Bouncing around the roads of rural Mexico with long-haul truckers who picked him up hitchhiking, Elijah Wald had a captive audience. And that is exactly what the Cambridge, Mass., native wanted.
A former world-music critic for the Boston Globe, Wald was launched on an unusual yearlong quest that would produce a book chronicling the history of the narcocorrido, the modern-day twist on the ballads of rural Mexico traditionally sung by men and driven by accordion-style polkas and waltzes.
Evolving in 19th century rural Mexico from Spanish minstrel styles, corridos told heroic tales of outlaws, smuggling and gunmen. But in recent years, they had morphed into controversial songs that recounted the exploits of Mexico's contemporary drug trade.
Though Wald had set off hitchhiking to save money, he soon realized that being stuck with lonely and garrulous blue-collar truck drivers for hours on end was the perfect way to research his topic.
"All the truck drivers are corrido nuts," says Wald, who speaks Spanish. "I'd tell them what I was doing, and they'd pull out tapes. One guy stopped at three different places until we found the tape he wanted me to listen to. They also had a lot of lore, not only about the subject but about the corridos and the singers. It was a very good education, as well as giving me a feel for the audience."
Some might wonder if Wald felt nervous hitchhiking and asking questions about a subculture filled with murderous characters who shoot first and ask questions later.
But Wald, who first hitchhiked through Mexico in 1987 with his guitar, playing for tips, finds the country "one of the most massively hospitable places on the planet." Using truckers' help and making inquiries as he went, Wald tracked down singers and songwriters, sometimes in remote parts of rural Mexico.
Some were famous. Others had never been interviewed before. Wald writes that many were initially suspicious and feared he would steal their songs.
But they were eventually won over by his tenacity, enthusiasm and love of music--Wald is an accomplished guitarist and approached the musicians as a fellow musician, often playing for them and recording their music on a player he carried everywhere.
Out of Wald's research comes "Narcocorrido, A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas." Published in November by Rayo Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, the book is available in Spanish and English. In conjunction with the book, Fonovisa has released a companion CD of songs ("Corridos y Narcocorridos") handpicked by Wald and featuring corrido giants discussed in the book such as Los Tigres del Norte and Lupillo Rivera. "How often in a writer's life do you get a whole field of music which no one has done a book on," asks Wald, who is up for two Grammys tonight for work on other projects. "You can use the corrido as a window to look into just about anything contemporary in Mexican culture through eyes of working-class songwriters rather than educated elites.
"Every important composer of the corrido, with the exception of Chalino [who was murdered in Sinaloa in 1992] is still around and more than willing to talk."
A fast-paced blend of music, history, personal travel memoir and reportage, "Narcocorrido" has been praised for its insights into a musical genre that has been little-known outside working-class and rural Mexican communities on both sides of the border. The book is unique, says Guillermo E. Hernandez, a professor of Spanish and director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, who says that Wald "had an insight into the culture that few outsiders have had."
It is only now that the populist music is beginning to get some respect and attention from the academic and literary worlds.
"The genre of corridos themselves has been marginalized as a folk tradition among rural people, and learned and educated people came to disdain it, they didn't think there was value to it," says Hernandez. But Wald's work helps change that. "He's dealing with the genius of the composer and the folk tradition that feeds them. He went beyond the drug world to understand that the genre has a network of composers, and some are humble people who compose and perform their songs in buses and others travel in private jets and play before thousands of people."
Indeed, you might call Wald a rogue sociologist who specializes in fieldwork collecting the stories of contemporary troubadours. He wants to document their origins, their history, their struggles and their victories. And often in the book, you get the feeling that for Wald, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.