Norteno Music: People's Culture

September 25, 2007

Recent headlines have been filled with news from the U.S.- Mexican border. President Carter's new immigration plan, campaigns against undocumented workers, and the creation of" Ku Klux Klan vigilante patrols have all contributed to this region's emergence as a national issue. In addition, decades of organizing efforts have brought to national attention the oppressive and exploitative conditions under which Chicano/Mexicano people work and live. This struggle has also encouraged the growth of a politically- conscious culture in the south- west and has brought to light a cultural tradition revealing a history of pride and resistance, The beauty of this people's culture has long been captured in norteijo music-music from the border of South Texas and Northern Mexico. Deeply rooted in Mexican culture, norteljo music developed as a distinct regional style, influenced somewhat by the music of European immigrants. In substance, it revolves around the omnipresent reality of the border. In spirit, it reveals the ways through which the oppressed express and temporarily transcend the hardship of their daily lives. The first large-scale, recorded documentation of norteho music has been released by Arhoolie Records, a small, folk music label based in California. Texas- Mexican Border Music: una historia de la musica de la frontera, a five-volume record set, collects and chronicles a broad array of commercial recordings of nortefio music between 1930 and 1960. (The songs themselves reach back to the turn of the century.) "This is the music," writes the albums' editor, Chris Strachwitz, "of working people, the truck drivers, the packing house workers, the field hands who harvest the citrus crops, onions, carrots, and spinach along the rich bottom lands of the murky Rio Grand." Volume I is an introduction to the varied musical styles found in the series. Volumes 2 and 3 are comprised of Corridos-long ballads recounting incidents of notoriety or special poignancy. The corridos are performed by male duets with guitar accompaniment, are sung in a florid style in close harmony, describing events in a detailed and poetic fashion. It is in the corrido that this music's historical richness and timeliness are most evident. Almost without exception, the corridos document the exploitation and oppression of Mexican workers on both sides of the border. For example, from "El Deportado:" There comes a large cloud of dust with no consideration Women, children and old men are being driven to the Border Goodbye beloved countrymen we are being deported But we are not bandits we come to work Or, the wry lament of the immigrant in "El Lavaplatos:" To the picking of tomatoes and the gathering of beets There I earned indulgence walking on my knees About four or five miles they gave me as penance Oh, what work, and so poorly paid for going on one's knees of "El Corrido de Texas" and "Corrido Pensilvanio" describe the migration of Mexican work gangs from Texas to Indiana, Milwaukee, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania; they are filled with longing for the land and the loved ones left behind. More than half the corridos are concerned with violent confrontations between Chicanos and Anglo lawmen. Legendary stories of individual or group acts of resistance to U.S. authority are told, such as those of "Gregorio Cortez" (undoubtedly the most famous Texas corrido and the subject of a book by folklorist Amerio Paredes), and "Joaquin Murieta" (immortalized in a play by Pablo Neruda). Also, less-known sagas like that of "Bonifacio Torres," (a 16 year- old boy who temporarily held 200 lawmen at bay in Jarales, New Mexico one day in 1930), are sung. He wanted liberty and not to suffer slavery Rather than seeing himself a slave he preferred to die -from "Corrido de Bonifacio Torres" Albums 4 and 5 of the series are devoted to dance music and lyric songs. In sharp contrast to "the harsh and violent world of the corridos, these songs and tunes express the spirit and warmth within the Chicano community. Each is thereby a small victory in the struggle to maintain a Mexicano identity in the face of Anglo domination. Volume 4 is made up of early recordings of Nortejio Acordeon, an instrument brought to the area by German and Bohemian settlers and soon integrated into the border music. Volume 5 contains recordings by string bands that flourished along the border until the 1940s. Here, there are many wonderful performances-the brilliant fiddling of El Ciego Melquiades, the driving accordians of Narciso Martinez and Santiago Jimenez, the passionate canciones of Lydia Mendoza, known as "La Cancionera de los Pobres, "(The Singer of the Poor) and "La Alondra de la Frontera," (The Lark of the Border). There are also examples of Mexican huapangos and rancheras, harp playing from Vera Cruz, and dance forms like the polka and the waltz, adopted from Europe. Notes to the albums are included in English, as are English translations of the lyrics from Volumes 1-3. Although this written representation of the music often lacks a coherent anti- imperialist perspective, the editor clearly understands the music as an expression of an oppressed people and writes with enthusiasm and love for the music and musicians. Phillip Sonnischen's research notes on the corridos are too partial to official accounts of the incidents, but it hardly matters as the corridistas speak very cleverly and honestly for their people. These shortcomings should not prevent the listener from appreciating the wealth of music and history these albums contain, nor their relevance to contemporary political realities. Available from Arhoolie Records, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530

Tags: US-Mexico Border, norteño music, Immigration

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.