In front of the Museum of Mexican History in the center of Monterrey, a girl is pretending to be Beyoncé. She’s dancing on the edge of a fountain that’s spraying water in tall, elegant arches, and she’s singing “Survivor” — loud, at the top of her lungs — while her parents videotape her.
There’s a photo of the same fountain in the CD booklet for Chúntaros Radio Poder, the second album from the Monterrey band El Gran Silencio. But instead of giving Destiny’s Child a Mexican make-over, El Gran Silencio leave their own mark on the smooth gray tiles misty from the fountain’s spray. They put down a clunky, old-school boombox with speakers covered by stickers of La Virgén de Guadalupe. That’s the kind of music El Gran Silencio make, everyday Mexican culture blasted through Afro-urban woofers: cumbias and polkas tangled up in hip-hop and dancehall, electronica that smells of the carne asada that saturates the Monterrey air. For El Gran Silencio, being “el merito Nuevo Leon” (keeping it real Monterrey-style) means wearing a Run-DMC shirt while you play a vallenato.
There isn’t that much difference between El Gran’s boombox and the girl’s performance. They are both responding to culture that’s not their own, culture that’s been made available to them through the helping hand of globalization, and leaving their own individual mark on it, on city-funded grounds meant to celebrate Mexican national history. (Though they do it from opposite angles: She puts the local in the global, they put the global in the local and end up with new genres like “freestyle norteño” and “rigomuffin.”) It’s this kind of open back-and-forth that Monterrey — Mexico’s great commercial centro del norte, and its most gringofied (English, 7-Elevens and Domino’s Pizzas abound) — has been known for since the mid-1800s. Even its landscape suggests crossing and contrast: a flat and wide urban sprawl of highways and factories hemmed in by towering mountains covered with lush green forests.
By the time La Familia Mendoza paid tribute to the city in their 1928 song “Monterrey” (“How beautiful is Monterrey, with its Cerro de la Silla”), it was already the established northern stop for European goods on their way to U.S. stores. There were already stagecoach and train lines that connected it to U.S. cities, and there was already a pattern of musical collision that bumped orchestras and European military bands up against the more regia music it’s famous for (norteño, polka, corridos). Monterrey is still the capital of música norteña and grupera, synonymous with the matching outfits and bajo sexto pop polishes of groups like Bronco, Limite, Luis y Julian and Los Invasores del Nuevo Leon.
Control Machete were the first Monterrey crew to water the roots of this tradition while tearing them out. Their 1997 debut, Mucho Barato, imagined a Bronco concert hijacked by hip-hoppers: a grito ranchero launched from a Technics turntable, a norteño throwing East L.A. gang signs. On Chúntaros Radio Poder, El Gran Silencio come off even more neo-norteño. They send shout-outs to Celso Piña and La Tropa Colombiana, and in the video for “Circulo de Amor” they play to an audience of Mexican grandmothers who rock out in rocking chairs. And with a nod to legendary megawatt Monterrey radio stations like XEG and XET, they imagine a station of their own, with each song getting its own customized front sell from a different local Monterrey radio jock.
The station has a target audience: los chúntaros del barrio, Monterrey’s more peso-strapped hood dwellers who have benefited the least from the city’s economic success. “I am the voice of those who cannot speak,” El Gran Silencio sing on “El Canto de la Serpiente,” “The voice is also a weapon.” But because this is local Monterrey radio, it is also border radio (the bustling Laredo–Nuevo Laredo crossing point is only two hours away). When El Gran Silencio beatbox, it comes out in Spanish and English. When they fall in love, they fall in love with a Chicana and head to California with “kisses in Spanglish.” When they pay tribute to living in Latin America, they reach for Stephen Sondheim.
Their version of West Side Story’s “America” — the archetypal Broadway take on immigrant American dreamology — is delivered as “I Like To Live en Mi Tierra.” El Gran aren’t Puerto Ricans who want to live in America when they already are; they like to live where they are, in an accented América that exists on both sides of the border. Which is to say that when El Gran Silencio want to live in America, they want to live in Zacatecas and in Arizona, an imaginary borderless country where there’s room enough for chúntaro b-boys and Mexican Beyoncés to bounce their songs off the walls of Mexican history.
EL GRAN SILENCIO | Chúntaros Radio Poder | (Virgin)