Welcome to Tijuana. Tequila, sexo y marijuana.
In 1957, jazz bassist Charles Mingus recorded an album about Tijuana. He called it Tijuana Moods, and it’s a classic rendering of a Tijuana that may never have existed. It is the Tijuana of North American tourist myth and frat-boy sexual fantasy; the Tijuana of donkey shows and johns pimping their sisters to Navy men on weekend shore leave; the Tijuana where everything is cheaper, everything more transgressive. The licentious evil twin of its conservative Protestant sibling, Tijuana lurks one border fence, one border wall and a fleet of migra trucks away to the north.
The album jacket of Tijuana Moods — which has just been reissued in a double-disc “complete edition” by BMG France — describes the record as a re-creation of “an exciting stay in Mexico’s wild and controversial border town.” Mingus had headed south after splitting with his wife, and the songs promise sonic evocations of what he found: strippers (“Ysabel’s Table Dance”), street singers (“Los Mariachis”), gambling houses (“Flamingo”) and affordable cultural keepsakes (“Tijuana Gift Shop”). Tijuana was the same thing for him that it’s been for so many U.S. thrill seekers since Prohibition made Tijuana’s Agua Caliente casino into Hollywood’s most popular party back lot in the ’20s, a city synonymous with what Mingus called “wine-women-song-and-dance.”
The album art is priceless, too: a cigarette-smoking Mexican stripper flashing her rose-pinned garter while leaning on a jukebox.
When I show the album to Jorge Verdin, a Tijuana-raised graphic designer and musician who polished his design chops at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he laughs. “She looks like she’s from the Moulin Rouge at the turn of the century,” he says. “That’s funny. This is exactly the kind of stuff we’re all in dialogue with.”
The “we” Verdin refers to is a tight-knit collective of musicians, visual artists, architects and fashion designers who rally around a flag they’ve dubbed Nor-Tec, which stands for the merger of norteño and techno — the music and culture of northern Mexico cut-and-pasted into techno’s raves, breakbeats, sequencers and drum machines. Nor-Tec has no manifesto, but just about everyone involved agrees that what they’re after is giving voice to the modern Tijuana they all grew up in — a relentlessly misunderstood metropolis that now houses well over a million people, a border that is crossed legally more than 50 million times a year, a city that is both capital of bling-blinging narco traffic and one of the global economy’s most bustling maquiladora manufacturing hubs.
The Nor-Tec response to Tijuana is art that is both local and global, art that bears the low-tech influence of the makeshift domestic culture that extreme poverty brings (hillside colonias built of scrap metal and cardboard boxes, no water), as well as its trickle-down transformation by the wired winds of economic change (Internet links, samplers, cheaper computers, vaqueros wearing Versace). Nor-Tec artists are critically conscious of Tijuana’s past, but obsessed with reconstructing its future with their own hands.
Though Nor-Tec has gained the most attention as a sparkling mextronica musical movement (Nor-Tec remixes of Beck and Titan have been cropping up on stateside radio, and the first Nor-Tec compilation will be out next January through Palm), it encompasses an entire aesthetic that includes a proposed 2001 interactive architecture installation at the San Diego–Tijuana border checkpoint, a series of gallery shows featuring Nor-Tec art, a string of satirical Nor-Tec T-shirts (Star Wars reborn as Estar Guars, the lower-class Mexican slur naco re-imagined as an AC/DC logo), and an entire line of Ester Zavala’s cyber-norteño clothing (you guessed it, tech ponchos, mesh rave serapes, and parachute dresses with vaquero arrow stitches).
At a recent Nor-Tec show at the Roxy that featured DJs Bostich, Terrestre and the now-L.A.-based Plankton Man, Verdin and his partner, Fritz Torres, screened high-gloss digital collages that made their own comment on Tijuana’s place in the global-pop marketplace. There was a mock Macintosh ad, with a cactus instead of a computer, that read, “Piense Diferente. Piense Nor-Tec,” a Day-Glo “original gangsta” portrait of slain narco-corrido king Chalino Sanchez, and a blurred black-and-gray field stamped with “There is no such thing as a donkey show.”
