By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Tigres' best songs are stories distilling the essentials of Mexican working-class life: brutal machismo, piercing irony and the tenderest melodrama - the honest cardsharp who, down to nothing in a poker game, bets his beautiful young bride, loses her and pays his debt by shooting her, then killing himself; the man who keeps a grave at the cemetery so his children will believe their mother died instead of running off with another man; the three inseparable drug smugglers who, surrounded by the DEA, blow themselves up with a grenade; the immigrant who leaves his young brother in the care of his fiancee to support the brother's education, only to return and find the brother has married his fiancee.
In 1968, the band - four kids - arrived at the border in Tijuana with a musical revue contracted to play for two dates: one, the September 16 Mexican Independence Day parade in San Jose; the other, for inmates at Soledad. Since the oldest was only 14, they had to persuade a middle-aged Mexican couple to pretend to be their mother and father. The band had no name. But the immigration officer kept calling them "little tigers," and they were headed north and playing norteno music, so they became Los Tigres del Norte.
Los Tigres never returned to Mexico to live. They stayed in San Jose and played small clubs, furniture-store openings and weddings for the Bay Area's growing Mexican community. They once shared a Berkeley festival bill with Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin, talking with the latter backstage as she and her band wolfed down apples that made them act funny. They might have remained just another cantina band were it not for a song that changed the group and norteno forever. Jorge Hernandez, the oldest brother, heard the song in an L.A. nightclub.
Los Tigres put out their version of that song, "Contrabando y Traicion" ("Contraband and Betrayal") in 1972. It tells the story of a man and a woman - he an illegal, she a Chicana from Texas - smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles. After exchanging the dope, the man says he's taking his money and visiting his girlfriend in San Francisco. However, his partner is in love with him. Unwilling to share him with another, she shoots him in a dark Hollywood alley and disappears with the cash.
The song beautifully fuses news item and twisted love story into a series of images that end in sweet tragedy. "It was like a film in the mind's eye," says Hernandez, the band's accordionist, lead singer and musical director. "And it was the truth of what was happening in those years. It came out at exactly the right moment. It spoke of the total chaos that is drug trafficking. Perhaps, also, people had never heard these things said so clearly in song."
By now America's youth was getting high in large numbers, and Mexican immigrants were seeing drug trafficking daily as they crossed the border. The song hit huge. "Contrabando" is now a norteno classic, and two sequels followed. Dozens of lesser-known bands have recorded it. Its two characters, Emilio Varela and Camelia La Tejana, are part of the Mexican cultural vocabulary.
The tune launched Los Tigres' career. But beyond that, "Contrabando" was the first hit about drug smuggling. a Los Tigres followed it with another, "La Banda del Carro Rojo" ("The Red-Car Gang"). Together those songs revealed a market and essentially created the narcocorrido, currently undergoing an explosion in popularity in Mexican music.
The narcocorrido updated the traditional corrido, or ballad, which told of revolutionaries, bandits or a famous cockfight. Instead, narcocorridos tell of drug smugglers, shootouts between narcos and police, betrayals and executions - bloody events set to a rollicking polka rhythm and an obliviously cheerful accordion line. Almost any norteno band nowadays plays a few narcocorridos. Hundreds of bands play nothing but. Narcocorridos are Mexico's gangster rap. Both musics recount horrible violence; both receive virtually no radio support and nonetheless maintain enormous audiences.
Catholic Church spokesmen and Mexico's center-right National Action Party have criticized the narcocorrido phenomenon, and the groups that play them, as part of "the culture of death."
"The only thing that we do is sing about what happens every day," Hernandez says. "We're interpreters, then the public decides what songs they like."
The public has long decided it likes the dope songs. For many years, the band included two or three on each album. In 1989, they put out Corridos Prohibidos (Prohibited Corridos), an entire album about drug smuggling. It was the first of its kind on a major label; there were reports that narcos were buying the record by the case. One of the songs dealt with the 1988 murder of Hector "El Gato" Felix, a muckraking columnist for the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, who had angered many in Baja California politics. Tijuana radio stations refused to play the song, until Zeta raised hell.
Still, Los Tigres have tried mightily to distance themselves from the hundreds of cookie-cutter narcobands that have sprouted over the last 20 years. Their repertoire has always been at least half love songs. "Un Dia a la Vez" ("One Day at a Time"), a quasi- religious tune, responded to the growing influence of fundamentalist Protestant churches within the Mexican-immigrant community in the mid-1980s - churches that condemned dancing and singing as indecent. They won their Grammy for "America," a rock anthem expounding the universal brotherhood of all Latins.