Issue 2/2001 - Net section

Tijuana Moods

The Mexican Nortec collective is redefining bounder-crossing

Enrique Lavin

Before Pepe Mogt and Melo Ruiz had the equipment to produce all their music on their home equipment, the Tijuana electronica artists would take their portable recorder to stores to record the latest sequences from the latest synthesizers. »Now it's not about recording sounds from the keyboards but capturing, and salvaging the sounds of the city,« says Mogt, who with Ruiz are the electronica outfit Fussible (pronounced foo-SEE-blay), one of the leaders of the nortec sound.

At a time when the TJ artists who were producing the full gamut of electronic dance and experimental sounds felt that they had nowhere else to take their music, Mogt and friends started joking around with each other at parties about infusing traditional Mexican norteño beats. The soundtrack to this grinding Baja California region that splashes over into San Diego is a mixture of everything on American radio and the accordion oompah-like norteño or brassy banda music from the Sinaloa region that dozens of wandering groups play anywhere they have a chance to pick up a tip: bars, restaurants, hotels, casinos, shopping centers. »We'd tease one another at parties, 'You have to put a little bit of Sinaloa in it. Throw a little banda in it and you'll have something.' But that got me thinking,« says Mogt, 30. »Some of that stuff doesn't sound too bad, and I figured it was now or never to try it out.«

Mogt, born José Trinidad, went looking for banda and norteño outfits at the usual spots in the city to record the distinct sound of a waltzing drums and brass. His recorder picked up too much of the city's bustle. So he went to the studio where most of these bands recorded demos. After playing around with the new sounds to his repertoire, Mogt distributed the raw norteño recordings to all his musician friends, igniting a musical revolution.

Ramon Amor Amezcua a.k.a. Bostich came back with »Polaris,« the opening track on the recent release »The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1,« issued in the U.S. on Chris Blackwell's Palm label, by the Nortec Collective, which includes Fussible, Panóptica, Plankton Man, Terrrestre and Clorifila. That track with its succinct rollicking snare drums and tuba farts became the blue print of what nortec would become. At 38, Bostich is the veterano of the crew, and for »Polaris« he was dubbed the »godfarther of nortec.« »From the very beginning we started working with the sound, Fussible, Panóptica and I were excited about it. For years we were experimenting with various sounds that went from drum 'n' bass to trance,« says Bostich, a pioneer in Mexican electronica. Bostich's first album Electroniche (Opción Sonica) came out in 1994. »When I started to think about the drum roll, exploiting that hybrid percussion, the tuba, all these things made their way into the song.«

To celebrate the release of the Nortec Collective's »Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1,« organizers incorporated Nortec City as an electronica suburb of TJ for one night, inviting the international press. The anthem of this post-utopian meltdown is a cheeky, warped-bongo techno-cumbia by Hiperboreal entitled »Tijuana for Dummies.«

If such a guide book existed, it would have a chapter dedicated to TJ's Sin City personae, which began during its pre-Vegas casino Prohibition-era days. About 80 cantinas still stretch along the city's main artery La Avenida Revolución, known as La Revo. You may be underage at 18 in the States, but here thousands of teens scramble through the streets on any given weekend. This is the city where Mexico's J.F.K.-equivalent presidential hopeful Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated six years ago. Because it's home to maquiladoras, assembly lines owned by Panasonic and Sony, the city's economy is better than most of Mexico. The city also benefits from the drug trade. Like a holdback from the Old West, »Wanted« posters tacked on walls in public places offer a $ 2 million reward for the arrest of local drug lords. »Young people involved in the nortec culture has appropriated all this,« says Enrique Jiménez, a nortec journalist and founder of the Nimboestatic label, which released some pre-nortec material from Fussible, Terrestre and Panóptica.

Like all borderlands, two cultures constantly grating blur the actual line that was supposed to separate them to form one new culture. At the vanguard of all this is a group of young educated artists from various disciplines-graphic design, fashion, video, literatures and music-who have spontaneously come to identify themselves with nortec. Graphic designers place a norteño hat on a Warhol-esque collage of Colosio. Kids on the dancefloor wear Mexican tasseled ponchos on top of their high-tech overalls. And writers set their stories in the middle of a rave where the Arellano Bothers of the Tijuana Drug Cartel do their business.

The compilation offers a keyhole view of the latest chapter in an electronica history that dates back in Baja some 15 years. Terrestre offers a drunken, brass-heavy, and jazzy Wurlitzer-lined techno-polka entitled »Tepache Jam,« referring to the fermented-fruit Aztec drink used before cannibalistic sacrificial rituals. On Panóptica's ambient dub »And L,« the snare drum, high-hats, and cowbell bounce through the snap and crackle of an analog filter. (»And L« is a bilingual pun: pronounced »AHN-da-lay« like Speedy Gonzalez's war cry, the common Mexican term for »hurry up.«) And Fussible's »Ventilador,« with compressed breakbeats and disjointed melodies cut by a washboard rattle, fans the winds that carry Mexicanness over any obstacle.

»We didn't set out to play with language, the union of Spanish and English is part of our daily lives,« says Panóptica the alias of Roberto Mendoza, who coined the term nortec. »That's how we speak, like many Latinos in the United States.« The mestizaje is what nortec is all about. A fusion of two worlds. It's obvious now how it all happened, but nearly three years ago noone would have thought of it this way, he says.Among the terms the collective threw around to define their musical approach was »Tech-Mex,« playing with the idea of Tex-Mex, but that was too U.S.-oriented. Then came the idea to use norte, all of Latin America pushing at the boudaries of the U.S. »We were playing with the words when 'norteño technology' and 'norte techno' turned up,« recalls Mendoza. »When the final term emerged, it gave us a sense of purpose.«

After all this time working without sampling voices, »Tijuana For Dummies« by Hiperboreal may be the next step in the nortec evolution. The song takes another approach to reflect TJ's allure with a woman voice teasing in accented English: »This is Tijuana...Come In!«