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Question: I read in your bio that you're working on a book
about Robert Johnson. Do you think he really made a deal with the
devil? And if so, what were the terms?
Elijah: Myths are marvelous things, the keys to understanding a
culture. For forty years, white folks have had this myth about Robert
Johnson selling his soul to the Devil, and that says a great deal
about white fantasies of blackness and its links to mysterious,
sexy, forbidden powers.
Back in 1936, black folks in the Delta had a different blues myth.
It was that any guy who got good enough on guitar and learned how
to play the latest hip sounds could get the hell out of the cotton
fields and make enough money to move to Chicago, wear sharp new
suits, and drive a Terraplane.
Question: I haven't read your book, but from reading your answers
here, I'm interested. Are the Narcocorrido songs similar to America's
Gangsta rap? Is there any outcry against them in Mexico because
of the fact that they are about drug smuggling or do people really
admire drug smugglers?
Elijah: Hey, read my book! Sorry... Narcocorridos are similar to
gangsta rap, in that they have an overlapping audience, they are
a musical newspaper of the street, they document and celebrate the
crime world, and a lot of people are trying to ban them. (They are
banned from radio play all over Northwestern Mexico.)
Narcocorridos are completely unlike gangsta rap, in that they are
self-consciously old-fashioned, they celebrate traditional values,
they are played on acoustic instruments, by bands that do live shows.
As for the morality of the subject matter: Some people admire drug
smugglers, just as some people admire imperialist, warmongering
presidents. The world is full of people with twisted values.
Question: How have corridos "covered" the subject of
recent world events, ie: terrorism?
Elijah: All the corridos I have found on this subject are posted,
with translations, on my website, at www.elijahwald.com/corridowatch.html.
If anyone out there has heard any others, please let me know.
Question: In writing 'Narcocorrido' what was your 'm.o' for covering
the worlds and 'subjects' in your book? Do you feel a sense of responsibility
to the people in the work? Did you feel as a journalist it was important
to try to keep a distance from them professionally or did you find
the line between reporting and friendship blurring?
Elijah: I hitch-hiked around, listening to whatever the truck drivers
were playing, and hung out with as many corridistas as possible.
I think the corridistas are among the most important and influential
writers in North America, but have never been respected, and my
aim was to get their words down on paper, so people could know who
they were, where their songs came from, and what they thought about
I wanted to give an accurate picture of their views, and it was
important to me that they feel that I had represented them correctly,
so I had no interest in keeping a distance from them. Still, in
most cases I would not consider them my friends. Hell, I usually
only talked with them for an hour or two. There are a couple I would
consider friends, and I have gone back and hung out with them since,
and others whom I have very little respect for. Some of that probably
comes through in my book, but I think they all feel they got a fair
I think objectivity is highly over-rated. I would rather know what
side a writer is on, so I can know how to judge what she is saying.
Like, the fact that one has to have many millions of dollars to
own a major newspaper, radio station or television network is going
to affect the news we receive, and we need to be aware of that.
Being friendly with a few corridistas may blur my views on occasion,
but not the way it will blur your views if the outcome of the next
election determines whether or not you will be able to save a few
million on your tax bill, or a war with Iraq could triple the value
of your oil company holdings...
Question: You mentioned the work of "Lupillo or Jenni Rivera,
who are making Mexican ranchera music about life on the streets
of LA." How can music with a rural sensibility speak to urban
Elijah: Elvis, anyone?
What's "rural" about accordions? They sure aren't being
made in the Mexican sierras. What's "rural" about brass
Rap can be traced back to old African American "toasts,"
which folklorists collected in the rural South in the 1930s. Ballet
can be traced back to European folk dances. Corridos can be traced
back to Medieval ballads.
Jenni sings about how when she turned 15 she was given a cell phone
and a beeper. Lupillo has written corridos about dealing crack.
Today, kids all over Mexico and the Southwestern US are buying their
records as the sound of LA. And that's right. They are the sound
of LA. Sure, a few years ago Las Voces del Rancho were doing their
photo shoots with bales of hay to make them seem like country guys,
but those days are over. Now, Lupillo wears sharp suits, Jenni wears
cornrow braids, and El Original wears hip-hop gear. It's urban music,
from the biggest Mexican City outside Mexico City.