Los Tucanes de Tijuana: Banned in their namesake border city
It's like the Beatles being banned from returning to Liverpool, the Red Hot Chili Peppers being yanked from stages in Los Angeles, or Jay-Z's music stopped in a source of his inspiration, New York. Since last November, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, one of the most recognizable bands in the Mexican norteño regional genre, are banned from playing in their hometown and namesake, the border city of Tijuana.
The ban is a result of a 2008 concert in which the band's lead singer sent his regards from the stage to the city's most notorious and wanted men, "El Teo and his compadre, El Muletas." The city's get-tough police chief, Julian Leyzaola, was outraged.
Leyzaola pulled the plug on shows by Los Tucanes as they prepared to perform at the city's storied Agua Caliente racetrack in November. Leyzaola said the band's polka-driven narcocorrido songs glorify drug lords and their exploits and are therefore inappropriate to play in a city that has suffered soaring drug-related violence in recent years. The band, with millions of record sales and a fan base as broad as the international border, hasn't been allowed to play in Tijuana since.
In an interview with Richard Marosi of The Times as they prepared for a show in San Diego (as close to Tijuana as they can currently get), Los Tucanes said they don't intend to glorify narco bosses but instead merely write songs about the realities around them.
"I'm not justifying them, or approving of what they do," singer Mario Quintero told Marosi. "The señor [Leyzaola] shouldn't fault us for the corridos as if we're responsible for the killing of his police."
Authorities in Mexico widely disapprove of norteño bands that sing about the drug trade, banning their songs from radio airwaves and even threatening jail time for narcocorrido producers (link in Spanish). The effort is especially vigilant in Tijuana, as Marosi reported in a story in 2008.
Last year, another iconic norteño band, Los Tigres del Norte, was banned from performing a popular song titled "La Granja" at an awards ceremony in Mexico City. The song's allegorical lyrics are critical of the government's strategy against the drug cartels. Los Tigres del Norte pulled out of the show, inevitably boosting the song's profile among fans.
Narcocorrido singers walk a fine line between merely commenting on the larger-than-life figures in Mexico's drug war and singing their praises -- sometimes at their own risk. Several norteño performers have been hunted down and killed, such as Valentin Elizalde and, in June, Sergio Vega. Some of the most well-known narcocorridos describe news events in coded details, such as the song Los Tucanes de Tijuana released about Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most wanted man.
Quintero said the shout-out by Los Tucanes to the then-at-large drug bosses (both El Teo and El Muletas have since been captured) was not an optional thing. He told The Times that someone passed him a note requesting the kingpins be greeted from the stage.
"If they want a greeting and you don't honor it, they can hold it against you," Quintero said. "You know how I defend myself? By being agreeable."
With hits such as "La Chona" and "El Centenario," Los Tucanes de Tijuana are such icons in pop culture that they've even played at the most hallowed site in Mexico, the Zocalo square in Mexico City. Check out this YouTube video of the band performing the romantic "Mundo de Amor" before thousands on the plaza. Here's another Zocalo performance, the song "Los Helados."
After the ban, the band posted a public statement on their MySpace decrying the police chief's decision as censorship: "In general narcocorridos, not only ours but those of all groups who interpret them, reflect a reality in which we have NO participation. We don't share in it nor defend it. They are about facts in public knowledge, involving news and persons that are a part of everyday reality."
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photo: Los Tucanes de Tijuana during a recent concert in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times