SOPHIA DEBOICK on the music of the Mexico capital.
Some places are so alive with their own internal mythology that their music speaks of little else. Chilangos, the contested term for the denizens of Mexico City, have played out a love affair with their city in popular song over the last half century, but music has also been where colonialism and loss of identity has been explored.
Mexico City was founded 500 years ago this year on the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which was besieged and razed to the ground by Cortés in 1521. The native population was decimated by starvation and disease, and with the missionaries came a second, spiritual, conquest with unquantifiable cultural implications.
The city rose again as a great colonial capital, the centre of ‘New Spain’. Spanish rule ended precisely 300 years after Cortés’ brutal takeover and in the next 200 years Mexico City became one of the largest cities in the world.
By the time of the rock ‘n’ revolution of the 1950s, issues of cultural imperialism were as live as ever, and the first wave of Mexican rock looked firmly north for its direction.
Los Black Jeans (later rechristened Los Camisas Negras – The Black Shirts), Los Locos del Ritmo, and Los Teen Tops were among the bands to emerge from Mexico City in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a simple formula of Spanish-language covers of North American rock ’n’ roll hits.
Little Richard, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were mined mercilessly and singers like César Costa of Los Black Jeans and Enrique Guzmán of Los Teen Tops moved seamlessly on to solo teen idol fame. When the Beatles came, the focus switched almost overnight to England as the source of the Mexican rock sound.
When Elvis allegedly made disparaging comments about Mexicans, the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), who had been in power since the 1920s, took against rock ‘n’ roll and it was supressed. But as Mexican youth became inspired by the movements for political and social justice of the 1960s, they started pushing back against the repressions of the PRI and Mexican rock got a new impetus.
Massacres of student protestors in Mexico City in 1968 and 1971, the city’s hosting of the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 World Cup, and the 1971 music festival at Avándaro, on the Gulf of California, which scared the authorities into a major crackdown on countercultural elements, made the turn of the decade a feverish period.
Just a few years later Rodrigo González arrived in Mexico City from the north-east of the country and went on to spearhead a revolution in Mexican music. By that time student groups and leftist guerrillas were beginning to be mollified by the government but serious issues still faced the city and the country and González marked a definitive turn away from derivative English language rock to a music that had was both for and about Mexico and Mexicans.
Known as ‘Rockdrigo’, González’s ragged-edged style may have earned him comparisons to Bob Dylan but his evocation of life in Mexico City had its precedent in the songs of flamboyant singing legend Chava Flores. Born in the city’s vibrant La Merced district in 1920, Flores’ Sábado Distrito Federal (1959) was just one of his classic portraits of the unique rhythm of life in the city also known as the Federal District.
Rockdrigo supplied a sound for urban Mexico and echoes of Flores were clear in songs like Estación del metro Balderas, which found the protagonist searching for the girlfriend he had lost years before in the seething crowds at that central metro station.
Today a plaque there bears the lyrics and González’s likeness. Vieja ciudad de hierro (‘Old Iron City’) sung wistfully of a place “of cement and people without rest”, while Aventuras en el DF was a surreal trip through the city. But at a time when the drug cartels were on the rise and changing the face of Mexican society, this was a music rooted in the realities of its time.
When the Mexico City earthquake hit in September 1985, González’s apartment building in the central neighbourhood of Juaréz collapsed and he was killed. He was 34 years old. The previous year’s Hurbanistorias had been his first and only album, but González had also launched a whole musical movement, rooted in the social conditions in the city, which would have a long legacy.
While in the rest of Latin America nueva canción was putting forward a serious, politically conscious folk music, González’s Colectivo Rupestre de los Cantantes Errantes (Rock Art Collective of Wandering Singers) was a more playful proposition.
The ‘Rupestre’ manifesto González wrote emphasised that looks, a good singing voice and composition skills were not required to make music, and above all poor young Mexicans should not see their lack of “sophisticated electronic equipment” as a barrier to making music. Just take up any instrument available was the message – adopting the simple but effective approach of the prehistoric cave artist was the guiding principle.
Rockdrigo’s legend hung heavy over what came next, and despite the hostility of both the PRI and a music industry largely uninterested in Spanish-language rock music, the genre thrived in Mexico City on the basis of the DIY approach González had advocated and would slowly became embraced across the country in the period between his death and the early 1990s.
The opening of the Mexico City rock club Rockotitlán in the year of the earthquake was something of a turning point. Previously bands had played on the back of lorries, referred to as rock sobre ruedas (‘rock on wheels’), or in garages known as hoyos fonquis (‘funky holes’), but Rockotitlán provided a real stage. Many of the bands that played there were deeply invested in the spirit of the city.
There was Avándaro Festival veterans Three Souls in My Mind, founded as Rolling Stones sound-alikes in 1968 and later reborn as the Spanish language and more politicised El Tri, but always fronted by rock legend Álex Lora.
As well as their 1987 cover of Rockdrigo’s Estación del metro Balderas, their Chilangolandia (2002), a raucous, shameless honky tonk singalong, was Mexico City through and through, sure to be adopted by chilangos everywhere.
Another act who cut their teeth at Rockotitlán, Caifanes, were an unlikely proposition, sporting the make-up and backcombed hair of the Cure while championing rock en español.
Caifanes’ 1988 cover La Negra Tomasa is still their best-known song and one woven into the fabric of Mexico City. Arch-individualists Café Tacvba, meanwhile, have explored a range of musical styles in their songs and have often engaged with the legend of Mexico City.
Their brief and beautiful Madrugal (1994) reflects on the city at sunrise but also acknowledges its “smog and pigeon s**t”, while their cover of Rockdrigo’s fellow ‘Rupestre’ Jaime López’s slang-laced Chilanga Banda (1996) is virtually the anthem of Mexico City.
In the 2000s Mexico City changed. The PRI were finally dislodged from power and the city began to get a grip on some of its endemic problems, including its terrible pollution levels. But Mexico City’s self-mythologisation and exploration of its identity in music continues to this day.
Los Cogelones, from Nezahualcóyotl – adjacent to Mexico City and home to the world’s largest shanty town – typify these twin concerns. Blending Aztec music and punk, they sing in both the Nahuatl language and Spanish and combine rock drums and guitar with traditional instruments like the huéhuetl drum.
Last year’s debut album Hijos del Sol (‘Sons of the Sun’) put their belief in the common restless rhythm of both Aztec and punk music into practice and has an urgency that speaks to Mexico’s ongoing problems.
When Los Cogelones released a video for their ominous garage rocker 500 Años to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, in February last year, it was clear the distance between the past and present is easily collapsed in Mexico today. As the band appeared in full traditional dress in the video and issued a manifesto for the reclaiming of indigenous traditions, the meaning of what it is to be a chilango was once again reexplored.
Downtown Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi is the home of mariachi, the quintessential sound of Mexico and one born of a melding of indigenous and European elements. The word mariachi may have come from the language of the Coca Indians and while the five-string vihuela and oversized guitarrón bass guitar have become distinctively Mexican from Spanish Renaissance origins, the trumpets are a foreign addition made only around 100 years ago.
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