The facts of Chalino's life are fairly straightforward. He was born in the rancho of Las Flechas and raised in Sanalona, a village about 20 miles east of Culiacán. According to the American reporter San Quiñones, who has interviewed many of Chalino's friends and associates, his legend begins with an incident right out of the Pancho Villa saga: when he was a child, a local tough raped his sister and, at the age of 15, Chalino ran into the rapist at a party, walked up to him without saying a word, and shot him to death. With that, he had to leave town, and he moved to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. He worked various jobs, both the low-paid, semilegitimate work available to illegal immigrants and small-time border hustlers, smuggling drugs and people across the line in partnership with his brother Armando. In 1984, Armando was shot and killed in Tijuana, and the story is that Chalino's first corrido was written shortly afterward to preserve his brother's memory.
It was around that time that Chalino ran afoul of the law and spent a few months in jail, and some say that this was the beginning of his new career. He wrote songs about his fellow inmates, trading his compositions to their protagonists in return for money or favors. He turned out to have a striking facility for making up lyrics, and on his release found himself in demand among the low-level traffickers and tough guys of southern and Baja California. He would write on commission, serving as a sort of musical press agent for whoever cared to come up with the cash. In this world, where literacy is by no means the rule, corridos are a performed rather than a written style, and Chalino's clients didn't want a printed lyric, but instead a cassette with their ballad performed by a band. He did not consider himself a singer, so he hired a local norteño outfit, Los Cuatro del Norte, to record his first batch of commercial products. Once they got into the studio, though, he found himself taking over. As his friend Pedro Rivera tells the story, "They had no idea how to sing a corrido, so he got angry and said, 'Give them to me, I'll sing them myself.' He got up and sang them the way he thought they should be sung, and that's how they were recorded for all time."
Chalino knew that he was not a good singer, but he could deliver a corrido lyric and the tapes were not intended for widespread consumption. "The second recording he did with the banda, with the banda Los Guamuchilenos," Pedro says. "And the engineer said to him, 'Listen, the trumpet is out of tune there, and you're out of tune there.'"
Chalino's response summed up his intentions, "No, loco, it's fine like it is. I don't want to sell this, it's just so each cabron can hear hiscorrido and so I've got it recorded."
That was how it was for the first few cassettes. Chalino would record 15 songs, each commissioned by some local valiente (brave man or tough, depending on how you care to translate), make one copy for each client, and that was that. By the third recording, his clients were ordering extra copies for their friends, and the studio owner, Angel Parra, suggested doing a proper, professional run of 300 cassettes. These sold easily and were followed by reorders, and Chalino found himself becoming a professional singer. It was a gradual process: he had first entered the studio in 1986 or 1987, and it would be several more years before he began drawing serious crowds, but already people were being struck by his unique style.
Chalino was nothing like other norteño stars. Indeed, one could say that his appeal was that of the anti-star. He was seen not as an entertainer, but, as the real thing, a valiente fresh off a Sinaloan rancho. His voice was anything by pretty, a flat, nasal whine that, especially on the early recordings, tends to sound tight and forced. His own assessment of it is said to have been, "I don't sing. I bark." As it turned out, this was among his greatest assets: when people heard him, they instantly knew that he was different. You could not mistake that voice, and its very ugliness suggested that the singer had lived the life and knew what he was talking about. This was not a pop norteño band in fancy cowboy outfits singing about Camelia la Tejana. It was the true voice of the drug traffic, of the dark guys in the giant pickup trucks whose expensive clothes could not conceal their country manners.
Chalino was the right man in the right place at the right time. In 1988, Los Tigres themselves turned away from flamboyant cowboy suits and a musical path that had broadened to include soft rock and South American rhythms, and released a stripped-down crime-ballad collection called "Corridos Prohibitos" ("Prohibited Corridos"). A challenge to those who thought they had grown rich and detached from their roots, it showed them on the cover as a group of street guys in a police lineup, and the title boasted of the fact that their narco songs were regularly banned from radio airplay. By some reports it was their most popular album to date (since corrido albums, in particular, sell largely in bootleg versions, there is no way to establish sales) and, although they soon returned to ornate white tiger suits, it proved their ability to capture the spirit of the times. Just as rap was forcing the Anglo pop world to confront the raw sounds and stark realities of the urban streets, thecorrido was stripping off its own pop trappings to become the rap of modern Mexico and the barrios on el otro lado.
