Review | ¡Corrido!: The Living Ballad of Mexico’s Western Coast
¡Corrido!: The Living Ballad of Mexico’s Western Coast. By John H. McDowell. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015. [456 pp. ISBN:978-0-8263-3743-6. Hardcover $55.00].
Reviewed by Alejandro García Sudo / University of California, Los Angeles
There is more than meets the eye in Professor John Holmes McDowell’s latest publication. At face value, this handsome and sizable 456-page tome could be categorized as a conventional cancionero, a compendium of song lyrics and musical transcriptions. Indeed, ¡Corrido! was conceived as the accompanying songbook for Poetry and Violence (2000), McDowell’s landmark study of “ballad communities” in the Costa Chica (in the vicinity of Acapulco, along Mexico’s southern Pacific shoreline). Readers familiar with that earlier book will recognize some of the materials presented in this volume —a few of the song lyrics and several of the black-and-white pictures were published fifteen years ago. However, this collection contains dozens of new corridos: McDowell selected 107 out of the many that he compiled in the field between 1972 and 1995. To my knowledge, this is the largest and most comprehensive anthology of corridos from the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. It is an invaluable contribution to Mexican music scholarship, and a welcome reminder that this form of balladry has flourished in many different regions and not only in those that are closer to the U.S.-Mexico border.
On closer inspection, ¡Corrido! is more than a useful reference tool. Cleverly, McDowell has taken advantage of a songbook’s format to present a song-by-song portrait of Mexico’s “Western Coast.” The author provides field and research notes for each one of the corridos, including the date and location of the performances (transcribed by Carlos Fernández), the names of the musicians, and earlier mentions of each song in the scholarly literature. In most cases, however, McDowell precedes this technical information with an analytical section demonstrating how the songs’ themes and lyrics are imbricated in family memoirs, popular legends, and local political feuds. The result is an evocative account of the region and its people told through its repertoire (in snippets, non-chronologically). To embrace this history, readers will have to read ¡Corrido! like a regular book: individual song vignettes are informative enough, but more rewarding insights await those willing to read the seven chapters from start to finish.
Assembling what could be described as a regional canon —songs that many in the coast will know by heart— Chapter 1 explores the local lore surrounding classic corridos like “Maximiliano de Habsburgo” (traceable back to the nineteenth century) or “Simón Blanco” (a local classic that the singer Antonio Aguilar, a beloved Mexican movie star, catapulted to national fame in the 1970s). McDowell uses these regional standards to familiarize us with recurring themes of corrido balladry, such as the celebration and tragic demise of Robin-Hood-like heroes, a proneness to armed confrontation (pistolerismo), machismo, and a nebulous and frequently murderous relationship between community leaders, impresarios, outlaws, and state authorities.
By the time we reach the tale of Filadelfo Robles (corrido # 30, 143-144), we are not surprised to read that Filadelfo, like Simón Blanco and other protagonists in the traditional repertoire, was a historical caudillo of the post-revolutionary era (1920s-60s): a strongman “who allied himself with the agrarian reform, seeking to distribute lands taken from the large haciendas to ‘campesinos de los pueblos’.” Then again, in those same pages, we learn for the first time that some African-descended communities in Mexico regard the human shadow as a manifestation of the soul, and that an allusion to Filadelfo’s “heavy shadow” might therefore be interpreted as an afromestizo death omen. By examining this turn of phrase, McDowell draws attention to the prevalence of racialized discourses in local discussions of the Costa Chica, and to a decades-old stereotype according to which the region’s African heritage could allegedly be accounting for the violent ethos of its inhabitants. This is but one example of how McDowell uses individual song entries to reflect upon broader themes and historiographical debates threading together the people, their music, and their ideology.
The remaining six chapters are organized according to specific locations, recording sessions, and troubadour lineages. Chapter 2, for example, includes performances that McDowell witnessed as a guest of the Gallardo family in the town of Cruz Grande (first in August 1972, later in January 1989). Conversely, Chapter 3 compiles corridos sung by Juvencio Vargas, a native of Ometepec who was living in Acapulco when McDowell recorded him and his daughter Meche in early 1989. Subsequent chapters transport us to different moments and localities, or focus on other musicians and their collaborations with the aforementioned interpreters. This distinguishes McDowell’s cancionero from earlier ones that classified songs according to artificial thematic categories (e.g., “tragic” corridos as distinct from “historical” ones in Mendoza 1954). In other words, whereas previous scholars focused more on the lyrics and relegated their field notes either to the appendixes or to a few explanatory lines, McDowell brings performers and venues to the forefront by making them part of the songbook’s structure.
