After a second round of beers at an empty corner dive bar in downtown Tijuana, aptly named "La Esquina," Tony Gallardo, the mind behind the Tijuana chillwave cumbia 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 our 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, and 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, 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 of Tecate, it was my turn, and I scuttled toward the men's room. The door had a life-sized "Scarface" decal plastered to it. It reminded of the time Gallardo mentioned that he liked the sound of 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: 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, I thought.
The New Leadville
Gallardo started his hazy cumbiawave project Mariá y José during the height of Tijuana's bloodletting and 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, mid-day shootouts on the city's busiest thoroughfares, people hung from highway overpasses. Tijuana is the new Leadville.
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, moving across the border to San Diego. Everyone was on edge.
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 game. 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 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 any instruments, Gallardo has become a virtuoso of sampling and pirated music programs.
His 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 that was 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 and held for ransom 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 its 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 meets border violence.
Download the music of Mariá y José.