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500 Words Of January – Mark O’Connell

Next up in the 500 Words Of January series, Mark O’Connell dives into the Narcocorrido musical phenomenon and finds “an undeniable family resemblance between the Country and Irish standard-bearers and these Mexican troubadours of cocaine and bloodshed”. Contains first ever …

Wed, Jan 9, 2013, 09:00

   

Next up in the 500 Words Of January series, Mark O’Connell dives into the Narcocorrido musical phenomenon and finds “an undeniable family resemblance between the Country and Irish standard-bearers and these Mexican troubadours of cocaine and bloodshed”. Contains first ever OTR mention for Declan Nerney.

A while back, I read Ed Vullliamy’s book Amexica: War Along the Borderline, about the ongoing war between drug cartels along the Mexican-U.S. border, and the lives caught up in it.

One of the things I find most fascinating and disturbing about this war, and the strange subculture that has grown around it, is the musical phenomenon of Narcocorridos. Narcocorridos means, literally, ballads about drug dealers. A lot of the musicians who play this music have connections to the cartels they sing about and valorize, and dozens of them have been murdered by rival gangs. Most of these murders tend to be horribly inventive; these guys seem to take an almost artisanal pride in the avant garde innovations of their violence. I won’t go into too much detail here, but beheadings are commonplace, and it is not unusual for the wives and children of enemies to be murdered for good measure.

So the first thing to note about the Narcocorrido genre is that it – literally – sings the praises of some of the world’s most despicable mass murderers. If you can sit through the harrowing YouTube video for this song by Los Buitres (The Vultures), you’ll get an idea of the kind of stuff these guys are dealing with in their songs. Understandably, a lot of people have compared Narcocorridos to gangsta rap. And, thematically at least, there are some obvious thematic consistencies.

But musically – and this is the second thing to note about the genre – this stuff is essentially accordion-based, country-infused polka. The juxtaposition of jaunty music with savage intent is compellingly and disturbingly incongruous. In fact, to my admittedly unlearned ears, the basic Narcocorrido aesthetic sounds weirdly close to that of the much-maligned Country and Irish genre, perhaps the most toothless form of music known to man. When I hear something like, say, Los Razos’ hugely popular “Chingon de Chingones” (“Badass of Badasses”), I immediately think of Declan Nerney’s “Hooley in the Sun”, which is a sort of “Hey Ya!” for rat-arsed middle-aged package holidayers from Monaghan.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, there is, I think, an undeniable family resemblance between the Country and Irish standard-bearers – your Nerneys, your Brian Colls, your Big Toms, your Mick Flavins – and these Mexican troubadours of cocaine and bloodshed. Lyrically, there is obviously very little crossover between the two genres, one of which is largely concerned with massacres, and the other with Massey Fergusons. But since discovering Narcocorridos, the whole Country and Irish sound has, for me, become charged with a subtle frisson of danger and savagery. I find myself imagining a cultural exchange programme between Ireland and Mexico, in which Nerney and Brian Coll could do a stint eulogizing mass-murdering druglords, while Los Razos and Los Buitres came over here for a while and played the C’n’I circuit. Granted, our guys would run a considerable risk of winding up dead, but if they pulled it off, it could lead to a significant boost in edginess and a broadening of thematic horizons for the genre as a whole.

The credits: Mark O’Connell is a critic and academic who lives in Dublin and whose writing has appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post, and The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” literary blog. He’s a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor of The Racket. His literary criticism has been noted by the Westboro Baptist Church, who have assured him that his “path to Hell will be smooth and painless.”

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