Los Tigres understood the new wave, but Chalino defined it. Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, or the gangsta rappers, his style crystallized a moment after which nothing would sound quite the same. A lot of people hated his records, attacking them as grating and amateurish, but his fan base soon reached far beyond the LA and Tijuana street crowd that had given him his start. Older corrido fans in the Sierra Madre or the northern deserts were attracted by the same thing that excited the young punks in L.A.: Chalino was the real thing, a fiercely accurate corridista chronicling the world around him.
Chalino's sound was anathema to the mainstream ranchera world, but the slow, low cars cruising the barrios soon had his tapes blaring from their windows, and his following spread like brush fire. In 1990, he played a concert at El Parral, a popular dance club in South Gate, and so many people showed up that the owner had to lock the doors to prevent an overflow.
He was still a relatively local phenomenon, though, known only in southern California, the immediately adjoining border region, and in Sinaloa. His breakthrough, in terms of wider publicity, came on January 20, 1992. That night, he was singing in a club in Coachella, California, just outside Palm Springs, when an unemployed mechanic came up to the stage to make a request, then pulled out a pistol and shot Chalino in the side. Living up to his reputation, Chalino pulled out his own gun and returned fire. By the time it was all over, the would-be assassin had been shot in the mouth with his own gun, Nacho Hernandez had been shot in the thigh, and at least five other people were wounded, including a young guy who bled to death as his friends drove him to the hospital. In Sinaloa, it is commonly said that the death toll was higher, but that most of the killed and wounded, being undocumented aliens with criminal connections, were spirited out of the club and over the border before the police arrived.
The shooting made the Anglo as well as the Spanish-language newspapers, and even got a spot on ABC's World News Tonight. Chalino's sales skyrocketed and he finally began to get some airplay, though only for an old-fashioned, non-narco pop song, "Nieves de Enero." At his next L.A. appearance, El Parral was packed and had to close its doors by 6:00 P.M., some five or six hours before he was due onstage. According to Quiñones, however, Chalino was not all that cheerful about his new notoriety. He was having intimations of mortality, and in the next few months he portioned out his gun collection among his friends and signed a contract with Musart, one of Mexico's biggest recording and publishing companies, giving Musart the rights to his songs and him enough money to buy a house for his wife and children. This deal, which reportedly earned him the impressive sum of 350,000 pesos (at the time roughly $115,000), made perfect sense in the street corrido world, where songs rarely outlast their singers, but would turn out to be a disastrous financial miscalculation. The contract gave away all rights, with no royalty provisions, and Chalino's family was thus robbed of any share in the millions earned after he became a legend.
Chalino's legendary status arrived more or less as expected: On May 15, four months after the Coachella shooting, he played a rare gig in Culiacán, at the Salon Bugambilias. The show was a huge success, but afterwards things turned nasty. As Quiñones tells the story in his book, True Tales From Another Mexico, Chalino drove away from the club with two of his brothers, a cousin and several young women. They were pulled over at a traffic circle by a group of armed men in Chevrolet Suburbans, who flashed state police identification cards, took one of the brothers out of the car, then told Chalino that commandante wanted to see him. They talked a bit more, and then Chalino agreed to go along with the men, getting into one of their cars while the others followed behind.
A few hours later, as dawn broke on May 16, 1992, two campesinos found the body of Chalino Sánchez dumped by an irrigation canal near the highway north out of town. He was blindfolded, and his wrists had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head.
The sequel was a Mexican version of the Tupac Shakur story: Chalino's death elevated him from a singer to a legend, and the West Coast corridistas rushed out reams of verses in honor of their fallen bard. Chalino's widow told the Swiss researcher Helena Simonett that she knew of over 150 corridos dedicated to her late husband, and there were undoubtedly others that did not come to her attention. Meanwhile, "Nieves de Enero" became a radio hit, and Musart rushed out a bunch of "new" Chalino albums, reusing his vocal tracks to create banda and mariachi versions of his songs, and faking duets with the dead Texas border idol Cornelio Reyna and the female ranchera star Mercedes Castro. Within a couple of years, the corrido scene from Culiacán to Los Angeles was flooded with imitators, all singing in approximations of his raw country tenor and pictured with pistols and rifles.
Elijah Wald is a writer and musician with 20 years' experience covering roots and world music. He was writer and consultant on the Smithsonian multimedia project The Mississippi: River of Song and is the author of the award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues. An overview of his work is available at: elijahwald.com.