TIJUANA, Mexico — I recently found myself on the road to TJ: The sun was hotter’n a bulldog’s bumhole, and the traffic was even more infernal, but no worries — this is what it’s like when you receive The Call. My goal: to meet and hang with the five members of Tijuana’s Nortec Collective, a group of musicians, artists and textual provocateurs based in Baja’s notorious playground for American frat boys. Nortec have a new disc out, called Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 3 (Nacional), wherein their streamlined Technicolor techno — with the oompahing tubas, tootling trumpets, gurgling clarinets and shuffle-stomping drums of northern Mexico’s ranchera, norteĆ±o and banda styles — gets mashed into a most exquisitely funky and funny and beautiful riot of sound that could only come from a city with a lot of pride of place and not a whole lot to lose.
Crossing the border into Mexico, I quickly sensed that palpable energy shift that follows the landscape’s devolution out of San Diego — all whitewashed bungalows, shiny high rises and sailboats — into what feels like a deeper, far more complex corollary to the human condition. Here, the streets and shops and cars and even the dogs look well used because they’re so full of life, rather than empty of it. Vitality, you might say.
On our meeting, the five members of Nortec are all shy smiles and a rather courtly friendliness. Over water, Cokes and beers, we proceed to probe the whys and wherefores of their sound/vision collaborations, and how Nortec’s mere existence probably owes to fate or divine providence or sheer good luck, if one happens to believe in those sorts of things.
Formed in 1999, the group today consists of the “godfather” of the T.J. electronic scene, RamĆ³n Amezcua, a.k.a. Bostich; DJ–graphic designer Jorge Verdin, a.k.a. Clorofila; Pepe Mogt, a.k.a Fussible; P.G. Beas, a.k.a. Hiperboreal; and Roberto A. Mendoza, a.k.a. Panoptica.
“The idea,” says Mendoza, “was to get out of the ideas that we had gotten from all the European bands. I wanted to just stop what we were doing and just think of places where we were coming from. Like drum & bass, for example — you know it’s coming from England, and U.S. techno, you know that it’s from Detroit. The same thing with minimalist techno — you know when you hear it, it’s from Germany. At one point we said, ‘We have to do something so that can identify ourselves with the music. We can say we are from Mexico, and from the North.’
“Pepe was the one who came up with the idea of putting this music together, techno music and banda music. But when we did that, a lot of DJs here were not interested in the whole Nortec concept, so we fused all these other elements, regional musical traditions, with more high-tech things.”
Why is a Northern identity so important to these guys? “The culture in Tijuana is very different from that of Mexico City, Guadalajara and in fact from the whole country,” observes Verdin. “We are between these two places — the biggest city in the country, to the south, and the reality of the Mexicans across the border in the U.S., and that whole different culture from us. Our particular reality is only possible in this part of the country.”
In contrast to the almost stereotypical view that Mexican-Americans must by definition have a severe identity crisis, says Verdin, “We don’t feel like Mexican-Americans, who feel they don’t really belong to either culture. We feel that we belong — this is our land, our country, our people, our place. We wanted to expose what is sort of a little-known culture, the Tijuana culture. We have our roots basically in a new thing, and it’s, like, under construction.”
The members of Nortec are perhaps the first generation of Tijuana’s people to recognize their essential separateness from both the North and South. “We are the first generation to face that reality,” says Verdin, “of something new being needed — music and art and literature, everything.”
The reality for young people in Tijuana in the ’80s, when the Nortec crew were at that special age of sensitivity to new music and art, was that Tijuana was basically isolated from the rest of Mexico. The installation of a massive radio transmitter in northern Mexico made all the difference. “That affected us in a good way,” says Pepe Mogt. “A lot of radio stations had special shows, playing nothing but electronic music, so that was the main influence for us.” This, and the subsequent opening of the Iguana Club — where San Diego promoters brought in big-name touring acts from the States and Europe — literally changed the face of music in Tijuana.
