The not-so-lyrical lyrics are a paean to Manuel Torres Felix, alias “The Crazy One,” a kingpin in the Sinaloa Cartel known for losing his mind and going on killing sprees:
“With an AK-47 and a bazooka behind my head, cross my path and I’ll chop your head off. I’m crazy and I like to kill my enemies,” goes the verse from the hit song “Sanguinarios del M1,” (The Bloodthirsty M1) by Latin music group BuKnas de Culiacan.
It may not be high poetry, but it is highly popular in the world of “narco ballads,” a musical genre and multi-million dollar industry that peddles songs glorifying the surreal violence of warring drug syndicates and the bling, women, drugs and weapons that punctuate their lives.
It’s not a business based in Mexico, but in Southern California, where even mainstream immigrants and the children of immigrants find solace in the accordion-tuba-guitar strains of polka-like melodies whose sounds date back decades to traditional Mexican “corridos,” or folk songs, based on local lore.
The new “narco” genre is so ingrained in American pop culture it’s become part of primetime television. In the dark, hugely popular cable series “Breaking Bad,” a narcocorrido about the fictional meth-dealing title character was co-written by show creator Vince Gilligan and performed by Los Cuates de Sinaloa during the program’s second season in 2009.
The extremely popular Latin music band BuKnas de Culiacan, seen here, has some of the most grisly lyrics in the ‘narcocorridos’ genre: ‘Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off.’
“Negro y Azul” (Black and Blue) chronicled the mysterious gringo who was stepping on the toes of drug syndicates with his super-pure crystal meth. “The fury of the cartel, ain’t no one escaped yet. But that homie’s dead. He just doesn’t know it yet,” go the lyrics that blur the line between TV fiction and real-life crime.
Narco music is also about living large in a world where life is cheap.
“Ever since I was a lad, I had the fame of a bad–s, already hittin’ the parrot (cocaine) and blowing dope (marijuana),” goes an anthem by Los Capos.
Twenty years ago, narcocorridos chronicled local smugglers and the products they grew and moved. But since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels, the ballads have shifted to the first person, with singers bragging of decapitating, dismembering and boiling enemies alive, as well as mowing down anyone perceived as a threat.
Grammy-winning members of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, shown here in a publicity photo from 2007, are some of the most popular singers of narco ballads in Mexico and the U.S.
And their popularity skyrocketed. Narcocorridos get millions of YouTube hits, sell CDs in the hundreds of thousands and dominate air play in Mexico and on Latin stations in Hispanic hubs such as Los Angeles, where the Latino population is more than 48%.
“It’s the most popular Latin music in the United States,” said Elijah Wald, who wrote the 2002 book “Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas.”
Though the unprecedented violence in narcocorridos mirrors the horrors of current events among Mexican cartels, Wald told the Daily News, the real source of drug ballads is American hip hop music and organized crime films.
“The inspiration for this is Hollywood. It’s ‘Scarface.’ No one ever asks Al Pacino if he feels guilty about inspiring a thousand massacres,” Wald said.
John Parra/Getty Images for Univision
Narcocorrido singer Gerardo Ortiz, seen here, performing at 25th anniversary of Univision’s ‘Premio Lo Nuestro A La Musica Latina’ awards ceremony in February.
Violent hip hop pioneers such as Tupac Shakur, who sang of gangbanging, drugs and thug life, are clearly evident in narco ballads, Wald added.
In 1996, the 25-year-old Shakur was killed by a hail of bullets in Las Vegas. It was the second time he had been shot in an ambush.
Similar fates have met more than a dozen narcocorrido stars since 2006. They have been brutally gunned down amid talk of cartel rivalries, romantic jealousies and ballads praising one syndicate over another.
Among the most blatant:
Sergio (El Shaka) Vega was shot to death in 2010 as his signature red Cadillac approached a tollbooth in Sinaloa. The high-profile drug ballad singer, known as “The Best” in regional slang, was killed just hours after denying a report that said he’d been assassinated .
Mexican singer Sergio Vega appears in 2006, promoting his new album ‘Plaza Nueva,’ in Mexico City. He was shot to death in an ambush four years later.
The band La 5a (Quinta) Banda was mowed down on stage in 2012 as they played in the northwestern state of Chihuahua, home of the Juarez Cartel. One of their most popular songs was dedicated to La Linea, the syndicate’s deadly enforcers. The lyrics lauded La Linea henchmen as “lynx commandos (with) nerves of steel.”
In the bloody attack by unknown gunmen, more than 40 rounds were fired at the band, killing five musicians and four bar patrons.
Some narco singers, including the star El Komander, whose real name is Alfredo Rios and who has more than 3.5 million Facebook fans, say their swagger is all for show.
Nonetheless, El Komander likes to carry an assault weapon or a bazooka onstage. His website, his videos and his CD covers are adorned with photos of him waving handguns in front of luxury cars.
Juaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, seen here in 1993, is the world’s most wanted drug lord. Guzman, whose nickname means shorty, was revered in a song by Grammy-winning Mexican group Los Tucanes de Tijuana.
His music, he has said, merely paints a picture of modern-day Mexico and parts of the U.S., much in the same way that rap stars say their songs are artistic accountings of life in the ‘hood.
And then there are the videos, brimming with bling and the firing of AK-47s and barely-clothed women.
“It is over the top and it’s meant to be over the top,” said Wald. “To some extent it’s like the hyper violence in slasher movies where the fans are laughing and saying ‘Oh my God, did you see that?”’
And then there is the unvarnished truth — drug cartels are absolutely part of narcocorridos and the narcocorrido industry, no matter what anyone says about art imitating life.
Sergio (El Shaka) Vega was on his way to perform at a village festival in Mexico when his signature red Cadillac, shown here, was ambushed in 2010.
“The singers are so popular, the cartels approach them and ask them to write songs about them,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas in Brownsville, who has studied cartels in Mexico. “Or (the cartels) ask them to play a concert. How do you say no to these people?”
Edgar Quintero, a famous singer with the BuKnas band, has admitted that his homage to Sinaloa drug pin Felix (killed in a 2012 gun battle with Mexican soldiers), pleased Felix’s daughter, so he recorded a video of the group performing the song and sent it to her.
Successful singer-songwriter Gerardo Ortiz, who has received 17 Billboard Mexican Music Awards, survived two attacks in 2011. In one, gunmen opened fire on his car, killing his cousin. Ortiz was not hurt. The other occurred after a concert in Mazatlan, when six people were killed as masked gunmen opened fire on a crowd leaving an Ortiz concert.
The young singer told interviewers he did not believe he was the focus of either attack, and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time — twice within a time span of 32 days.
Five members of the popular narco band ‘La 5a (Quinta) Banda’ were shot to death onstage when gunmen opened fire in the Mexican city of Chihuahua. Four concertgoers also died in the unsolved 2012 attack at a nightclub.
“I haven’t had any parties or sang for any private audiences in quite some time,” he said after the shootings.
Cartel members are known for becoming enraged if narco singers write popular songs about their rivals, or if stars decline their invitations to perform privately.
“If these people get angry, a singer can get killed,” Correa-Cabrera said.
With News Wire Services
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