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Friday, June 18, 2004

Music for immigrant souls

Music for immigrant souls
Music for immigrant souls
Friday, June 18, 2004
Los Tigres del Norte

Where: Convention Hall, 1300 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

How much: $30-$40. Call (732) 904-3881

BY ENRIQUE LAVIN

STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Los Tigres del Norte made their career with story-like songs about the Mexican cross-border drug trade and its larger-than-life outlaws. Their classic "Contrabando y Traición" set the standard more than 30 years ago for the rootsy, narrative style known as narcocorrido.

Not unlike one of North America's most well-known musical bosses, Bruce Springsteen, Los Tigres capture in song the essence of what it means to be working class, particularly immigrant working class. (They return to Springsteen country Saturday at Asbury Park's Convention Hall, where they sold out the venue last summer.)

"It's amazing how many letters we get, and how many stories we're told at concerts about crossing the border and working on this side," says the soft-spoken leader of the band, singer and accordionist Jorge Hernández, from his home in San Jose, Calif. "We hear stories of survivors, and in our songs we try to let listeners imagine how much they've suffered, and how they live on."

Though the migrant worker's story has become as prominent in the group's songbook as their classic narcocorridos, it is on "Las Mujeres de Juárez (The Women of Juarez)" that is the centerpiece of Los Tigres's new Fonovisa Records release, "Pacto de Sangre (Blood Pact)."

The accordion-driven, polka-propulsed beats and conversational singing on "Las Mujeres de Juárez" illuminate an issue taken up by journalists and human rights organizations -- that the Mexican authorities have turned a blind eye to the murders since 1993 of some 400 young women in the Mexican border city of Juarez. Many of the women reportedly are murdered, sexually assaulted, strangled and dumped in the nearby desert.

"The deaths of the women in Juarez are a national disgrace ... ," Hernández sings in the song written by long-time Tigres lyricist Paulino Vargas. "If the law doesn't resolve it, we should, and punish the cowards who abuse women."

"It struck me to learn that other countries knew more about this situation than in Mexico," Hernández, 50, says. "We thought it was important to do our part to inform the public and to plead for action."

Known as "Los Jefes de Jefes" or "The Bosses of Bosses" of norteño -- the accordion 'n' oompah music beloved in U.S.-Mexican border towns -- Los Tigres de Norte know of what they sing.

The legend of Los Tigres del Norte -- no doubt a corrido-in-the-making -- started in Sinaloa, Mexico, where Hernández and his 10 siblings became destitute after their farm worker father was disabled.

Hernández formed a band with his brother Luis on bajo sexto (a six-stringed bass) and cousin Oscar Lara on drums. They smuggled themselves into the U.S. (Later, another brother, Eduardo Hernández, joined on saxophone.)

Their break came when they performed for other undocumented farm workers in San Jose and the Fama Records label owner offered "the tigers of the north" a contract.

Los Tigres del Norte's 1972 recording of "Contrabando y Traición" was an instant hit, launching a career that includes nearly 60 albums that have sold more than 30 million units around the world --more than any other big-name Latin music act.

In the vein of their American country music counterparts, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Los Tigres are, in a sense, journalists. The inspiration behind "José Pérez León," a waltz on their new record, is the true story they know of a man who crossed the border illegally with his brothers as a teenager 20 years ago and has never gone back.

"He told me that his brothers were shot while crossing la frontera, and two years after that his parents died back home," Hernández says. "There was no reason to return to Mexico."


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