The history of Mexican music is complicated and fascinating. Traditional varieties and genres originated in different areas of the country, just as in America the blues was a southern form, bluegrass came from the mountains of Appalachia, and country and western originated in the west.
Also as in American music, Mexican music has been influenced and shaped by immigrants who came to dominate certain areas and locations, and whose culture became mixed with the local culture. The influx of Germans into western Mexico in the late 1800‘s spawned a type of music called banda, a direct descendant of polka, with its easily danceable simple song structures and instrumentation. In modern times banda has gained huge popularity and success for its performers, largely due to the song style known as narcocorridos.
The corrido is a ballad form, a narrative that tells a story to the listener and has many different functions. In the early days it was used to communicate happenings in the revolutionary war for independence to the common people, who were mostly illiterate and without other sources of news. In addition to relating current events, corridos were sung with lyrics that glorified outlaws and heroes, dramas and tragedies, in very emotional and florid terms.
The narcocorrido developed along with the rise of the drug trade in Mexico and the flamboyant characters who became associated with drug trafficking in the public eye. Many of these drug lords were regarded as folk heroes, and the narcocorrido lyrics told their stories while glorifying their violent behaviors and the events, including their deaths, that made them famous.
In a development that parallels the growth of gangsta rap and the violence associated with it in the US, many well-known performers of the genre have been killed, allegedly because of their allegiances and loyalties as expressed in their songs. Apparently, taking sides with gangs and cartels in public is not only dangerous but fatal in the Mexican musical culture. Valentin Elizalde was one of the most popular banda performers who died in this way, but there have been many others who have been tortured and murdered for writing lyrics that extoll the virtues and deeds of this or that character or group involved in trafficking.
But according to musicians, fans of the music, and experts like Elijah Wald who wrote the book Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas back before many of the most prominent killings happened, there are other possible explanations for these sensational murders. Territorial disputes, romantic entanglements, jealousy, envy and greed all seem to be sufficient reasons for popular performers to be gunned down, just as with American rappers.
But because the few convictions that have been made in these cases involve drug trade participants, and due to the violent nature of the deaths, there is little doubt that the artists are treading on dangerous ground in their creation of narcocorridos lyrics and songs. The only question is whether the media have played a part in the whole process by playing up the continuing connections and collisions between art and life in modern Mexican culture.
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