One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.
It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana andhave been melting into the city.
As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put outan album backing accordionist Celso Piña.
Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.
The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …
(NOTE: I’ve just seen on Chip Kinman’s FB page the news that Tony Kinman died this morning, apparently at his home in the San Diego area. A very sad day.)
Amid a culture where people on either side of politics are pushed to toe some kind of social-media enforced line, where everyone avidly looks to be offended, and where we all seem to be thin skinned, a spirit like Tony Kinman matters.
He began as a bass player from San Diego who, along with his brother Chip, formed one of the great musical duos in alternative rocknroll in this country. They started in punk rock, forming The Dils, which was the best punk band at least on the West Coast. Frenetic, blasting, fast. I coveted the 45 of I Hate the Rich and still have Class War and then Sound of the Rain.
Their voices blended perfectly – Tony with his baritone and a mop of dark hair, Chip, blond, with his high tenor. The punk Everly Brothers.
Beyond that, though, they hadn’t much but their gumption, rocknroll spirit, work ethic, and cheap sneakers, which was enough to keep them going for years.
Tony Kinman never made it big — never a music-industry star. The Kinman boys weren’t noble, starving artists — forget that — but my guess is they just wanted to create something of their own more than they wanted the cash. Each band they formed seemed to directly alienate the fans of the previous band. (Great interview here with Chip Kinman.)
They formed Rank and File, a country band with a punk flavor and moved to Austin. Tony’s baritone was spectacular on Conductor Wore Black and Sundown.
Later, they did electronica – Blackbird – and then moved on to Cowboy Nation, a folk duo playing old cowboy songs on acoustic guitar and bass.
I can’t say I know Tony Kinman. I met him and his brother once in 1980 when I hired them to play a party at Barrington Hall, a co-op at UC Berkeley where I was living and which was known for that kind of party. I drove to San Francisco in a co-op truck and loaded up The Dils and their equipment and then drove them back later that night. All that I have from that night is this photo from my friend Joanne.
But the Kinman boys have been part of the constellation of influences important in my life.
In my hometown of Claremont, California, many guys I grew up with played guitar; so did I, though not well. In high school in the 1970s, to me, rocknroll mattered. By then, though, it had grown bloated, pompous. Bands sang about the tribulations of being famous and over-sexed. Some bands recorded rock operas about elves, gnomes and mountain kings. In order to play any of it, we were told that we needed columns of expensive amps and we had to play a million notes a minute. Shows were in baseball stadiums, not in sweaty dark clubs.
Then punk rock came along and burned away all that crap and rock was again, for a moment, distilled to its urgent essentials. Three chords, two minutes, and you were done. Don’t ask permission to play – just get up there. Record your own 45 and put it out and sell it yourself. Put out your own fanzine. Organize your own shows. Don’t wait for anointing from some record company.
Soon punk rock became a style in which clothing companies charged a lot of money to make you look like you lived in a Skid Row wino hotel.
Really, though, punk rock wasn’t about leather jackets. It was an approach to life. Just do it: that was a real, pure American idea. Then Nike admen bought those words and turned them into a slogan.
Before that, though, that attitude was so healthy for a young American to hear. It was an important way to live and, to me, it grew from punk rock.
I adopted it as, in adulthood, I veered toward journalism and writing. I took jobs where I thought I could do exciting work and not wear a tie. So I covered crack, gangs and crime in Stockton, California. Then wanting to be a foreign correspondent but not wanting to ask permission from some newspaper, I moved to Mexico, where, as things turned out, I became a freelance writer.
I spent 10 years wandering the country alone, finding stories and selling them to media in the states, feeling this was my calling — this was punk rock.
I wrote a lot about immigrants, trudging north, trusting only in their wits, gumption, work ethic and cheap sneakers, and I knew they were punk rock as well. The best idea of America, coming up, raw and ragged, from Mexico.
I was offered jobs at news services and turned them down. It was a lot of money but I’d have to heed the orders of some editor in New York and not follow my own gut and eye, and this seemed a recipe for an unhappy life. I’m no noble, starving artist. Forget that. I just wanted a life of my own design. To do the stories I knew were important.
Along the way, I watched Tony and Chip Kinman, who best embodied what punk rock was to me, as they excavated American music in their own way.
