This used to be a swell city for binational cantina crawling, but the violence of the drug war has quieted the nightlife down. The tourists are spooked. Still, the locals are keeping the lights on.
We swing by the Plaza de Mariachis, where dozens of bands have pulled their vans up to curb to await customers looking to hire some musicians to make a party. Manuel Delgado of Los Zorros tells us “the town is dead.” We ask where we might hear some music, especially the ballads about drug lords, and he points us to La Conga.
The intersection of Mexico and Reforma in Mexicali is a lively spot. There’s El Miau-Miau (The Meow Meow), a strip joint; El Leon de Oro (The Golden Lion), an “antro” club, which is the Mexican twist on a disco; and a dubious establishment called Kaoz. The bars keep changing names as they frequently change hands. Along the border, night clubs are convenient establishments for money laundering.
We find Daniel Angulo, the friendly proprietor of La Conga, tending bar. His joint is jumping. The place is as narrow as a box car. There are Christmas tree ornaments on the ceiling, a statute of a drunk monkey and five TV sets tuned to wrestling matches or the news — not that you can hear a thing but the music.
The patrons are swilling tequilas and drinking big glasses of cold beer mixed with Clamato juice, which is made from tomato concentrate and clam broth. Angulo’s father Pepe opened La Conga a quarter century ago. It is a classic. Angulo regrets to inform us that the area is now dangerous, but inside it is as friendly as family.
In the video, you can hear Los Villanos del Norte (The Villains of the North), a three-piece band of drum, accordion and bass, entertaining the crowd, playing the folk polka ballads known as narcocorridos. These long popular tunes are the sung myths of drug-smuggling gunslingers and their legendary duels. In the video, the Villains are singing the well known tune called “El Hijo de la Tuna,” about Chapo Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and the most wanted man in Mexico (and also one of the richest).
Some narcocorridos are sly and subtle pokes against authority, where the drug lords are portrayed as modern Robin Hoods. Other narcocorridos are as violent, lewd and taunting as the most hardcore American rap. The bands sing both.
From time to time, authorities in Mexico have sought to ban the music from the radio airwaves, which might have only made the narcocorridos more popular. Naturally, most of the people who like the music are not gangsters themselves, but young people who enjoy the outlaw stylings. It is worth noting that their popularity has faded in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, where there is so much real violence.
Back at the Plaza de Mariachis, we asked Ricardo Valenzuela, the lead singer in the band La Legión, what made the narcocorridos so hot. He said it had to do with legends of ordinary Mexicans becoming supermen. Asked how many narcocorridos his band could play, Valenzuela said, “More than 80. We play them every single night.”