This is a step in the right direction, I believe. Songs are not ahistorical entities that can be catalogued according to ideal poetic types. Rather, they are a manifestation of a historical moment and psyche. McDowell has often conceptualized corridos as the lyrical expression of the “social drama” that surrounds them: music reflecting the memories and experiences of specific performers who, more often than not, have been personally acquainted with the ballads’ protagonists, or who have endured similarly violent episodes. Furthermore, McDowell argues that corridos are involved in processes of memorialization, regulation, and therapy. Acculturated performers and listeners find in that type of balladry a welcoming occasion to reflect upon shared tragedies, commemorate the past, repair social bonds, and reinforce commonly held values. Therefore, the corrido is more than a mirror of a collective state of affairs: it is the ritual whereby a social group examines and reconstitutes itself (McDowell 2000, 13-16, 209-16). Indeed, most of the songs in this anthology have a unique and sometimes intimate significance for the people who perform them on a regular basis. McDowell is inviting us to hear them as the enunciations of those living individuals, and not as generic compositions that follow the (admittedly repetitive) formal template of the Spanish romance, the centuries-old declamatory practice from which the corrido descended.
It might be unfair to demand more from a book that is so carefully theorized and that took four decades in the making. Nevertheless, I will continue this review by interrogating two methodological premises that are still common in musicology and ethnomusicology, and that a book like ¡Corrido!—or any other music anthology, for that matter— might still be inadvertently reinforcing. The first has to do with the idea that a musical genre can or should be studied in isolation from others. As McDowell tells us on several occasions, the corrido is rarely performed on its own. When coastal communities in Guerrero and Oaxaca gather to eat, sing, and socialize, they intone a diverse array of songs with national and international influences (the chilena, for example, might be rhythmically related to the cueca of the South American Pacific coast; see p. 14). McDowell himself admits the artificiality of assembling corridos as a unified or self-contained expressive tradition, yet does not really take time to ponder whether those songs might be related to other musical traditions in the region, either aesthetically or thematically. In this regard, one might wish to consult alternative anthologies of Mexican balladry that present corridos alongside other types of songs (e.g., Mendoza 1954, Frenk Alatorre 1975, Ochoa Serrano and Pérez Martínez 2000).
Obviously, McDowell cannot be expected to examine the entire repertoire active in the region since 1972 (much less in an anthology with such a specific title). Still, the author’s scant references to the heterogeneous musical practices interacting with the corrido might be a symptom of his relative inattention to the situations and circumstances in which corridos are regularly performed. As much as he is aware of the ritual role of the corrido, as much as he documents its mythology, and as much as he sat down at the table to talk with respected corridistas, McDowell is not thoroughly describing or assessing the diverse settings, expressive nuances, or sonic qualities of live corrido performance. The author does remind us here and there that this type of music making takes place at public venues, festivities, and private gatherings; that ensembles include guitars, but maybe also violins, harps, brass instruments, and (more recently) accordions; that “thickness” is a cherished voice quality; that musicians explore or “coax” the corrido before performing it; and that it is common to shout a few words in the middle of a performance to establish rapport with the song’s characters or the interpreters. However, few of the song entries detail the way those conventional gestures come to life during performance, i.e., how performers and audiences interacted with the lyrical and musical transcriptions that the author captured for posterity.
Writing about performance is by no means an easy endeavor. In some cases, I imagine that the author decided not to do so because he preferred to refer us to YouTube clips, to the compact disk that accompanied his previous book on the Costa Chica (McDowell 2000), or to footage of corrido performances recorded between 1989 and 1996 that is now available at the Ethnographic Video for Instruction and Analysis Digital Archive (eviada), a website sponsored by the University of Michigan and McDowell’s own Indiana University (https://media.eviada.org/eviadasb/home.html). In other cases, McDowell might have given less attention to certain aspects of corrido performance because he was privileging the voices of preeminent song writers and troubadours who speak about the music mostly in self-referential manner (when interviewed, they discuss whether they were first-hand witnesses of the story, whether they heard it from a relative, whether their version is more accurate than others, whether the protagonist himself approached them to commission the song, and so forth). Therefore, if this songbook gives an impression that corridos are a very coherent expressive tradition, it might be because a select group of corridistas cultivates them as such.
