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Ballads That Tell Borderline Truths

Art review: The evolution of fanciful song from Spain to Mexico to the U.S. unfolds in a UCLA exhibit.

June 23, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Exhibitions composed of visual objects tend to put words in the viewer's mind--stories, the names of emotions, personal associations. The newest show at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History reverses the formula, using the sound of music to paint mental images.

"Corridos Sin Fronteras: The Art of a Ballad Tradition in Mexico and the U.S." delves into a centuries-old form of narrative song. Its roots are lost in time. We know that minstrels composed ballads for the feudal aristocracy and troubadours sang them for the common folk. Mainly the songs memorialized real events with the usual embellishments for dramatic effect. Thus they function as an art form situated on the border between oral history and cultural myth.

The present exhibition is nicely installed in historical nooks delimited by roughhewn lumber. The corrido is traced from origins in a related form, the Spanish romance. Each chronological section is provided with good explanatory labels, evocative memorabilia and headsets broadcasting characteristic corridos. Naturally they're in Spanish, but English translations are posted. Aural seepage from the headphones makes a bit of a racket, but you get used to it.

This is all fine, rather innovative stuff but I'm not sure the exhibition puts enough emphasis on the fundamental importance of the ballad form. It certainly does an impeccable job of explaining that the central subjects of the corridos are ordinary folks who determine their own fates either through transcendent acts of courage or by falling victim to unbridled passion.

The earliest ballads, for instance, are "La Blancanin~a" and "Delgadina." The first recounts the classic scenario of an adulterous wife whose husband comes home at the wrong moment. Because the wife botches the job of hiding her lover, he's killed by the old man. The second song involves a virginal girl who chooses death over incest with her monstrous lech of a father.

Lyrics of the corridos are the soul of brevity. They have an almost laconic, just-the-facts-ma'am tone. Singers seem to take for granted that their audience will be moved without stylistic seduction and even fill in gaps in the tale. Musical presentation ranges from one voice with guitar to a contemporary group like Los Tigres del Norte. Even their relatively sophisticated recordings stay firmly within the generic sound of Mexican folk music.

All of which suggests a lot of assumed familiarity with the corridos. If larger themes recur, it's interesting to watch the anecdotal envelope adjust to surrounding history. Nineteenth century examples are like cowboy movies. "Jesus Leal" recounts a shootout in which a brave loner is gunned down by a lawman. "Kansas" follows a cattle drive. It's quite amazing how such a simple song screens an epic western in the mind.

During the Mexican Revolution, not surprisingly, corridos were composed in homage to rebel leaders like Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa. The tradition was adopted north of the border to praise Cesar Chavez's struggles in establishing a farm workers union.

It is, however, initially startling to find contemporary corridos dedicated to drug runners. "Betrayal and Drug Smuggling" tells the story of a pair of lovers who successfully sneak a load of marijuana to Hollywood. After they split the payoff, the guy announces he wants to break up. She shoots him seven times and disappears with the money. "Kilo Bails" caused a scandal in Mexico because its lyric hints at a link between the drug trade and then-President Carlos Salinas.

Here, I think, we get to the understated universal importance of the ballad form. It's basically tragic. When lyrics make us laugh, it's because they're too painful for tears. In classical Greek literature, tragedy was intimately linked to two things--death and the aristocracy. If you weren't of noble blood, your death didn't count for anything. Thus, whoever invented the ballad gave ordinary individuals--even outlaws--access to tragic nobility and mythic immortality. It was a pivotal moment of human liberation that resonates through history, from Robin Hood to Bonnie and Clyde.

The exhibition was organized by visiting curator Guillermo Hernandez for the Fowler, in collaboration with UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.

* UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, through Sept. 27, closed Monday, Tuesday, (310) 825-4361.

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