Mon, Jul 09, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Old tunes for a new way of life

Corridos, like musical newspapers, sing the story of migration


Juan Dies, a Chicago ethnomusicologist, with guitar; Hal Cannon, standing, co-founder of the Western Folklife Center, and Migel Gonzalez, seated right, a musician, in Caldwell, Idaho.


Watching television coverage of immigration marches, Jose F. Garcia got mad. He got frustrated. He got his button accordion.

In short order, Garcia squeezed out the beginnings of a corrido, a kind of Mexican folk ballad that tells a story, often with a moral, and sang out the lyrics that came to him.

Now they are putting up barriers in front of us so we don't return;

but that is not going to block us from crossing into the United States,

We leap them like deer, we go under them like moles.

Garcia, accompanied by his young son on a snare drum, recently belted out the song, Latinos Unidos, in an onion field for the benefit of researchers from the Western Folklife Center, a nonprofit cultural organization in Elko, Nevada, that has begun a project to document Mexican influences and folklore in the ranching western US states.

Corridos have long telegraphed the melancholy of Mexico's northern frontier. Heroes die. Lovers are crossed. And, in the controversial narco-corrido form, drug dealers are celebrated.

But as migrants moved north, modern corridos have also been inspired by everyday occurrences and current events, with some written about the Kennedys, crops, floods and truck stops.

Immigration Songs

Garcia has recorded a corrido about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Tragedia en Nueva York, complete with a jet sound whining through the guitars, horns and accordion.

It was Sept. 11 when the world woke up

in the year 2001 when it was reported

that in the twin towers two airplanes crashed

In Spanish, the lyrics rhyme.

The Western Folklife Center intends to build an archive of such material, recording for posterity the Mexican presence far from the border and turning some of it into segments for public television and radio.

Although the project was conceived before the immigration debate intensified, Hal Cannon, the founding director of the center and its popular offshoot, the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, said it could serve as a reminder that, come what may, the Hispanic influence has already taken root.

"I think that's an important song," Cannon told his colleagues after listening to a few verses of Garcia's corrido, which Garcia plans to perform with his band and may play as part of a corrido competition the folklife center is organizing here on July 15 month.

Through the project, Cannon said later, "Relationships will be built, understanding will be built and we will be documenting something that is quite ephemeral."

Musicians and scholars debate what qualifies as a corrido. To purists, Garcia's immigration song, though sung in the style of a corrido and with instruments common to the form, does not make the cut.

Telling Stories

"I believe somebody has to die," said Juan Dies, an ethnomusicologist who is based in Chicago and is working with the center on the project. "But some people don't feel that way."

"The community defines what a corrido is, not a scholar from Chicago," added Dies, who specializes in Mexican music. "It is, basically, a musical news story."

Garcia's repertory, apart from immigration and terrorism, includes songs of desperate lovers and other more traditional corrido themes, which he and other musicians have found the crowds here, ever nostalgic, tend to favor.

"To me, a corrido is a song with a message," said Garcia, who recently opened a dance club but is hoping for a big break some day for his band. "I don't like the ones about drug traffickers that are popular on the radio and that the young kids these days like. But as long as it is telling a story with a message to me it is a corrido."

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