The very first music review I wrote for this infernal rag was 11 years on Los Tigres del Norte, the conjunto norteño group who will one day go done in history as one of the greatest musical groups of any genre or language for their brilliant fusion of politics, braggadocio, storytelling, awesome suits and hard-charging dance music, all set to a polka beat. In the years since, the Tigers of the North have only grown in stature, recording MTV Unplugged sessions, getting profiles in the New Yorker, and hitting bigger and bigger venues all the while never losing sight of their audience--they'll trek all the way to Des Moines and Pensacola to reach their core fans, migrants tossed among the fields of plenty.
Locally, they used to play the Anaheim Convention Center almost every year for decades--in fact, Los Tigres just played last year. But fans wanting to see their epic hours-long concerts (where they read fan requests from the stage) will have to trek to the San Manuel Casino next week (June 20) for their next local performance. In honor of them, behold their 20 greatest songs--enjoy, and gabachos: take notes.
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20. "Vivan los Mojados"
Believe it or not, yaktivists, there was a time in Aztlanista history where not only was the term "illegal immigrant" bandied around with pride, but "wetback" was ever a bigger reappropriated term of honor--hence, the title of this late-1970s effort, a remix of "El Corrido de los Mojados," recorded most memorably (originally?) by legendary conjunto duo Los Alegres de Terán. Los Tigres keep the original's prideful promise of endless Reconquista--"If they take out one wetback from Laredo/through Mexicali comes 10/If they take them out from Tijuana/Through Nogales come six"--and logical solution to the illegal immigration problem (marry a "gringita
" until the wetback gets his green card, then divorce her!) but also tweaked the lyrics to give a glimpse of the group by acknowledging illegal immigration would never end--hence, may the wetbacks long live.
19. "Ni Aqui Ni Alla"
The mournful opening chords of the accordion give a hint that this won't be one of the usual Tigres jaunts. A Mexican immigrant bemoans his fate--the United States and its nasty border wall built so that "no one can leave or so no one can enter" won't be the Land of Opportunity for him, but neither is his beloved Mexico, where his pueblo is essentially being stripped away of everything. "I don't understand it, nor will I ever understand," the singer cries, "that my dreams neither here nor there/I'll never attain." Should be the song for millennials as well, ¿qué no?
18. "El Avion de la Muerte"
Based on a true story, the song tells the tale of "The Plane of Death"--a group of soldiers nab a drug dealer named Atilano and proceed to torture him, even his "noble parts." As they transport the narco, the latter suddenly takes control of the airplane and plans to crash it into army barracks. But, seeing a schoolyard nearby, Atilano decides to crash the plane into a barren hill, killing everyone on board. The song never identifies Atilano as a narco per se, but the city in which the plane crashes, Badiraguato, is infamous for the many cartels that sprung from there--make your own conclusions. When it comes to celebrating anti-heroes, Atilano makes Stagger Lee seem like a choir boy, and Los Tigres also sneaked in a critique of the Mexican government's scorched-earth, failed drug war even back in the 1970s. 17. "América"
This cumbia should be higher on this list, its reminder that "America" extends from the North Pole down to Tierra de Fuego and isn't just limited to the USA always wise, lead singer Jorge Hernández's rap to all the nicknames nations have for their idealized country cousins (chapín in Guatemala, gaucho in Argentina, jíbaro in Puerto Rica, the Mexican charro etc.) absolutely beautiful, the song slow and slinky...but this is one of the few times a remake beats out the original. Google El Gran Silencio's far-better "America" and find out for yourself. Still: the message is truthful, subversive, and danceable--Los Tigres in a taco.
16. "Golpes en el Corazon"
Can't say much about a song called "Blows to the Heart," and now that I think of it, this song is almost sentiment-for-sentiment like "You Give Love a Bad Name" by Bon Jovi. So why include it? It's one of the few times Los Tigres got truly vulnerable in their macho career, and shows they ain't too tough to cry. A fave at concerts, because it's one of the few songs you can slow-dance to them, although the group's wisely didn't continue its polka with the 1980s-era grupero beats that drag down this song--that's the realm of Los Bukis.
15. La Tumba Falsa
A Gothic tale straight out of a Johnny Cash song, the protagonist speaks to a wife that abandoned him and their children a long time ago, a pain so traumatizing that he told them that their mother died, going so far as to erect a tombstone--the "False Tomb" of the title. All is well until the day the woman returns, upon which he tells her "no reason to revive/she who died." Nevertheless, the husband cannot win--the littlest one "kissed your photo yesterday/and asked for you." I'm sure there's some old song with the same themes somewhere--quick, gabachos, one of you get a copy of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads!
14. "Una Camioneta Gris"
Every 30-some Mexican-American knows this song by heart, loves the chintzy sound effects, saw the film when it came out, whose gist you can catch in the video above. A newlywed couple celebrates by trying to smuggle drugs from California to Acapulco, but the federales track them. It's an equal relationship: when Pedro tells Inez that someone is following them, she replies "Take out your machine gun/And make them disappear." Unfortunately, fate is not with the couple, and the mythical gray truck that they ride gets run over by a train--The End. Its breakneck pace never ceases, and its sparse, direct lyric--"A gray truck with California license plates"; "The truck had race tires/with the rims very chromed/A big, tricked-up engine"--is songwriting at its finest
13. Pedro y Pablo
As bitter a song as Los Tigres ever sang, it's the tale of two brothers--Pedro sacrificing his future by traveling North to work to make money so that the left-behind Pablo can study and become the better of the two. Pedro also leaves his girlfriend Leticia behind...and, yep, you know the rest of the story: years later, when the brothers reunite, Pedro finds that Pablo has married Leticia. The back-and-forth between the two lead singers taking on the Pedro and Pablo roles when Pedro asks for Leticia is heartbreaking, the metronomic bass escalating the unbearable tension akin to "The Tell-Tale Heart. Ending with one of the more flippant lines you'll ever hear: while Pedro doesn't hold the turn of life against Pablo, "Of Leticia I won't speak/She did act bad." And the squeezebox flourishes? GANGSTA.
11. La Puerta Negra
Probably the most famous vocal contribution of bassist Hernán Hernández (better known as the Tigre with the fabulous Mexi-mullet and streak of gray in his hair), this tale of a girl's parents prohibiting the unrequited love of a couple could've been written by Brian Wilson. Another great opening line: "It's now closed, with three locks/and bolted down, the black door"--positively medieval. Also featuring the most memorable saxophone in Los Tigres' repertoire, a wailing cri de couer. And check out the 1980s fashion in the video!11. Jefe de Jefes
While beloved, Los Tigres del Norte have always had to face critics who say they glorify criminals, a charge made to virtually every teller of tales since Aesop. They usually respond by saying they only speak of truths, rarely letting emotion getting in the way of answers. This is the one grand exception, a magnificent
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to the haters wrapped in the tale of a narcoboss--the Boss of Bosses. The song starts with what's presumably two fans saying why they like corridos: "because they're the real doings of our community" and because "they sing the undisputed truth." Then a gigantic tiger roar, the only time I do believe Los Tigres have ever summoned their namesake animal avatar, and a strutting accordion as Hernandez starts the boasts of the boss. One and done--Los Tigres have never bothered to address the critics since.