Too much talk, though — rather collectively, the group and I decide to take a little tour of their favorite watering holes, places that served as inspirational hot spots during their conceptual development. In other words, we go bar-hopping.
In the fantastic Dandy del Sur — a moodily dim and narrow room stuffed with curios, candles and a crude mural of a pimp wearing huaraches — we discuss the group’s widespread influences, and why the group isn’t bound by them. (By the way, Dandy del Sur’s also graced by the continuous sound of “New York, New York” from the jukebox, pumped out about six times an hour. One of the regulars there plays it pretty much all day, every day of the week. If you don’t care for Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” better stay away from the Dandy del Sur.)
We talk about old faves like Chrome, MX-80 Sound, the Residents, Cluster and Krautrock in general, and this guy Steven Brown, the ex-Tuxedomoon guy who’s been resident in Mexico for a number of years, making his peculiar brand of art music with locals. All of the group’s members are deeply knowledgeable about electronic music, especially from the late ’70s through mid-’80s: Kraftwerk, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Aviador Dro from Spain. In the early ’90s, their tastes hardened with the arrival of heavy industrial shit like Ministry and Pigface and the rest of the Chicago weirdos. Apparently there were electronic bands from Mexico City, and even in Tamaulipas, but they were superunderground. Then came rave music in the mid-’90s, which really catapulted the electronic scene in Tijuana, and inspired what was to become an original electronic sound from Mexico.
At the famous La Estrella, a legendary club where you pays your money and a nice woman will dance with you (or, if you come accompanied, someone else will steal your partner), the DJ has been in his little booth for 30 years; he doesn’t read, picks all his stuff by memory from the covers. The Nortec guys are telling me that places like this, ?in fact, have come back strong in Tijuana, and that as a result there aren’t as many places for DJs and electronic types to ?play. Recently, however, they did good business at the massive Las Pulgas, the ?most impressive of the large trad-Mex music halls. A vast complex of four huge rooms, it can and does hold 6,000 people who come every weekend to stomp and swirl to ranchera and norteĆ±o, and imbibe very cheaply priced booze.
Las Pulgas’ supremely atmospheric vibe of high ceilings and walls painted black, oceans of tables, huge sound systems and stages and bars were perfect for the group’s hypnotic barrage of electro-banda and ?technoteĆ±o. While the owner of the place insisted that they do the show on a weeknight, because he didn’t think it would draw, it did in fact pull in the masses, via radio spots and a massive flier campaign around town.
Tijuana is about 117 years old, and that’s still relatively young. The population has grown from 250,000 two decades ago to more than 2 million residents today. That, the Nortec fellas tell me, is because of a particularly nasty myth that still circulates in poorer areas in southern Mexico, that the border is easiest to cross in Tijuana. In fact, it’s the most difficult. The most frequently crossed border in the world, it’s doubled-walled for miles in this region, with numerous patrols occupying and defending the ground between the two walls. The result is that the migrants end up stranded here, and stay; they end up working at one of TJ’s over 700 maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories that employ more than 150,000 workers here, most all of them cheaply paid and non-union-organized.
A few other tidbits strewn in the maze: Someone once referred to the “emergency architecture” of Tijuana. That’s rich. Nortec emphasizes that Tijuana is accurately seen as “on the edge of the Latin American world; outsider by nature, a city of mixture and opportunities.” Though it’s often viewed as “the world’s longest bar,” a dark pit of drug traffic and prostitution, some locals here say that the real Tijuana is off-limits to tourists — the real Tijuana is where regular people carry on their business in a non-scandalous way.
Meanwhile, Nortec is touring the world — the U.S., Australia, Japan, Europe, including prestigious gigs at the Barbican Center in London and the Hollywood Bowl. They currently sit atop iTunes’ Latin Albums Chart, alongside Thalia, Shakira and Juanes.
And they say: “Know that Nortec is the border, and the border is our future.”
They also say that Tijuana is apparently ugly but at the same time very marvelous.
Nortec Collective co-headlines a free show at the Santa Monica Pier Thursday, August 11, as part of the Latin Alternative Music Conference.
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