Friday, July 15, 2016

Narcocorrido: Narrative Music by Gordon Chaplin

The narcocorrido, the murder ballad and the average gangster rap joint are what I've expected to make up the majority of the Narrative Music series since its inception, and I'm pleased to have today's piece represent the corrido as apparently it's the first piece I've received. I know I wrote one way back for another site that no longer exists, but damn... kind of embarrassing to find nothing else here on the blog.

Anyhow, today's contribution is from Gordon Chaplin, most recently the author of Paraiso. If you dig what you read here please check out his work and visit his website.

by Gordon Chaplin

Not too long ago, a stripped out Boeing 727 full to the gunwales with uncut cocaine landed at a popular transshipment point near the little town of Todos Santos in southern Baja California, where I happened to be living at the time and where my new novel Paraiso is set. It was a dry lake bed in the desert that narcos had been flying small aircraft into for years, but this time they got ambitious. Too ambitious. The big 727 landed without mishap but was too heavy for the lakebed and soon  mired down and became trapped. After unloading the cocaine, the smugglers called their allies in the federal police force who dispatched heavy earthmoving equipment to the scene. The plane was half-buried out of sight when someone tipped off the local press and the incident became legend. I even used it in Paraiso.

It didn’t take long for a norteno band called Grupo Laberinto to write a narcocorrido about this and other smuggling incidents involving Boeing 727s, which turn out to be the workhorse of choice for Mexican narcos. With  three powerful  engines in the tail,  they can operate on much shorter runways than normal jets and carry a bigger payload. Grupo Labarinto’s narcocorrido is roguishly titled Caballos del Pantanal: Horses of the Marshlands. It assumes its listeners already know the smuggling connection and contents itself with sly  double entendres. In the pantanal around Tepic there are many good horses. They are covered and quite famous for where they come from,  smirks the first verse.

The corrido is the traditional  ballad of northern Mexico. An accordion-based polka rhythm sets the tone and the form goes back to the Mexican revolution of 1910, celebrating  heroes like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Smugglers began to be celebrated in these ballads as early as 1930.

The new narcocorrido genre has a hip-hop outlaw appeal and is spreading like wildfire through Central America, along the US border, and in US cities with large Latin populations, like Los Angeles. A song called El Cabron (the Badass)  features the following uncompromising lyrics: Ever since I was a boy I had the fame of a badass, already hitting the parrot (cocaine) and blowing dope with all my heart. It’s because in my beloved Mexico everyone is a badass.

Authorities have tried unsuccessfully to ban narcocorridos, including a voluntary radio blackout in Baja California to prevent “people who break the laws of our country being made into heroes and examples.” The death toll among actual performers is also high, as the narcos themselves react homicidally to being singled out by name. Many of the ballads are incriminatingly true to fact. Between 2006 and 2008 alone over a dozen prominent balladeers were murdered, in some cases by torture and disfigurement.

But this only seems to make the genre more popular…and more violent. A recent offshoot of the form, known as movimiento alterado (altered movement, as in someone soaring on cocaine) features the following famous verse:

With an AK-47 and a bazooka on our heads
Cutting off all heads that cross our path
We’re bloodthirsty and crazy—We love to kill
Bullets fired and extortions carried out, just like the best of us
Always in a convoy of armored cars, wearing bullet-proof vests and ready to kill people.  

photo by George Bouret
Gordon Chaplin is the author of the novel Joyride and several works of nonfiction, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss and Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy. A former journalist for Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post, he has worked on sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  His latest novel, Paraiso, is now available. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York.
To learn more, visit
Like Gordon on Facebook: /GordonChaplinAuthor
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @gordon_chaplin

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