“We take the local vernacular,” says Verdin, “then process it on a G3.”
But for all its artistic tentacles, Nor-Tec began as a purely musical experiment in 1999, the brainchild of local Tijuana electronica stalwart Pepe Mogt. Looking for new sounds to incorporate into his own electro outfit Fussible (which he helms with Jorge Ruiz), Mogt began playing with old norteño and banda sinaloense albums, isolating track after track of snare-drum rolls, tuba hiccups and accordion giggles, then logging them onto his hard drive and processing them through an analog synth. He would hand the raw material over to his friends Bostich and Panoptica — both already-known entities in the nearly 20-year-old Tijuana electronica scene — who each would come up with something different. Fussible went ambient (“Trip to Ensenada”), Panoptica stuck to slo-core minimalist German techno (“And L”), and on “Polaris,” the unofficial Nor-Tec rump-shaker anthem, Bostich went full-on drum ’n’ tuba.
“When I used to record my songs,” says Ramon Amezcua of his pre-Bostich days as a Kraftwerk disciple (he pulled his stage name from an old Yello song), “they would sound like other groups from other countries. But now, with Nor-Tec, it’s more Mexican. Now my principal influences aren’t foreign groups, but local ones.”
Since the first meeting, Nor-Tec has expanded its scope to include the electro-jazz of Plankton Man, the ethereal Baja blues of Hiperboreal and the spacy breakbeat rancheras of Terrestre. At a recent Nor-Tec minirave on the beach at Rosarito, just south of Tijuana, Terrestre’s Fernando Corona — wearing aviator shades and his own matte-black cyber poncho — punched out an old-school norteño accordion solo over house beats on his synthesizer, then flicked a switch and unleashed a slinky acid-jazz organ vamp. None of the thousand-plus Tijuana kids dancing on the sand (two floors down from a G3-stocked cyber-lounge, one floor down from a taco grill) missed the point.
“If you go to Revolución Avenue,” says Mogt, who, along with Ruiz and Amezcua, runs the Nor-Tec indie label Mil Records, “there’s a club playing hip-hop, a club playing techno, mariachis playing in the streets, and then a big pickup with tinted windows playing banda. All of that is Nor-Tec for me. Take all of that as if you’re standing in the middle of Revolución, and turn it into songs.”
Tijuana has never really functioned as a Mexican city. The 1907–1919 construction of the Tijuana and Tecate railroad connected the cities to San Diego, not Mexico City, and throughout the century Tijuaneros have had more contact — socially, culturally, economically — with los united than with goings-on in the capital. For the Nor-Tec crowd, the more puro mexicano stirrings of Mexico City’s rock en español scene always seemed a nation away. It was easier for Bostich and Fussible to listen to San Diego radio stations, and raid San Diego swap meets for Tangerine Dream vinyl and used samplers.
Julieta Venegas, another TJ local who was a music-school classmate of Bostich’s, also grew up on what she calls “Anglo music,” regularly crossing the border to go to “Anglo shows.” Venegas, who was born in Long Beach, raised in Tijuana and now lives in Mexico City, was studying cello at the time (Bostich was even briefly her instructor) but would soon go on to become a member of Chantaje, a punkish Tijuana band that would regroup as political traviesos Tijuana No!, the city’s best-known addition to the Latin rock circuit. She co-wrote the band’s biggest hit to date, the ska-hop “Pobre de Ti,” before breaking away to go solo on 1997’s stunning Aqui. She’s just released her extraordinary follow-up, Bueninvento, and Bostich has already taken one of its more mournful cuts, “Seria Feliz,” and turned it into a sultry ambient-banda slow jam.
“I never felt a part of Tijuana No!,” says Venegas. “I never felt I was rock enough. They always thought my lyrics were too personal. They always had to be talking about the news.”
