Where Mexican Folk Ballads Meet Trap Music

Where Mexican Folk Ballads Meet Trap Music

LOS ANGELES — When Francisco Rodriguez, 31, was incarcerated in a federal prison near San Diego, he began writing songs. He had grown up in Santa Maria, Calif., listening to corridos, a form of traditional Mexican ballads that his parents and grandparents loved, so that is what he gravitated toward writing.

Corridos are ballads born of an oral tradition of storytelling that goes back to the 19th century. Whether it’s the daring tale of a real-life revolutionary or a romantic saga set in rural Mexico, a corrido comes with a narrative arc. Many are based on real events: The “Corrido of Joaquín Murrieta” tells the tale of a bandit and folk hero from California’s Gold Rush years.

In prison, Mr. Rodriguez wrote some about the lives of his relatives in Mexico but focused more on what he knew from personal experience: the perils of trafficking arms across the United States-Mexico border. He wrote about the street hustlers and drug-dealers that he knew from his neighborhood.

Over time, he also experimented with changing the traditional corrido sound based on his upbringing — namely, infusing the acoustic guitar and accordion accompaniments with a quicker pace, including hip-hop beats based on the music he listened to growing up in Southern California in the 1990s.

That form of music is now taking off. Mr. Rodriguez, who goes by Shrek and has been out of prison for two years, is the lead vocalist ofArsenal Efectivo, one of several popular “trapcorrido” groups influenced by rap and hip-hop.

(Trap, an Atlanta-born rap subgenre, is characterized by sharp snares and booming bass, as well as hazy, minor-key melodies. But the word “trap” has become a common prefix for hip-hop-influenced sub genres, regardless of whether they share the sonic qualities of trap music.)

In his dressing room before a recent sold-out show at the Forum in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mr. Rodriguez reflected on the evolution of his sound: “I left the drug dealing and trapping life and pursued music after I was released from prison, and that’s how all of this was formed.”

He was wearing flashy jewelry and a shiny diamond grill on his teeth; his bandmates and friends wore T-shirts with the word “trapcorridos” across their chests.

“When I first started my band, we were dressing in crocodile boots and wearing big tejanas and sombreros,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “But now I’m dressing in blinged-out clothes and blinged-out jewelry, I got a grill in my teeth, and that’s something that has never been seen in our culture — Mexicans who wear a grill and sing corridos.”

Jesus Ortiz Paz, 22, the lead singer of Fuerza Regida, another group from Los Angeles that sings trapcorridos, said: “We’re from the streets. We weren’t born in Mexico, and we’re not singing about the ranchos.”

In the latter part of the 20th century, as organized drug trafficking networks grew more powerful in Mexico, corrido records reflected the strife associated with the violence of the underground drug trade, creating a subgenre known as narcocorridos.

Los Tigres Del Norte, a Mexican norteño band that formed in San Jose, Calif., became famous for a 1974 song they covered called “Contrabanda Y Traiccion,” about a relationship between a woman and her drug-dealing lover and their travels to Los Angeles from San Antonio. The woman shoots her husband after learning of his infidelity, and escapes with his money and drug stash.

Chalino Sanchez, a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, also helped popularize narcocorridos. He sang embellished first-person accounts of shootouts with police, immigration, murder and survival that became popular, especially in southeast Los Angeles, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But while the trapcorrido musicians of today grew up hearing corridos, and could relate to some of the themes, their lived experiences were very different. They grew up in metropolitan California cities. They listened to hip-hop and rap music. They wear Air Jordans, Gucci and Balenciaga. Rap culture was a formative part of their upbringing.

Jose Leon, known as Mint, designs clothing for Arsenal Efectivo and other trapcorrido groups. He combines expensive fashion with urban street wear — embroidered jackets and expensive athletic shoes.

“This movement is about something different,” said Mr. Leon, 33, minutes before Arsenal Efectivo took the stage in Inglewood. He called it a trend born of the second-generation Mexican-American experience.

