In the vast galaxy that is "Latin music" -- a term that means almost nothing, really, as it includes all kinds of genres and language combinations -- regional Mexican music is a solar system unto itself. Of the many styles further grouped into this umbrella, one of the biggest is norteño -- a name that translates as, more or less, being from the northern part of Mexico, where culturally things start to bleed into southern Texas.
It's not to be confused with Tejano -- a similar style from a similar area but one that incorporates more bilingual lyrics and American-type flourishes cribbed from rock. Think of norteño as a high-energy, highly dramatic, Spanish-language polka, perhaps. It's driven by vocal harmonies and a relentless oompah-oompah beat that can sound carnivalesque to the unfamiliar but that often masks more serious lyrical content.
Norteño is the musical home of songs known as "corridos," which are like the gangster rap of Mexican music -- tales of drug-running across the border and the ensuing violence. It's also the home of heartbreaking, cross-border tales of love lost and families separated by politics and economics.
Among the biggest of these acts is Los Tigres del Norte, or "the tigers of the north." The group is like the Beatles of Mexican music -- if the Beatles had kept it together for more than 40 years. Los Tigres have been going continuously since 1968, when Jorge Hernandez formed the group in Sinaloa, Mexico, with his brothers and some cousins. These days, the group is based in San Jose, California. Hernandez is still in the game as musical director, lead vocalist, and accordion player, with various descendants now rounding out the five-man lineup.
To date, Los Tigres have scored five Latin Grammys, sold more than 32 million records worldwide, and released a staggering 45 albums -- that's not even counting various singles, EPs, and compilations. English speakers with little familiarity of Spanish-language music may have no idea who this group is, but Los Tigres' most recent album was a special MTV Unplugged session last year, and the group has even been sent abroad to entertain U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea.
This Friday, Los Tigres will play for fans in West Palm Beach, at the South Florida Fairgrounds. The show is sure to draw fans from across the state, and not just Mexicans -- the recent MTV Unplugged album, for example, also reached number one on the Colombian charts.
In celebration, here are five of the group's top songs from over the years.
Los Tigres del Norte. 8 p.m. Friday, February 24, at the South Florida Fair Grounds, 9067 Southern Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $40. Click here.
"Contrabando y Traicion" (1974)
One of the group's first breakout hits, this is a straight-up narcocorrido, or a tale of cross-country drug-pushing. (The title translates as "Contraband and Betrayal.") Unlike other songs in the genre -- though this one offers the narrative thrills of violence and corruption -- the moral consequences are portrayed in a way that does not glorify the drug trade.
"Mi Buena Suerte" (1990)
Translating to "My Good Luck," this is just a sweet love song that's popular with fans. Yes, those are mullets in the video.
"Señor Locutor" (2006)
The main character here is a heartbroken man who's left the true love of his life back in his hometown. He calls a radio announcer to ask him to stop playing so many love songs, because, it turns out, he left to seek his fortune, leaving her behind. As he's telling the announcer his tale of woe, there's a plot twist. Another listener calls in, assuring the first caller that the first woman died of heartbreak -- the second caller is, in fact, his son!
"Tres Veces Mojado" (1989)
This song literally means "three times a wetback," a reclaiming of an ethnic slur if there ever was one. However, the song does recount the pain of being far removed from home. The narrator here starts out in his native El Salvador, only to find himself a derided foreigner three times over as he journeys through Guatemala, Mexico, and then, finally, the United States.
"Somos Mas Americanos" (2001)
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This is one of the group's most political hits. The title means "We Are All Americans" -- no surprise, then, that it advocates for the rights of the undocumented. Here's a clip of the group performing it during its Unplugged session, for which they were joined onstage by Zach de la Rocha.