Contrabando y traicion (Los Tigres del Norte)

I first heard Los Tigres del Norte while hitchhiking around Mexico in 1986. I was sitting in a park in Oaxaca one evening, playing guitar and waiting for something to happen, and some young guys came over and requested “Rock de la cárcel” (Jailhouse Rock), so I played that, and a medley of “La bamba” and “Twist and Shout,” and then one of the guys asked if I could play “La banda del carro rojo” (The Red Car Gang). When I said I didn’t know it, he borrowed my notebook and wrote out the whole lyric, then invited all of us over to his place. When we got there, he had a poster of Los Tigres on the wall — or maybe a movie poster for La banda del carro rojo, with a picture of Los Tigres; I don’t remember clearly, which may mean the beer was flowing, or just that it was almost forty years ago, or both.

Anyway, that was my introduction to Los Tigres, and before I left Mexico I bought an LP of their greatest hits and a Guitarra fácil booklet with lyrics and chords to a bunch of their songs, along with LPs and booklets of Los Bravos del Norte, Los Cadetes de Linares, and some other norteño  groups, and an LP of Los Teen Tops, who did “Rock de la cárcel.”

That was the beginning of a long journey…

…the short version being that I ended up writing a book called Narcocorrido, which traced my immersion in the modern corrido style and included interviews with Paulino Vargas, who wrote “La banda del carro rojo,” and a half-dozen other composers who worked with Los Tigres, and along the line the Tigres flew me to Mexico City for a massive concert on the Zócalo, then to Los Angeles for a meeting with Fonovisa records, and I’ve seen them many times since, and had a couple of meals with their leader, Jorge Hernández, a brilliant and fascinating man…

…and from time to time I’ve worked up versions of their songs. “La banda del carro rojo” was the first, but I never performed it and don’t remember all the words. I’ve enjoyed playing ranchera songs — an earlier post has my version of “Gritenme piedras del campo” — though I rarely performed them, because I rarely had audiences that understood the words.  But in the mid 2000s Narcocorrido was translated into Croatian and I arranged to do a book tour and figured I should play something at the readings.

After fooling around with a few options, I settled on “Contrabando y traición,” the song that started it all in the early 1970s. I tell the whole story in my book — or rather, let the song’s composer, Angel González, tell the story. He normally wrote socially conscious or romantic songs and had mixed feelings about the success of this one, which is about a female drug trafficker, Camelia la texana, who makes a successful run to Los Angeles with her car tires full of marijuana, learns that her lover and partner, Emilio Varela, is leaving her for another woman — so shoots him and disappears with the money.

The song was originally recorded by a mariachi singer named Joe Flores, but the Tigres’ version was definitive and made them into international stars, as well as spawning a string of low-budget action movies: first Contrabando y traición, then Mataron a Camelia, El hijo de Camelia, Emilio Varela vs. Camelia la texana… and who knows how many more. Los Tigres also made almost twenty movies, some of which are pretty interesting — for example La jaula de oro, about the tribulations of an undocumented Mexican immigrant raising a family in California.

There is plenty more to be said about all of this, which is why I wrote a book and I’ll probably write more, because Los Tigres and the corrido world continue to fascinate me. Meanwhile, this is how I began.