Category: Music

NXNW, MX

December 13th, 2012 Permalink

             After a dark spell of catastrophic drug violence sparked a do-it-yourself cultural response that ruptured the old ways of doing things, a unique cultural climate has emerged in Tijuana in recent years. With little support from the city that gave rise to its sounds, Tijuana has become an epicenter […]

"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" 
"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" "Maria y Jose" 
"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" 
"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" "Venus X" 
"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" "Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" 
"Tijuana" "Tijuanalandia" "Jason Thomas Fritz" All My Friends" "Norte Sonoro" 
After a dark spell of catastrophic drug violence sparked a do-it-yourself cultural response that ruptured the old ways of doing things, a unique cultural climate has emerged in Tijuana in recent years. With little support from the city that gave rise to its sounds, Tijuana has become an epicenter of avant-garde music in Mexico, with some of the world’s most influential music makers are eyeing what’s happening here. Emerging Tijuana’s ‘moment of truth’ came recently, during three days of loosely coordinated music and art events that signaled that Tijuana is a place that can attract cutting edge international acts, but more importantly, it’s a city recognized around the world for producing them. You can read about the rise of Tijuana’s new musical vanguard here, in a piece I wrote for the Los Angeles public television station KCET’s Artbound website.

Where a Beach Town and Border Violence Meet

October 3rd, 2012 Permalink

  After a second round beers at an empty corner dive bar in downtown Tijuana, aptly named ‘La Esquina,’ Tony Gallardo, the mind behind the Tijuana nu-tropical act Mariá y José, excused himself for a second. The last of the late afternoon light was streaming through the door and the show ‘Cops’ played at low […]

Jason Thomas Fritz Tony Gallardo II Maria y Jose Tijuana 

After a second round beers at an empty corner dive bar in downtown Tijuana, aptly named ‘La Esquina,’ Tony Gallardo, the mind behind the Tijuana nu-tropical act Mariá y José, excused himself for a second. The last of the late afternoon light was streaming through the door and the show ‘Cops’ played at low volume on the television set. No less than thirteen posters of Marilyn Monroe graced the bar’s purple walls. After returning to the table, Gallardo sat back down, took a swig from his Tecate and told me about a handwritten sign he had seen posted in the bar’s bathroom.

‘People carrying small arms, please hit the target,’ it read, with decorative lettering and a Sharpie-sketch of a hand gun that included the bullet’s trajectory in dashes. Gallardo thought it literal. He admitted that the Spanish wordplay sailed above his head on first read. He didn’t pick up on the small penis reference, nor that ‘target’ meant toilet, not victim. Only after a minute or so did he get the joke.

While I caught that it was in jest upon Gallardo’s retelling, I wasn’t sure if the potty humor—in its most literal sense—aspired to be sophomoric, or just straight black. Comedy leans dark in Mexico. And the sad truth is, some of Tijuana’s best little bars have been lit up with gunfire during the warring years of the recent past. At one of my favorite places, an elegant, handsome cocktail waitress in her 60s, with perfectly coiffed hair, is said to still carry a bullet in her from the day assassins came for an ex-politician and sprayed the bar with gunfire, killing him and several others.

After my third bottle, it was my turn, and I scuttled toward the men’s room. The bathroom door had a life size Scarface decal plastered to it. It reminded of the time Gallardo mentioned that he liked his name because it sounded so much like Tony Montana. I became nearly convinced that Gallardo might be onto something with his literal first reading. Pragmatic instructions for a violent town. A contemporary Tijuana version of the very matter of fact ‘Please do not shoot the piano player’ sign Oscar Wilde spotted at old west saloon in the rough-and-tumble—and appropriately named—town of Leadville, Colorado in 1883.

