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Crime and creativity – Tijuana, a city on the edge

Carlos Santana performs on July 12, 1996, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Netherlands. Picture: Frans Schellekens/Redferns - Credit: Redferns

SOPHIA DEBOICK reports on the troubled yet creative Mexican city.

Tijuana is a city in crisis. Home to one of the world’s busiest border crossings, it has become a flashpoint in Trump’s border wall war. Its international bridge is a principal point of entry to the US and in this city Mexicans running from the thuggery of the drug cartels and refugees from Central and South America escaping poverty and violence, including women fleeing endemic femicide, gather to try to make it into the US. They can spend months living precariously in Tijuana as they wait to make their asylum case, facing myriad perils in a city with chronic issues with drug gang violence. Tijuana is the murder capital of the world, with more than 2,500 killings in 2018.

But it used to have a very different face. While the city always had a gritty reputation, it was rather as a ‘sin city’ where, beginning in the Prohibition era, just a short hop over the border allowed US citizens to indulge in the drinking 
and gambling that was illegal at home. The city’s Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel drew the rich and famous, and Tijuana became a byword for forbidden pleasures and a liminal space between the United States and the rest of the Americas.

In 1965, when the Bracero Program that had brought millions of guest workers into the US since the 1940s ended, a tax-free industrial zone was created along the border which saw Tijuana become rapidly industrialised and itself become a magnet for migrant labour. But the city has also been an important musical centre, the sound of the polkas and accordions of norteño (northern) folk music and the mariachi bands that cater to the tourists ringing through its streets. These are sounds that artists from Tijuana have taken to the international charts and, more recently, the city has proved its creative verve even in the face of its seemingly intractable problems.

In the early 1960s ‘Tijuana’ became a prominent name in the world of music through the unlikely figure of a suave Californian songwriter of Jewish descent. Herb Alpert had already written songs for the likes of Sam Cooke when he went to a bullfight in Tijuana as one of thousands of Californians who day-tripped over to Mexico, and the idea for The Lonely Bull was born. The song, which saw trumpeter Alpert adopt the sound of the mariachi bands, was released as Alpert with ‘the Tijuana Brass’ – in fact the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians. The song peaked at No.6 in 1962, and Alpert’s The Spanish Flea would follow, becoming an international smash and US No.1 in 1965. But while Mexican flavours were being adopted by US artists, in Tijuana itself rock ‘n’ roll from north of the border was fast taking hold.

Javier Bátiz, born in Tijuana in 1944, is like many musical pioneers – his influence has been greater than his fame. His band the TJs – named after Tijuana – began playing the city’s clubs in the early 1960s, going on to record covers of US hits, such as The Mashed Potatoes and The Twist. But it was a performance at the Palacio Municipal park that would see Bátiz make his greatest mark on music. In the audience was one Carlos Santana. It was the first time the boy had heard an electric guitar and he never looked back.

Santana had arrived in Tijuana in 1955, aged eight, his mother and his large family following his father to the city where he had gone to find work as a mariachi band leader. They faced an uncertain future, at first living in one of the city’s shanty towns, but music would prove the young Carlos’ salvation. After that day in the park, he sought out the TJs at the Club Latino-Americano, eventually joining the group. But it was Tijuana’s strip clubs that provided Santana’s first sustained professional experience, profoundly shaping his sound. Landing his first job at the Convoy Club aged just 13, he later said ‘I learned how to play in a way that made women want to take off their clothes’, and indeed his hybrid style – blending blues, jazz and rock with a Latin flavour that ran through it all – was always a fundamentally seductive one.

When Santana emigrated to San Francisco in his late teens, he was in the right place at the right time for the countercultural explosion. Having founded the Santana Blues Band, their appearance at Woodstock as unsigned relative unknowns brought them to prominence as the final number Soul Sacrifice became one of the defining moments of the festival.

Signed to Columbia, the band now christened simply ‘Santana’ broke through onto the charts in 1971 with their US No.4 cover of Black Magic Woman from their No.1 album Abraxas (1970). While Santana has had sustained success, 1999’s Supernatural LP seeing him collaborate with everyone from Lauryn Hill to Eric Clapton, shifting some 30 million copies and spawning the mega-hit single Smooth, which spent 12 consecutive weeks at No.1 in the US, Bátiz disappeared into relative obscurity back in Tijuana, a city he paid tribute to in his 1995 song La Montaña.

Shortly before Santana’s commercial rebirth in the late 1990s, a new Mexican star was releasing her debut album. Dubbed, perhaps somewhat reductively, ‘the Frida Kahlo of rock ‘n’ roll’ by Time, Julieta Venegas was born in Long Beach but brought up in Tijuana and schooled at the city’s Escuela de Música del Noroeste. Her debut solo album Aquí (Here) (1997) – a collection of Latin folk-rock songs in Spanish, distinctive for Venegas’ accordion playing and often dark storytelling lyrics – came after a spell in the ska band Tijuana No!, during which time she wrote their biggest hit as one of Mexico’s foremost alternative bands, Pobre de tí (Poor You) (1990).

When Tom Waits appeared on Venegas’ 1999 album Bueninvento (Good Invention) and she contributed to the soundtrack for the critically acclaimed film Amores Perros (2000), it indicated alternative scene cred, but her commercial breakthrough Sí (2003) saw a turn towards a poppier feel and lighter lyrical approach which was rewarded with a Latin Grammy. Her platinum-selling No.2 Latin Pop Album chart Limón y Sal (Lemon and Salt) (2006), kept off the top spot only by the unconquerable force of a Now! Latino compilation, contained the whimsical single Me Voy (I’m Leaving), the first of a clutch of US Hot Latin, Latin Pop and Spanish chart No.1s, and while Venegas has been variously compared to PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, and Bjork as an essentially oddball act, it is her pop sensibility that has assured her commercial success.

Nortec – the name a combination of norteño and techno – is undoubtedly the most intriguing sound to come out of Tijuana in the last 20 years. The Nortec Collective, an electronica project spearheaded by Ramón Amezcua and Pepe Mogt, better known as Bostich + Fussible, have been the leading lights in nortec, their debut album Nortec Sampler (1999) using samples of old norteño songs to build electronic collages that were thoroughly redolent of northern Mexican music but also completely contemporary.

The Nortec Collective have made notable appearances at Glastonbury 
and Coachella, done a soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil, and seen their international success culminate in a Greatest Hits record last year. But theirs is a sound intimately concerned with the Tijuanan experience, and the Grammy-nominated Tijuana Sessions Vol. 3 (2005) contained the tracks Dandy del Sur, Bar Infierno, and El Fracaso – all the names of bars in the zona norte, Tijuana’s red light district. Bostich + Fussible’s Bulevar 2000 (2010) was a reference to the decapitated bodies hung on a bridge on the Bulevar 2000 freeway in the mid-2000s in a spectacle of the violence and dominance of the cartels which has been repeated many times since.

The situation in Tijuana remains grim in the extreme, as a major resurgence in drug violence has coincided with all the world’s troubles seemingly having come to sit on the city’s doorstep. Carlos Santana’s recent reflections of the border situation seem hopelessly optimistic: ‘We don’t need flags, borders, ‘patriotism’ or politicians. We don’t need anything. Because we can just share, like at Woodstock, where people shared their blankets, their food and their spirit.’ But despite Trump’s physical and cultural walls, Tijuana – a bicultural world all of its own – remains a place where cultural exchange continues to thrive.

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