This brings me to the second premise that I wish to interrogate: the idea that a musical corpus such as this can be said to encapsulate the living memory and practice of a community as a whole. In reality, this regional repertoire has been preserved and curated by a relatively small group of lore keepers. Indeed, when McDowell argues that the corrido is the outcome of a “shared communal life,” he means that it is a tradition that “adapts to the needs and desires of those who cultivate and value it” and that “engages the aspirations, beliefs, and values of its adherents” (McDowell 2000, 43). We must therefore keep in mind that not everyone in the region might be “adhering” to this ballad community—or to exactly the same one— and that certain corrido traditions might be more relevant for some members of the community than for others. To be clear: I do not doubt that the repertoire in this anthology is alive and well among certain social circles. Nevertheless, I wonder if said music is the one that most accurately reflects a contemporary state of affairs in southern Guerrero. I am aware that this anthology is not quite representing the present (it closes with a corrido about the 1995 Aguas Blancas massacre). I am also aware of the thorny issues surrounding this topic, and of the fact that disclosing more recent details might endanger the livelihood of the informants. However, I do believe that a book published in 2015 could have addressed some of the more recent repertoire, or some of the pressing issues and dramatic dislocations undergone by Mexican society in more recent memory.
Last year (2015), I presented a paper titled “Conflictive Discourses on Violence in the Narcocorrido” at the Society for Ethnomusicology, Southern California and Hawai’i Chapter. There, I argued that the transnational reach and commercial appeal of some corrido scenes north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border—together with the increasingly de-territorialized imagery of the narcocorrido, a type of corrido that glamorizes organized crime and drug trafficking— is making it difficult for traditional musical practices to maintain their erstwhile relevance in communities affected by the escalation of the so-called War on Drugs. To exemplify, I quoted a testimony referring to the September 2014 disappearance of forty-two students of the Normal School of Ayotzinapa, a left-leaning teacher training college with a long history of confrontation with federal and state authorities. Ayotzinapa is 160 miles away from the Costa Chica driving inland.
According to several accounts, the forty-two missing students might have been kidnapped by a group working for Iguala’s mayor and handed over for execution to the Guerreros Unidos, a criminal organization with which the mayor is accused of having close ties. In October 2014, one of the students who escaped those attacks claimed on a televised newscast that he had faced inquisitorial questions regarding his purported ties to drug trafficking; shockingly, the Office of the Attorney General was contemplating the possibility that he and other students were targeted by the Guerreros Unidos because they themselves were members of a rival criminal gang. The interrogators were suspicious, among other things, of the fact that the students stored narcocorridos by La Trakalosa, a band from Monterrey (northern Mexico), in their phones.
The surviving student finished his account saying that he and others had been unfairly criminalized because of their musical tastes. In his defense, he argued that narcocorridos are popular all across Mexico because an entire generation has been brought up in a sociocultural milieu pervaded by hyper-violent events, discourses, and media representations. Of course, the narcocorridos and their aesthetics are central to this newer mentality. As such, they might not be comparable to the ballads in McDowell’s anthology. Narcocorrido imagery is the product of a media-savvy and transnational cultural industry that lacks traditional affiliations with southern Mexico. Its tales are no longer those of local caudillos of the post-revolutionary era, but of the exploits of transnational drug cartels that emerged in the 1980s, mostly in Mexico’s northwest. Recently, narcocorridos have also been promoting a “mythic notion of narcos” that might not stem from any specific sociocultural formation because it is crafted, sensationalized, and perpetuated by cultural and media outlets themselves (Zavala 2014).