Like the Nor-Tec artists, Venegas is a product of organic Tijuana internationalism. Her gorgeous and gripping songs — which feature Joe Gore on guitar and Beck vet Joey Waronker on drums — bend and break with unpredictable melodies and angular syncopation. They can sound as much like the 12-string laments of Lydia Mendoza as like the beat-stuttering talk-singing of Missy Elliott (whom Venegas listened to throughout Bueninvento’s recording). Her elegant accordion waltzes morph classic norteño button pushing into future-shocked Italian tarantella and languid glam rock (“I wanted to do the Ziggy Stardust gay-diva sort of thing,” she says).
Not unlike Terrestre’s norteño synth washes or Bostich’s banda face-lifts, Venegas puts her own spin on the classic sound of the North, using it as a foundation for intimate art-pop compositions that speak multiple national languages with a forked local tongue.
“My mom was a combination of Juan Gabriel, José José and Tom Jones,” says Venegas, who on Bueninvento explodes Gabriel’s plaintive “Siempre en mi mente” into a jaw-dropping plea for emotional redemption. “My brother was into Madness and Depeche Mode. Tijuana gave me the liberty to listen to a lot of different things at once. Seeing the Beatles together with Pedro Infante was a natural thing. It’s weird in Tijuana, because you’re not from Mexico and you’re not from the U.S., and people think you have no culture, that you don’t care about your history.”
Tijuana gets the “sin cultura” accusation thrown at it from both sides. Mexicans from the South see the border metropolis as too agringado, too mixed up in the business and culture of the U.S., too out of touch with Mexican â tradition and Mexican history, and certainly too open to the fact that just about everybody speaks English and has spent some part of his or her life living and working on the other side. From the North, Tijuana only signifies what CNN and nativist political demagogues allow it to: cheap thrills, drug wars, illegal immigration, toxic eco-devastation and high crime rates.
The art of Nor-Tec and the music of Venegas insist that Tijuana is anything but a nowhere zone of cultural loss, and that it’s not a city caught between the U.S. and Mexico at all, but a city that contains both of them — vibrantly, brilliantly, aggressively — at the same time. For Venegas, this is Tijuana’s greatest advantage, something it took moving to Mexico City for her to fully realize.
“Since I moved here, I’ve become more from Tijuana,” she laughs. “The city marks you. The way that I grew up and the music I grew up listening to are so very different from people around here. Tijuana is a small town, but there are thousands of people going through it, so it’s not isolated, and lots of information flows through. You have access to everything from all over the world.”
Part of the pleasure of listening to the music of Nor-Tec and Venegas is hearing Tijuana tell its own stories to audiences both within and beyond its borders. Which is why — if your only experience with Tijuana is Herb Alpert, a donkey painted to look like a zebra, a night trolling Revolución Avenue or a news special on new Border Patrol surveillance gear — their music may come as a cultural shock. After all, it’s not what “Tia Juana” is supposed to sound like: It’s assured, sophisticated, well-produced and culturally savvy. When most of the world sees Tijuana as barely modern, Nor-Tec and Venegas make music that nominates Tijuana as postmodernism’s most appropriate inter-American capital. (When I suggested this to Verdin, he scoffed, “Postmodern? That’s so 20th-century.”)
The fact that Venegas speaks English (which she learned from watching TV), that her album is being distributed in the States by BMG Latin, and that her PR is being handled by a U.S. publicist has led many to urge her into following in the footsteps of Ricky, Shakira and Enrique, and record an album in English. It’s a change that Venegas is unwilling to make — but not, she insists, because of knee-jerk cultural pride or nationalistic flag-waving.
“When I write songs, I always start with the lyric and then add the melody,” she explains. “Starting with an English lyric would change everything. It would be the same thing if I had grown up somewhere other than Tijuana. I’m sure the music would still sound good. It just wouldn’t be mine.”
For more information on Nor-Tec music and art, check out www.milrecords.com. Julieta Venegas performs as part of Revolución 2000 at Universal Amphitheater Wednesday, November 1; Nor-Tec artists appear at El Rey Friday, September 29.