 
The New Leadville
 

Gallardo started Mariá y José during the height of Tijuana’s bloodletting. It’s impossible to separate his music from the context it was created in. Teodoro ‘El Teo’ García Simental, a renegade lieutenant from the Tijuana Cartel was at war with his former bosses for control of city. The violence was shocking. Bodies dissolved in acid, beheadings, people hung from highway overpasses, mid day shootouts on the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Leadville could have easily been Tijuana’s nickname.

Unlike his more business minded former employers who preferred to concentrate on drug trafficking, ‘El Teo’ made kidnapping a lucrative diversification of his portfolio, with many of the cells made up of moonlighting police.

The city was sliding towards chaos, as the wave of killing and kidnappings paralyzed Tijuana. Army convoys and caravans of masked police patrolled the streets. People who could fled across the border to San Diego.

Gallardo recalled the time when he was certain he was being abducted by the police. The authorities had stopped him for driving a beat up 1995 Chevy Camaro with fading paint. Gallardo, a self described nini [ni estudia ni trabaja] —as the much maligned, problematic set of young people who ‘neither work, nor study’ in Mexico are called—admitted to the authorities to just that, that he neither worked nor studied. For the police, it added up to being involved in the drug trade. They told Gallardo his government issued identification looked fraudulent, and that he was living well beyond his means with a car like that. In Gallardo’s mind, the absurdity of being mistaken for a narco in a decade old beater with fading paint pointed to one thing. ‘Is this a kidnapping?’ he asked. It wasn’t, and the police eventually let him go.

 
Ricky Martin and GG Allin’s Lovechild
 

Gallardo has a gift for comic delivery, both when intended or inadvertent. He is charming and scattered, with hypnotic brown eyes, a rail thin frame and cocksure swagger that approaches believability, but tempered by a boyishness falling well below his 25 years.

In the very same breath, without the slightest indication of its contradictions, he professed his desire to be both the next Ricky Martin and the incarnate of the infamous cult punk legend GG Allin.

It’s these schizophrenia oscillations that provide the foundation for his genre defying sounds—orchestral-like arrangements that meld tropical inflections, pop hooks, and treble-heavy techno with well-edited samples mined from musical genres of the Latin America.

Just a few seconds of Climaco Sarmiento’s ‘La Pata y El Pato,’ pulled from a compilation of songs by Colombian record label Discos Fuentes, was enough to construct Mariá y José’s first song, ‘Espíritu Invisible.’ He made it sound effortless. ‘I grabbed a sample of a song I really liked…put it on loop in FruityLoops and it became “Espíritu Invisible,”’ Gallardo said. ‘I just added the kick and some hi hat and that’s it.’ Although he can’t play an instrument, Gallardo has become a virtuoso of sampling and pirated music programs.

Gallardo’s introspective lo-fi laptop reinventions, neatly packaged with an aesthetic that is as disparate as his music—equal parts syncretic folk Catholicism and the GIFs-gone-awry of the early internet era—were eye opening here in Tijuana.

 
Sigue la violencia Sing Alongs
 

‘Espíritu Invisible’ had reverberations. ‘Everything changed after that,’ said Reuben Torres, of the Tijuana band Los Macuanos. Gallardo’s musician friends began to coalesce around the concept of reworking the hemisphere’s traditional sounds into something brand new. There were stirrings of a new musical current in the city at the height of the violence as a direct response to it. Tijuana’s ruidosón music movement was born.

More of an idea than a rigidly defined genre, Tijuana Djs, producers, and bands like Santos, El Hijo de La Diabla and Los Macuanos started creating their own take on the ruidosón sound, loosely based on ‘Sampling old, vintage cumbia songs…doing little micro loops, and mixing it with techno-ish, dance floor oriented beats,’ as Moisés López of Los Macuanos describes it. ‘We wanted to embrace that darkness [in Tijuana] and channel it into something creative. It’s doom but at the same time, it’s party music.’