Even when what they created didn’t always hit home the way The Dils or Rank and File did. Black Bird never quite worked for me, but I loved that they did it because it was them not being easily boxed.
Then they put out Cowboy Nation and I played the hell out of that. Streets of Laredo, Shenandoah, and the best song on the album, My Rifle, My Pony and Me. We Do As We Please is a great summation of the American spirit.
I remember I was thrilled when they somehow contacted me to get a copy of my first book.
I’ve noticed that Chip Kinman has continued on with his take on American blues – in a band called Ford Madox Ford, which is raunchy and raw and that’s the way great American music should be.
So I’m hoping the best for Tony Kinman, his brother, his family and his close friends.
The world can still use people who shape lives of their own design – maybe now more than ever.
(Photos: I’ll admit I just took these photos off the internet. If they’re yours, let me know and I’ll take them down.)
Not long ago, I was driving through Tennessee and happened upon a town called Cookeville, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. I had been advised that TTU, an engineering school out in the middle of nowhere, is also one of the world’s great centers for tuba playing.
This is largely due to the presence, since 1967, of Winston Morris, whom my source referred to as The Tuba God.
As a reporter, I pride myself on braking for anyone I hear who is colloquially known as the “God” of something, or the “King” of something else.
I have done stories on The Cambodian Donut King and The Tomato King and a Chinese-Mexican beauty Queen selected because she accumulated the largest number of Pepsi bottle caps (true story – Hell, they’re all true stories.)
Among the cool things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to barge into the lives of some of the most creative people in America. So that’s what I did.
I called Morris and he kindly allowed me to stop by on my way from Nashville to Knoxville. We talked a lot about tubas, the most relegated of instruments, and how it has emerged from the shadows where other instruments – mostly trumpets – had placed it. A civil rights movement for tubas, where the instrument was now breaking with all limitations, and playing any piece on the instrument was now possible.
Many years ago, Morris started the school’s Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble. He said he did this to attract attention to his program and to begin writing repertoire for the instrument, which had precious little. He envisioned the ensemble as tuba version of the string quartet or brass quintet. The Ensemble is now four decades old and has recorded pieces by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Gunther Schuller, Michael Jackson, and a bunch more.
He had more to say about tuba playing, about living in the Jim Crow South as a boy, about caring for his wife for 16 years after her massive stroke. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Cookeville.
Morris, btw, also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of tuba-related figurines – more than 2200. Rabbits playing the tuba, bears playing the tuba, Santa Clauses playing the tuba, soldiers playing the tuba, monkeys and elephants and cats playing the tuba. He’s donating it all to the school, which will set up an exhibit of tuba-related art.
Just another reason to stop while driving east from middle Tennessee.
My hometown of Claremont, California’s own Kaleidoscope was one of the great bands of the late 1960s.
David Lindley and Chris Darrow were two of its mainstays.
My dad bought Side Trips at a street fair at Pitzer College where the band performed, brought it home and we played the hell out of this album for the next five years, until it basically could not be triaged.
Kaleidoscope, like many musicians in town back then, melded folk, bluegrass, psychedelia, Middle Eastern music, R&B, and about two dozen instruments between them.
Makes you realize how rich in musicians, guitar players mostly, was Claremont in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s – due largely to the Folk Music Center and the five colleges, which, apart from CMC, had a pretty rich hippie scene. I remember because I accompanied my dad to a few anti-Vietnam marches when I was like 8 or so. Got a shirt stencil-painted with a clenched fist. Those were the days.
We were from the Claremont that’s south of Foothill, which only people from the town then will understand.
There’s great original music all the way through this record. But the dirge “Oh Death” seems fitting to the season.
Camacho was part of the Movimiento Alterado, which first grew out of Burbank, of all places, and drafted young singers, doing gigs at wedding parties and quinceneras in L.A. backyards, and transformed them into menacing narcosingers.
The movement has now spread to Mexico and to other record labels. Camacho’s label was DEL Records.
The Altered Movement is known for especially graphic lyrics depicting drug violence, and for the praising the powerful, particularly well-known Sinaloa Cartel figures, in very noncorrido form. The corrido has typically exalted the lone, heroic figure – a man going up against power and probably doomed, but worthy of a song nevertheless.
MA, however, has made a fetish of praising powerful cartel leaders, among them Manuel Torres Felix, El Ondeado (the Unhinged), the late head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel.
