Music of Mexicans blossoms in Calif.


Singers: Their voices might be thin, but the imitators of an obscure murdered rapper are showing the recording industry the power of the Latin market.

May 16, 2002|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - Last summer, a young singer from Los Angeles named Jesse Morales put out an album called Homenaje a Chalino Sanchez (Homage to Chalino Sanchez).

Morales was relatively unknown. So a good many people were surprised when the album sold 10,000 copies the first week, rocketing to the top of Billboard's national Latin charts.

Within a couple of weeks, the company that issues the reports on album sales on which Billboard bases its charts began getting complaints from other record companies. They didn't believe sales could be that good.

Sales were soaring. And the Morales album turned out to be another episode in the remarkable post-mortem career of Chalino Sanchez, who sang a kind of Mexican rap, telling the stories of unknown drug smugglers.

`They didn't know'

"They didn't know this artist," said Peter Prajin, who owns and supplies record stores in Mexican neighborhoods around Los Angeles. "They didn't know he was a local artist who went to the stores and thousands of people would show up. They didn't know about Mexican music, and they didn't want to hear about it either."

Homenaje a Chalino Sanchez defied gravity. Even though the reporting company stopped counting sales at some stores because of the controversy, Prajin said, the album sold so strongly in other stores that it held steady at fifth, then seventh place and stayed on the Latin charts an additional 18 weeks. It has sold about 250,000 copies.

Chalino Sanchez was murdered 10 years ago today. He was one of the most influential singers in Mexican music, remarkable because his career was made not in Mexico, but in Southern California.

"He was the star of la raza, the real people, the people who work the fields and factories," said Morales. "The kids, the children of those people, said, `Oh man, I wish I was like this guy.' That's the image I was looking at."

An untimely death

Sanchez was 32 when he died.

His ballads - narcocorridos - chronicling the deaths of unknown drug smugglers from villages in rural northern Mexico had been studiously avoided by the Mexican record industry. No radio station touched them. He recorded and distributed his music, selling it at swap meets and car washes.

On May 16, 1992, after a concert, he was taken from a car by thugs posing as police in his home state of Sinaloa, on Mexico's Pacific coast. Several hours later, his body was found with two bullets in the back of his head.

His death prompted a Chalino-mania that stretched from Southern California across Northern Mexico and Mexican areas of the United States.

A new folk hero

He has become a folk hero to tens of thousands of Mexican and Mexican-American kids. He single-handedly brought kids - who had grown up in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Chicago - to their parents' tuba- and accordion-based folk music by making that music hip and dangerous. Radio stations are regularly playing his songs.

"He had a new style," said Rafael Jimenez, an agent of several narcosingers. "He sang corridos, about valientes [tough guys] and drugs. It opened a whole new market for singers. Before that, people didn't sing corridos."

Narcocorridos are similar to gangster rap in their themes and marketing. Two bands - Los Originales de San Juan and Los Razos - have recorded songs insulting the other's lead singer, mimicking rap's East Coast/West Coast rivalry.

Los Angeles was a natural place for this musical merger to happen because Mexican immigrants and blacks live so close together there.

"For us, corridos are like hip-hop," said Manuel Obregon. "You know how rap talks about drugs and getting killed? For us, it's the same way with corridos."

Obregon and his brother, Pedro, make up Dueto Los del Campo (the Rural Ones Duet). Both singers grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell Gardens and have little relation to the Mexican countryside. They dress sometimes in cowboy garb and sometimes in baggy jeans, like rappers, while they sing polka-based corridos.

"It was something different. It was kind of to mix hip-hop with corridos. We're mixing everything now," says Pedro.

Man of the people

Chalino democratically blurred the lines between artist and public. He had no musical training; he dressed and spoke like his audience, sat with them at shows, and sang as poorly as they did. From Chalino, Mexican-American and immigrant kids lost their fear and realized it didn't matter whether you couldn't sing; it was enough to have the nerve to try.

Thus, since his death, dozens of guys with no musical experience have jury-rigged singing careers out of the fact that they can sound like Sanchez.

Ambrosio Cano heard tapes of Chalino when he was in junior high school in his village in Sinaloa. Like dozens of other singers since, he began copying the singer's style.

A local record promoter signed him and billed him as El Chalinillo (Little Chalino). He put out his first album at age 16. At 17, he immigrated illegally to Los Angeles to be closer to the corrido music scene. As El Chalinillo, Cano has 13 albums behind him.

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