The recent role of narcocorridos in the criminalization of Ayotzinapa’s youth is a testament to a radical transformation of Mexican media, music, culture, and society in recent decades and, specifically, to the intrusion of a different type of temperament and repertoire in Guerrero (and elsewhere in the country). We should not ignore the possibility that traditional costeño communities and worldviews have also been colliding with younger ones, and that newer preoccupations and understandings have begun to surpass some of the region’s traditional rituals and institutions (Mexico’s entire Pacific shoreline is now at the crossroads of multi-million-dollar trade deals, and at the mercy of ever-more powerful business, criminal, and tourist organizations). If McDowell’s theories are correct, we should expect to see the region’s ballad communities adapt to these newer social dramas. Perhaps we might also expect to see the emergence of new or alternative ballad communities. If so, ¡Corrido! should be regarded as the testimony of one type of ballad community. Said community is unlikely to disappear thanks to the efforts of McDowell and of a younger generation of performers who are learning the traditional repertoire or creating new corridos in a traditional fashion. However, this community does not tell the whole story of the Western Coast.
I am by no means claiming that Professor McDowell has attempted to idealize or crystallize the past with this anthology. In fact, he has just published a fascinating reflection about the potential uses and misuses of YouTube as an ethnographic source and as a tool to understand the twenty-first-century dynamics of online communities (McDowell 2015). What I am doing here is inviting our colleagues to study southern Mexico’s corrido scenes further and from numerous other viewpoints. We must avoid the urge to canonize one single version of corrido balladry. Doing so would only blind us to the complexity and ongoing evolution of the region and its people in more recent decades.
 Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán helped legitimize this stereotypical notion in 1958. However, the idea has been widespread among the inhabitants of the region, and especially among Afro-Mexican communities that have been systematically marginalized from the public sphere. A discussion of the music of Afro-Mexican cultures in the Costa Chica appears in Gutiérrez Ávila 1988. For other sociological readings of corrido and its numerous intersections with violent discourses and behaviors, see De la Garza 2008 and Díaz González 2010.
 The interviewer made these declarations on the YouTube channel of Carmen Aristegui, an outspoken journalist with a confrontational attitude toward the government; I omit his name and other details to avoid drawing further unwanted attention to him.
 Professor McDowell will disagree with this assessment. In a fairly recent article (McDowell 2012), he stated that the narcocorrido is a testament to the persistence of corrido balladry as a popular way to assess the meaning of current events and to cope with personal and collective tragedy. Although they are influenced by the northern Mexican banda sound, and although their channels of dissemination differ, narcorridos are involved in the same processes of commemoration, reflection, and healing (and so were corridos emerging in the aftermath of 9/11; see McDowell 2007).
Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. 1958. Cuijila: Esbozo etnográfico de un pueblo negro. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
De la Garza, María Luisa. 2008. Pero me gusta lo bueno. Una lectura ética de los corridos que hablan del narcotráfico y de los narcotraficantes. México, D.F.: Miguel Ángel Porrúa.
Díaz González, Miriam. 2010. Perspectiva sociocrítica de el narcocorrido en México. Morelia: Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo.
Frenk Alatorre, Margit, ed. 1975. Cancionero folklórico de México (tomo I). Mexico City: El Colegio de México.
Gutiérrez Ávila, Miguel Ángel. 1988. Corrido y violencia entre los Afromestizos de la Costa Chica de Guerrero y Oaxaca. Chilpancingo: Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero.
McDowell, John H. 2015. “‘Surfing the Tube’ for Latin American Song: The Blessings (and Curses) of YouTube.” Journal of American Folklore 128(509): 260-272.
———. 2012. “The Ballad of Narcomexico.” Journal of Folklore Research 49(3):249-274.
———. 2007. “Corridos of 9/11: Mexican Ballads as Commemorative Practice.” In Music in the Post-9/11 World, edited by J. Martin Daughtry and Jonathan Ritter, 225-254. New York: Routledge.
———. 2000. Poetry and Violence. The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Mendoza, Vicente T. 1954. El corrido mexicano: Antología, introducción y notas. Mexico City Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Ochoa Serrano, Álvaro, and Herón Pérez Martínez. 2000. Cancionero Michoacano, 1830-1940. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán.
Zavala, Oswaldo. 2014. “Imagining the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: The Critical Limits of Narconarratives.” Comparative Literature 66(3):340-360.