All in all, narcocorrido singer has to be one of the region’s most dangerous profession. Beginning with Chalino Sanchez, whose life I wrote about in my first book and who was murdered in Sinaloa in 1992, numerous singers who followed in his footsteps have been killed. Sanchez’s son, Adan, also died in a car crash.
Saul Viera, El Gavilancillo, was shot to death outside a Denny’s in Bellflower in 1998. Among others to die are Valentin Elizalde, shot to death in Reynosa in 2006, and El Halcon de la Sierra, Fabian Ortega, in 2010.
Soto was the tuba player for many years for Banda El Recodo, the holy mother of all bandas in Sinaloa.
He grew into something of the Michael Jordan of the tuba, in that he was a great player, but also made his persona into something younger tuba players wanted to follow and emulate.
He was, in other words, the first star tuba player – something that Mexican tuba playing didn’t have before him.
Soto spent 20 years with Recodo. He retired due to his illness in 2012 and his place was taken by another great and influential tuba player, Alfredo Herrejon.
During his years with Recodo, though, Soto raised the bell on his tuba so that the audience could see his face, thus plucking tuba players forever from the obscurity and ignominy they endured with the bell covering their face down to their nose.
I want to say he was among the first to engrave his tubas with florid designs – but others please correct me if I’m wrong.
Soto also had a signature tuba mouthpiece – the Jokoki – made by Pablo Garibaldi of Garibaldi Music in Paramount, CA.
Los Tigres del Norte got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today.
The only band that matters in Mexican pop music received their star on Hollywood Boulevard before hundreds of fans, Marco Antonio Solis – El Buki – and lots of glitzy Mexican TV reporters with impossibly tight and short skirts.
The boys got Star 2527, just outside the Buffalo Wings and Live Nation at Hollywood and La Brea. Not far from Lon Chaney and Ethel Merman, as it happens. So there’s that interesting juxtaposition for Hollywood, a district of the city that’s more about immigrants from Mexico and Central America (and Armenia and Thailand, for that matter) than it is about making movies these days, anyway.
The best way to understand Mexican immigrants, by the way, is to dissect the best Tigres’ corridos on the topic.
I recommend Pedro y Pablo, Ni Aqui Ni Alla, El Gringo y El Mexicano, Tres Veces Mojado, La Jaula de Oro, La Tumba del Mojado, El Mojado Acaudalado, A Quien Corresponda. Well, there are many.
And for machismo drenched in melodrama, nothing compares to El Tahur.
Some of the best drug ballads in Spanish have come from LTN: El Avion de la Muerte, Pacas de a Kilo, Camioneta Gris, and of course, the song with the first sound effects in Mexican music (gunshots), Contrabando y Traicion.
The first great political corrido in Mexican pop was theirs: El Circo, about ex-president of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother, Raul.
Their first album in four years, La Bala, is ready to drop in October. The single from the album is the story of a family whose 18-year-old son is involved with cartels and whose rivals come looking for him and kill his 7 -year-old brother with a stray bullet.
Here’s a bunch of photos I took when traveling with the band many years ago.
Last night, in the middle of a 90-minute set in West L.A., Alejandro Escovedo hunched over his black electric guitar and splayed his feet as if he was up against gale-force winds.
He leaned into his lead guitarist and a schoolboy grin spread across his face.
I think the song was Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.” But I can’t remember any more.
All I remember was the pure exhilaration on his face, which I took to mean that he still sucks a ton of joy from the simple act of playing in a band and getting it to thunder like a herd of African wildlife.
I took my wife to see Escovedo at The Mint on Pico Boulevard (great place!).
He was backed by the Sensitive Boys. This was a real garage band – which is all any rock musician with any balls should aspire to. I mean, the drummer had only four drums. (Thanks, man!) The guitarist had two guitars. Same with Escovedo. The bassist – bless his heart — had only a four-string Fender.
The gear didn’t matter. What mattered was the spirit. The idea that all you needed was your own heart, and jagged point of view, and love of fun.
Escovedo knows how to choose a great cover (“All the Young Dudes”), but he’s not an oldies act. Just a survivor.
He made his life in a young man’s game and, more than 30 years later, continues to create within it. He’s got a bunch of albums of his own songwriting.
