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Sing Now, Die Later 

The Ballad of Chalino Sanchez: Part 1

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Saturday slides toward Sunday at Rodeo de Medianoche, a cavernous nightclub in Pico Rivera, as the duo Voces del Rancho sing the story of how Lamberto Quintero died. A drug smuggler in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Quintero was killed in a 1976 shootout, and his ballad - or corrido - is now a classic. While keeping true to its accordion-based polka beat, Voces del Rancho (Voices of the Village) have updated the corrido with an overlay of machine-gun fire. All the duo's songs are polkas or waltzes - corridos about events in isolated Mexican pueblos. Their audience - about 300 tonight - is a mass of bobbing cowboy hats; their latest album shows them in boots and white cowboy hats, sitting on hay bales in front of a barn. Yet none of that - the hats, the album cover, the lyrics, even the music - has much to do with the singers' life experience, nor that of their audience, most of whom are L.A. born and bred. Nothing about the scene would suggest that Voces del Rancho are actually two Angelenos who see a Mexican village about as often as they see a bale of hay.

 

Mariano Fernandez and Edgar Rodriguez, both 21, grew up in Bell, graduated from Bell High School, listened to rap, speak an up-to-the-minute urban slang and, until recently, never condescended to sing Mexican country music. They and their audience are part of a little-noticed but significant cultural shift among Los Angeles Mexican-American working-class youth, who in recent years have rediscovered and remade their parents' folk music, including the traditional corrido.

 

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In the days before telephones and mass media, the corrido established itself in Mexican popular culture by bringing news to those who couldn't read. It was the people's tabloid, telling the tall tales of legendary revolutionaries and notorious bandits - those who had done something worth singing about. In recent years, the corrido has been transformed into the narcocorrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, with themes of drugs, violence and police perfidy, and an abiding admiration for the exploits of drug smugglers. The music is distinctly Mexican, but its creative hub is Los Angeles, where at least 30 clubs regularly present narcobands.

 

How all this happened comes down to the story of one man: a simple, rough-hewn undocumented Mexican immigrant named Chalino Sanchez. His career lasted just four years and he was killed when he was only 31, yet he's an authentic folk hero and one of the most influential musical figures to emerge in Los Angeles in decades. After Chalino, guys whose second language was an English-accented Spanish could pump polkas out their car stereos at maximum volume and girls would think they were cool.

 

"When we were small, we always wanted to fit in, so we'd listen to rap," says Edgar Rodriguez. "The other kids were all listening to rap, so I guess we felt that if we listened to Spanish music we'd be beaners or something. But after Chalino died, everybody started listening to corridos. People wanted to feel more Mexican."

 

"Without exaggeration, 50 percent of the [Mexican] music that's recorded in L.A. is based on his legacy," says Angel Parra, the engineer who recorded most of Chalino's albums.

 

Abel Orozco, owner of El Parral in South Gate, one of the big Mexican-music clubs, puts it this way: "Chalino changed everything."

 

He was born in a small village in Sinaloa. His parents named him Rosalino, but he thought it sounded too much like a woman's name; he preferred the nickname Chalino. He went north as a teenager. There was no work in his village, but the reason he left had more to do with an event that had happened years before.

 

When Chalino was a child, the story goes, his sister was raped by a valiente - or tough - known as "El Chapo" Perez. Chalino waited. He grew up. When he was about 15, he went to a party and there saw El Chapo. "Chalino told me he didn't say anything to him. He just went up to him and shot him. He didn't give him a chance," says Nacho Hernandez, his longtime accordion player and leader of the band Los Amables del Norte.

 

After the shooting Chalino came to Los Angeles, to the home of an aunt. For a while he worked the farms, following harvests up through California and Oregon. Then he settled in Inglewood during the time when it and neighboring towns were forming a belt of Mexican-immigrant suburbia around the city of L.A. He washed dishes, sold cars and, for a while, dabbled in drug dealing - small quantities of marijuana and cocaine, according to friends. He also helped his older brother, Armando, run an immigrant-smuggling business. But that ended in 1984, when Armando was shot and killed in a Tijuana hotel.

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