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How the first ‘drug ballad’ was recorded in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- As the narcocorrido, a Mexican traditional drug ballad, gains popularity worldwide and artists like Peso Pluma and Nathanael Cano keep climbing to the top of the music charts, the origins of the genre are widely unknown in the U.S.

A narcocorrido is a traditional Mexican ballad, but with lyrics that depict drug traffickers and violence. The first narcocorrido ever recorded was born here in El Paso in 1931, not too far from the Mexican border, according to historians.

The name of the song was El Pablote (the big Pablo), and told the story of how the titular character was killed by a Mexican policeman. Pablo Acosta, known as El Pablote was one of the first heroin traffickers in Mexico, shipping tons of drugs to the U.S.

The song described gunshots, narcos, police officers, blood, and women, subject matter that was uncommon in songs in the 1930s.

“What we call narco-culutra, including or starting with the narcocorridos, was born at the Texas-Mexico border because of its history of violence,” Juan Carlos Pimienta, an academic from San Diego State University and the only historian specializing in narcocorridos, told ABC-7.

As the popularity of these songs grows, the violence depicted in the songs is impacting the artists themselves.

One of the most popular Texas based narcocorrido singers was Jesús ‘Chuy’ Quintanilla, popularized for his song about Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, known as Tony Tormenta, the once leader of the violent Gulf Cartel who was killed in a gunfight in Matamoros in 2010.

Quintanilla had the same fate as many narcocorrido singers: in 2013 he was found dead at the side of a lonely river in Mission, Texas. Authorities called it a murder and the case is still open and under investigation, according to news reports.

But the violence around narcocorrido singers and subjects is somewhat recent, according to Pimienta.

In the beginning, the Mexican corridos told the stories of the Mexican revolution of 1910. Eventually, the lyrics moved on to singing about bandidos or outlaws.

“The narcocorrido has evolved a lot in the last few years just as the Mexican cartel wars have evolved,” he said.

By the late 60’s and early 70’s with the marijuana business booming, the songs began talking about drug traffickers and their exploits. In the 80s and 90’s the songs talked about cocaine traffickers, with more established singers like Chalino Sánchez murdered by the Sinaloan drug leaders he sang about, or Los Tigeres del Norte singing about narcos in Tijuana like the Arellano Felix family or the Lord of the Skies, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, former leader of the Juárez cartel.

“This new era is already considered narcocorrido, songs about big traffickers, but these songs were not violent, seldom spoke about gruesome violence,” Pimienta said.

Most of the lyrics sang about a mythical leader shipping tons of cocaine into the U.S. and how they were smarter than the U.S. authorities, or about how they started up from nothing in a poor little town in northern Mexico and now they own a drug empire.

It was not until the first decade of the 2000s when the songs began to depict more violent acts, beheadings, grenades, and armored vehicles.

“This new musical movement was something different, this was the birth of Movimiento alterado, a corrido movement that gained even more popularity in the U.S., than in Mexico” he said.

This new movement gave birth to singers like El Komander, putting up shows dressed as a paramilitary cartel member with a fake bazooka on his shoulders or a gold coated AK-47.

But in the past two years a new clan of kids have taken the music industry by storm with yet an evolution of the narcocorrido, dubbed corridos tumbados, a mix of hip-hop and Mexican corridos.

Probably the biggest example of just how big the narcocorrido has gotten in the past few years is Peso Pluma, with its popular song Ella baila sola, singing “Compa, qué le parece esa morra” (Bro, check out that girl).  Although that specific song is not considered a drug ballad since it's talking about a beautiful girl and not a narco, Mexican singer Peso Pluma’s repertoire is packed with songs dedicated to Mexican kingpins like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, his sons, collectively known as Los Chapitos or the shadowy Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael El Mayo Zambada.

Peso Pluma recently had its share of cartel violence. Weeks before his concert scheduled for the first week of October in Tijuana, ruthless New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym), left several narcobaners around the city threatening that if he decided to sing his songs in Tijuana that would be “his last concert.”

“Most of this tradition, in Mexico at least, has been established in northern Mexico in the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Coahuila” all of them bordering south Texas, Pimienta said. 

But as the subjects of those songs lived and died in northern Mexico, most of the songwriters and distribution was happening north of the border, in Texas or California according to Pimienta.

“This doesn’t mean everyone who listens or sings these songs is a narco. The new kids are extracting the parts of the songs that empower them, and leaving all the cartel violence or big names out,” Pimienta said. 

El Paso singer and songwriter Daniel Talavera, a 27 year old who just recently started getting popularity amongst Texans for his Peso Pluma-like songs, said he is inspired by artist like Peso Pluma or Natanael Cano “for putting the Mexican music up high.”

“That type of music spoke to me, a mix between traps and traditional corridos,” Talavera said. “This is nothing like the old corridos, this sounds very different and this inspired me to start composing.” 

Talavera’s latest single named Tus Malas Vibras (your bad vibes) has the now typical slow trapt style lyrics while Mexican trumpets and twelve-stringed guitars play in the background. On the art of the single Talavera sits on a stool dressed as a hip-hop artist, with a black cap hiding his face and an unbuttoned shirt falling from his shoulders. But his shadow -as the shadow behind the new narcocorrido- is of a cowboy-like man, sitting on the same stool, wearing a Mexican hat. 

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Luis Chaparro


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