Escovedo is one of the few from the original wave of punk rock (1977-81) who’s still making music. He was in the SF punk band, the Nuns, then Rank n File. Moved to Austin. I think since the late 1980s he’s been crafting his own career as a singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar but whose big love is for a nasty old pawn-shop electric turned up loud.
But I don’t know his resume.
All I know is that mostly folks who started out with him are all dead or gone on to other things. Or they’re in the RocknRoll Hall of Fame, which amounts to the same thing.
Punk rock was a joyous moment, an essentially American thing. It told a bunch of kids who grew up on a rock music that was now fat and pompous: You know what? Screw Emerson Lake and Palmer.
You don’t need stacks of amps and $5000 guitars and walls of drums. Screw the elites. You can get up there and do it, too, if you have the spunk.
Hell, you don’t even need to know how to play.
And you damn sure don’t need one of those pretentious six-string bass guitars.
All you need is three chords and the hunch that you need to make life on your own terms. Record your own 45s, book your own gigs, print your own posters. Everything’s up to you. Just don’t ask permission.
That is healthy stuff for a kid to hear. It was for me. It changed my life, though I was never in a punk band. (I did promote my own punk shows, though. Even hired the Zeros, fronted by his brother, Javier, a time or two.)
Any pop music genre is born in times and circumstances and doesn’t easily survive their passing. Punk was no different. It died long ago. The blues died, too — years ago. People can still play it. They still play Dixieland in New Orleans. Doesn’t mean it’s vital any more.
But if it’s worth anything, that music will leave a residue of attitudes that helped create it.
Like gum stuck on a shoe, one piece of punk’s residue is Alejandro Escovedo. Now with “more miles than money,” to quote his lyric, the independence of his spirit doesn’t seem to have flagged much.
Last year’s “Man of the World” is the best straight-ahead, raspy garage rock song in years.
Last night, his “Rosalie” hit me as one of the purest love songs I’ve heard in a while. I’d heard it before, but not live, which helped, though I can’t say why. Maybe it was just more raw, like the feeling. It’s a true story of a boy from San Diego and a girl from El Paso who met one day, fell in love, and spent the next seven years writing letters to each other until they saw each other again.
He filled the spaces between songs with stories of his family – parents and their 12 kids – coming out to Huntington Beach from San Antonio for vacation, seeing the beach and literally never going back, and of years later waiting outside the Whiskey to see the New York Dolls.
Then he sang another love song: “Sweet Jane” – it was to Lou Reed. “Sing it for Lou” he yelled, as the four chords to the song churned on and on through the night.
San Fernando High School’s marching band had its only two tubas stolen last month. The thieves broke into one band room, stole nothing, then broke into another and stole nothing but the tubas — overlooking guitars, violins, trumpets, drums, etc.
A Norwegian by birth, Baadsvik, 46, now spends 200 days a year traveling, preaching tuba creativity and the limitlessness of an instrument born more than a century ago into accompanist captivity.
I met Baadsvik before a master class he was to give one night at the University of Southern California — itself a center of tuba effervescence. (It’s where the late Tommy Johnson taught and turned out dozens of professional tuba players; and it’s where Jim Self now teaches and continues to educate the tubists of tomorrow.)
Close to a hundred students filled the class later that evening — most of them tuba players.
During our interview, we spoke about Baadsvik’s life as a tuba soloist, the limitations other non-players have imposed on the tuba, how tuba players have subconsciously accepted these limitations, and whether a tuba civil rights movement has formed to lead the instrument out from the back of the band.
“Playing a tuba is always crossing borders, doing stuff that hasn’t been done before,” he said.
Anyway, hope you enjoy an interview with a creative spirit.
The pieces on the podcast are:
First, “Dancing with a Blue Ribbon” from his new CD, Ferry Tales.
“Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” from his first CD, Tuba Carnival.
Buchon is a style of dress and speech — attitudes as well — that is from the bottom of the Sinaloan drug world.
It usually involves slang, very drawled speech — which is how folks from the mountains of Sinaloa speak. It also involves guns, demeaning talk about women, glorification of the bloodthirstiest narcos, money, military garb, tricked-out trucks, and, interestingly, the veneration of Buchanan whiskey — bastardized as “Buchanas.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere before.
