corrido del Hampa, Pt. 1 (Ballad of the Underworld, Pt. 2
14 Corrido del Hampa, Pt. 2 (Ballad of the Underworld, Pt. 2)
15 Canela (Ballad of the Cinnamon)
16 Por Morfina y Cocaína, Pt. 1 (Because of Morphine & Cocaine, Pt. 1)
17 Por Morfina y Cocaína, Pt. 2 (Because of Morphine & Cocaine, Pt. 2) Juan Gonzalez
18 Contrabandista, Pt. 1 (The Contraband Trafficker, Pt. 1)
19 Contrabandista, Pt. 2 (The Contraband Trafficker, Pt. 2)
20 Carga Blanca (White Cargo)
21 Profugo (The Fugitive, Marijuana)
22 Corrido de Juan Meneses (The Ballad of Juan Meneses)
23 Francisco Martínez
24 Tragedia de los Cargadores (Tragedy of the Drug Couriers)
25 Cadena (The Chain Gang)
26 Rey de Pipa Roja (The King of the Road 18-Wheel Tanker)