“All of us grew up in places like South Central, and some of us grew up in the ’hood,” he said. “People used to wear hats and cowboy boots, but these boys don’t want to wear that anymore. They want to wear what they wear in the streets. It’s a whole new wave.”

Josh Kun, a professor and director of the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication, believes that corridos, as a form of music that exists along and on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, lend themselves naturally to collaboration with other genres.

“It’s really important that this new development is put into a long history of corridos on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that dates back to the 19th century,” he said. “Since the 1980s, corridos have been mixing with other genres like techno, electro pop, and in the ’90s to electro banda to hip-hop.”

Dr. Kun also said the evolution of trapcorridos fits into a larger wave of trap music ascendancy. “Trap has become the global streaming genre,” he said. “Every region in the world has grabbed on to trap as a musical language.”

Still, Jimmy Humilde, who runs a label called Rancho Humilde that manages several trapcorrido groups including Arsenal Efectivo, believes that there is something unique about trapcorridos in Southern California.

“This is the voice of young Chicano culture, and we’re representing Los Angeles culture with this music,” he said. “When have you ever heard a corrido song about living in South Central? There’s never been anything like this, and that’s why we are calling it regional urban music.”

As a testament to its appeal, music venues across California are selling out for trap-corrido shows. The bands are also traveling to other states and to Mexico, one of their biggest markets. (There is a growing trapcorrido scene there as well.)

“We feel like Selena,” said Mr. Paz, the Fuerza Regida singer, referring to the Mexican-American singer who became one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century before her death in 1995. “We’re Mexican-American and we’re going down to Mexico just like she did and selling out shows just like she did.”

There’s another reason trapcorrido music feels serendipitous right now.

Musical collaboration between black and Latino artists is not uncommon. But racial tension in South Central Los Angeles, especially in the early 1990s, was fraught between these demographic groups, both caught in a system of limited access to economic and social resources.

As the Mexican population increased in Los Angeles in the 1990s and 2000s, so did the exodus of African-American families who were buying property in regions outside of Los Angeles, like the Inland Empire, an area that encompasses cities in Riverside and San Bernardino.

There were huge brawls in Los Angeles schools and violence between black and Latino gangs, including as recently as 2014, when several Latino gang members firebombed the homes of black families living in a Boyle Heights housing project.

Some in South Central see trapcorrido music as a corrective, though not an antidote, to racial tensions.

“This movement is also about African-Americans who are buying tickets to the concerts,” said Mr. Leon, the clothing designer. “That’s what trapcorridos are about, a mixture of what we know.”

Rolando Casimiro, 28, believes the music can even serve to create better relationships between black and Latino communities in Los Angeles. After the fatal shooting of the rapper Nipsey Hussle this year, Mr. Casimiro, who goes by “Faraon de Oro,” wrote a tribute song called “El Corrido de Nipsey Hussle.”

The song begins with Nipsey’s birth in 1985 and recounts his success and dedication to his community through a first-person telling. The narrative ends with his death, and a personal plea to end violence and for all people to unite as one.

Within a day, the song had more than half a million views on YouTube. “It felt weird to me that there weren’t any corridos about black people,” said Mr. Casimiro, a child of first-generation immigrants from the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico.

But the news of Nipsey Hussle’s death was a blow to many in Los Angeles. “I started writing the song for him,” Mr. Casimiro said. “The more I learned about him, the more I thought that we had just lost someone really big.”

Jennifer Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the author of the book “The Browning of the New South,” believes the popularity of trapcorridos tracks with the changing demographics of the United States.

“Mexican kids are growing up with trap music in the South,” she said. “They’re fusing those two pieces of their lives, growing up in black neighborhoods, and are attentive to how black culture has shaped the south and are also a part of new wave of Latino settlement in these places.”

In that, Jimmy Humilde, the record label owner, sees longevity. “We’re selling out shows in places that we’ve never been before,” he said. “We’re the future.”

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