Buchon is a big deal in the state of Sinaloa, where Mexican drug smuggling began — as the story makes clear.
It’s also a big deal here in L.A., where Sinaloan style has dominated Mexican culture for two decades — since the life and death of narco-balladeer legend Chalino Sanchez.
Los Buchones de Culiacan are a band that plays here regularly, and in Sinaloa. (Can’t play in the state of Tamaulipas as their image is so associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which is at war with the Zetas, whose stronghold in near the Gulf of Mexico.)
People in the southeast cities of LA County sometimes try to speak like hill Sinaloans even though they’re from states with very different cultures, such as Jalisco or Zacatecas.
As Carlos Monsivais was once reputed to have said: if you provide jobs to people, you become a hero. Or you get all the girls…..
This morning’s news that Heriberto Lazcano (pictured here), leader of the bloodthirsty Zeta drug cartel in Mexico, may have been killed by the Mexican military reminded me of a song by Los Cenzontles, the Mexican roots-music band from the Bay Area. (Update below: Lazcano’s corpse stolen.)
The Silence was recorded in February in a session in Echo Park with David Hidalgo, from Los Lobos, who has the vocals on the track, and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who sings backup.
A great, elegant tune about Mexico’s drug violence — one of the few songs whose achingly beautiful feel does some kind of justice to the tragedy.
The song is from the band’s great new CD, Regeneration — for which (full disclosure) I wrote the liner notes. The album mixes norteno, a little sixties rock, some blues and funk — all in a really strong, bold sound.
The band started as part of a grant to get kids involved in music in the East Bay. Years later, it’s an accomplished crew, having recorded several albums and artists such as Hidalgo, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.
On a lower note, the Zetas started out as Mexican military special operations commandos and were paid to desert by Osiel Cardenas Guillen, then the leader of the Gulf Cartel, which ran the territory on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Valley.
Cardenas, now doing 25 years in a US prison, hired them — 31 of them — as bodyguards. It took only a few years for them to realize that they could be a cartel as well. They branched off, recruited heavily among poor youth and returning deportees from the U.S. They formed new cells like amoeba, and became a fearsome force across Mexico and down into Guatemala.
I got into it while looking for a way to write about indoor swap meets in Los Angeles, which have always intrigued me. I shop at them often and find them fascinating business models for micro-entrepreneurs.
Most, if not all, are owned by Koreans, for whom the indoor swap meet was an important route into the middle class in America.
They provided another view of black-Korean relations than that of the Korean-owned liquor store.
Mr. Kim is pictured here with his wife, Boo Ja, and his son, Kirk, who now runs the stall at Compton Fashion Center.
The street festival grew from that scene — which itself began germinating years ago when a guy imported an entire Russian orchestra (true story) from the crumbling Soviet empire straight to Tijuana. The musicians stayed, played, taught, shaped the first classical music conservatory in Baja California. A host of local underground opera aficionados were also pushing the whole gig along — among them Enrique Fuentes, who opened a Vienna-style opera cafe in the Colonia Libertad. (photo right)
The opera scene is the fruit of their DIY labor, though it remains a little like underground music (reminds me of punk rock, in spirit anyway) in TJ, which is a city not about harmony and discipline, but where the reigning ethic is about babble, chaos and commerce.
I loved telling this story because it was about Tijuana and its great complexity, yet had nothing about narcos, murder, maquiladoras or strip clubs. Also, it was all about people working toward something without much government help and for the pure love of it.
When my wife started crying after reading the story of Mercedes Quinonez (pictured above) and her lifelong attempt to be an opera singer while working at a hardware store, I figured I’d done well.
The festival takes place on 5th Street and Aquiles Serdan in Colonia Libertad (easy walking distance from the border crossing), a setting that cannot be matched for pure surrealness (surreality?). The neighborhood — the first to be built outside downtown Tijuana — is a crumpled wedding cake of a place, home to the city’s first boxers, gang members and mayors, as well as its plaster-statue industry. Two hundred yards away is the brown wall separating the city from the USA.
Just an amazing place to see people singing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and the rest. Best time is later in the afternoon. Expect 7,000+ people. On this year’s bill are Carmina Burana, arias from Carmen, Cosi Fan Tutte, Turandot and Don Carlo.
Enjoy a bit of surreal border stuff — a very original creation by some very creative people.