The Mariá y José song ‘Violentao’ best embodies this incongruence. As dancey as it is dark, ‘Violentao’ has become an anthem of sorts in Tijuana for the hip set coming of age in Mexico’s drug war. Catchiest at the chorus, crowds at Mariá y José always chant its lyrics the loudest while singing along, ‘Sigue la violencia, Sigue la violencia’ — the violence continues.

Tijuana’s worst days appear to be in its past, as a fragile peace brokered by rival cartels holds. Last year saw a dramatic drop in the killings. Its little bars are no longer getting shot up, and the pervasive fear of being abducted has faded. If this calm continues, and a few more years of it pass, perhaps patrons of La Esquina won’t think twice about meaning of a silly hand drawn sign in it’s dingy bathroom. But for the generation of youth in Tijuana that came of age during the worst of it, the city’s violence was defining. Confronting it creatively, Mariá y José gave Tijuana its soundtrack—one that could only exist where a tropical beach town and border violence meet.

Death Becomes Him

February 14th, 2012 Permalink

  Baltazar Hernández, better known as El Muerto—or Death—has been a fixture in Tijuana’s Parque Teniente Guererro for the better half of last year, where his brand of digital deathrock over default keyboard beats has entertained the decidedly normal mid-afternoon park going crowd of gossiping elderly women, children running about, and men deeply involved in […]

Jason Thomas Fritz Tijuanalandia Tijuana El Muerto 

Baltazar Hernández, better known as El Muerto—or Death—has been a fixture in Tijuana’s Parque Teniente Guererro for the better half of last year, where his brand of digital deathrock over default keyboard beats has entertained the decidedly normal mid-afternoon park going crowd of gossiping elderly women, children running about, and men deeply involved in their respective chess matches.

It was sometime in early fall of last year when I stumbled across El Muerto. My friend Ximena and I had just hit a thrift store downtown, when we suddenly heard his music reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It had to be coming from the park. But this wasn’t the mediocre, albeit spirited, singers giving it their all, doing renditions of ranchera classics and the occasional Mexican pop number, like you normally find at the park.

This was different. Even muddled, and from several blocks away its genius could be heard—a bastardized cross between dark punk’s early era, droning witch house, and lo-fi out-of-left-field cult sounds in the vein of Canada’s Tonetta. Ximena and I hurried to catch up with it. The music became more defined as we rounded the gazebo that obscured him. I expected to find some hipster teenage internet beat-making wiz, cool beyond his years, but too young—or not connected enough—to be playing the bars along Tijuana’s nightlife corridor, La Sexta, with the park being the only venue available.

It was the exact opposite. El Muerto, it seemed, came straight from a script, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Well into the third stage of his life, tall, with stringy chin length white hair, there he sat behind a beat up keyboard, dressed in all black with a leather trench coat, and a silver crucifix adorning his neck. Think Bela Lugosi playing Dracula, only during the Ed Wood period, with a more storied face covered with caked-on white make-up and painted-on eyebrows that equally evoke María Félix, the starlet of Mexican cinema’s Golden Age, and 90s Southern California chola culture. My friend and I found the nearest patch of grass, sat down, and watched the rest of his short set in amazement.

Afterwards, we quickly introduced ourselves, asking where we could see him again, or hear his music. He went by San Baltazar then. No webpage, no soundcloud, no facebook. ‘I just came down from the mountains,’ he said, remarking on his lack of savvy in all things internet. His live sets at the park were it. Over the course of the next few months, I would head to Parque Teniente Guererro to hear him play.

Recently, during a private show at a dingy pool hall off an alley in Tijuana’s downtown, El Muerto talked about his music, and the theological underpinnings behind it. The scene was surreal. Against the cosmic backdrop of a skeleton in an Aztec headdress, beneath a disco ball that hasn’t spun in years, El Muerto tapped out his song ‘Satánica,’ with glitter orange nails, for an audience of a few. He had clearly developed more confidence since his early shows in the park, with a new, more flamboyant stage presence, that included genuflections, the stations of the cross and Gene Simmons’ Kiss-like tongue acrobatics. While religious imagery in the form of Christian crosses, the Star of David, and pentagrams were part of his early performances, I hadn’t realized how deep his faith was until we sat down and talked after his performance.

