From his stand in the flea markets of California, Walker saw Mexican communities growing and only Texas labels supplying them with music. In the early 1960s he formed Discos Fama (Fame Records, though English speakers still call it Fama), California's first Mexican music label, and began scouting talent.
Hearing Los Tigres on the radio, Walker ran to the park, signed the boys and kept them from returning to the oblivion of Mexicali's cantinas. Years later, their relationship dissolved when Walker's partner allegedly began using the label's income to buy cocaine and Fama went bankrupt. Walker died in 1992; son Bill owns Fama's rights and re-released 10 titles from the band's Fama collection this year. He plans to reissue others.
But through the 1970s, the older Walker tended to his young charges and expanded Fama's stable of artists. Walker also transformed norteno folk music. Norteno had been a regional acoustic music, played primarily in cantinas in northern Mexico for borrachos--drunk adult men. (Women weren't allowed in cantinas in Mexico until the early 1990s.) But the music had immigrated to California, where rock music was played in larger venues. Walker suggested that Los Tigres take up electric instruments. "He said, 'How are you going to play a dance hall for 100 people? How will they hear? How are they going to dance?' " says Hernan Hernandez. "He always thought the music was to dance to. We never thought you could play norteno music with a full drum set and electric bass. That was for rock groups."
Thus norteno music adapted to new realities, much like the blues when black migrants moved from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. Los Tigres made norteno a pop music, a music for young people, particularly young women, who still make up the largest part of a Los Tigres audience. With electric instruments, Los Tigres could play other rhythms, particularly the bouncy cumbias from Colombia.
About that time, in an L.A. nightclub, Walker and Jorge Hernandez heard a song about a couple smuggling marijuana from Tijuana in a car tire. The couple are paid in Los Angeles, and the man tells the woman he's going to San Francisco to visit his true love. But his partner is jealous and, in a dark Hollywood alley, she shoots him and disappears with the money.
Jorge Hernandez arranged to re-record the song: "I liked the story. It was very much like a movie. With each scene, you could imagine the story unfolding in your mind."
The band put out "Contrabando y Traicion" (Contraband and Betrayal) in late 1972. It hit huge and changed norteno music. Before that, Los Tigres, like every other norteno band, performed songs in a folky duet. But Walker had Jorge sing "Contrabando" solo, giving it more of a pop feel. Walker also added gunshots at the end of the song, paving the way for a barrage of Tigres sound effects to come--sirens, telephones, helicopters.
Walker never fully understood the lyrics to that or other Los Tigres songs, says Hernan, but with "Contrabando," "he found us a style that nobody had."
"Contrabando y Traicion" is a classic. Every Mexican knows Camelia La Tejana and Emilio Varela, the song's heroes. The song was made into a movie, as were the song's two sequels, in which Emilio's drug gang kills Camelia, and is then wiped out by her son in revenge. "Contrabando" made drug smuggling an acceptable topic for popular music and proved that the age-old Mexican folk genre--the corrido, or ballad--could be commercially successful.
The band followed it with "La Banda del Carro Rojo" (The Red Car Gang), about drug smugglers in a shootout with Texas Rangers. In 1989, Los Tigres released "Corridos Prohibidos" (Prohibited Ballads), an album about drug smuggling and violence; traffickers reportedly bought the record by the case. One song is about the killing of Hector "El Gato" Felix, a columnist for the Tijuana news weekly Zeta who had angered Baja California politicians. The band received threatening phone calls. Tijuana radio stations refused to play the song until Zeta complained.
Today, the narcocorrido is a staple of Mexican pop. Many traffickers are said to pay composers to write about them. Los Angeles is the center of a surge in narcocorrido popularity. Several small labels use gangsta-rap marketing techniques to sell the genre. Singers pose with assault rifles, silver-plated pistols, gold chains, and, with off-color language, sing of their drug involvement, all to a merry accordion and polka beat.
Los Tigres' narcocorridos are tamer, and usually don't mention living traffickers.