El Muerto sees his dark apocalyptic pop compositions as soapbox street preaching in musical form—lo-fi deathrock proselytizations for his unique theology—a ‘new religion,’ he calls it—of egalitarian social Christianity that incorporates liberation theology and its tenants of decentralized worship, with new age metaphysical traditions, gay liberation, and a belief that Jesus is already among us, and can be found in everybody.

This year looks like it will be El Muerto’s. He’s been garnering a small buzz around town, which will no doubt lead to bigger things. While it’s exciting to see his rise, for a very brief but magical moment, El Muerto represented all that has been lost to the internet era. Uncontrived and unaware of the in vogue lo-fi dark wave of the moment, El Muerto is the last of pre-Googleable music underground, where only the adventurous and interesting discover music’s treasures. One of Tijuana’s most exciting music acts was all but unknown, save for park goers who met his brand of musical evangelization with curiosity, and the small group of fans he seduced there.

There is no doubt that the internet era has spawned one of the most interesting and innovative periods in music history, but as the collective identities that produced subcultural scenes are replaced by easy accessibility and early virtual adoption, El Muerto’s brand of goth gospel—steeped in convictions and the do-it-yourself ethic—represented the last of the punk rock underground. Some music can’t be discovered behind a computer screen and can only be found during random strolls downtown.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Radness

June 20th, 2011 Permalink

   Scouring the weekly neighborhood flea market for castaway keyboards with her dog Tou Tou in tow, You Schaffner—the Tijuana songstress behind her wistful toy-pop alter ego Dani Shivers—opted, on this day, for an ice cream cone instead of an instrument. Prior visits to Tijuana’s sobre reudas—as the city’s roving secondhand markets are known—have proven […]

Dani Shivers Jason Thomas Fritz Tijuana witchhouse drag Dani Shivers Jason Thomas Fritz Tijuana witchhouse drag 

Scouring the weekly neighborhood flea market for castaway keyboards with her dog Tou Tou in tow, You Schaffner—the Tijuana songstress behind her wistful toy-pop alter ego Dani Shivers—opted, on this day, for an ice cream cone instead of an instrument. Prior visits to Tijuana’s sobre reudas—as the city’s roving secondhand markets are known—have proven much more fruitful. Walking its aisles, Schaffner bragged slightly about how little her Clapton-of-cheap-keyboards like collection had set her back.

It all started when Schaffner, the singer and one of the principal song writers of indie band Ibi Ego, set out to record a headful of fleeting melodies that often escaped her. Describing herself as, ‘very forgetful,’ Schaffner used a simple formula to remember potential songs by: a cheap Radio Shack microphone, toy keyboards, and her mother’s virus-ridden PC. She started recording in the DIY studio that doubled as her bedroom. But the disconnect between the song constructions that Schaffner imagined and the constraints of shoddy instrumentation produced unexpected results. She started exploring the possibilities within its limitations. ‘The songs are built with layers. It allows me to play a lot with the sounds, the forms,’ Schaffner said. And while her intentions were more polished, the low-fi, serendipitous ends she captured in her sonic note taking became the inspiration for her solo project, Dani Shivers.

‘The sound in my head is very different,’ Schaffner admitted. ‘The songs of Dani Shivers are more of an 8-bit version of what is really in my head.’ But the simple, imperfect versions of the scores in her imagination are a thing of beauty. Dripping with the nostalgia that only the toy Casio keyboards ubiquitous to childhood can evoke, Schaffner’s melancholic numbers capture perfectly those uncomfortable spaces between life’s transition where innocence fades and the heartbreaking truths of this world become apparent.

Jason Thomas Fritz Tijuana