Originally from the town of Rosa Morada, Sinaloa, Los Tigres del Norte started out during the 1960s. As adolescents, Los Brothers Hernández began playing music to help their disabled father. In 1968, the year of Olympic protests and military massacres in Mexico City, the four brothers - Jorge, Raúl, Eduardo, and Hernan - accompanied by their primo Oscar, moved to San Jose, California, and for the first few years found steady, dependable work playing bars and restaurants in the area's expanding Mexicano community.

Then they recorded "Contrabando y Traición," a catchy number about two small-time dope smugglers. The single became a huge sensation - still played today - that catapulted Los Tigres del Norte to fame and launched an entire genre of music: the narcocorrido. A more contemporary version of the traditional corrido, or a corrido version of gangsta rap, narcocorridos tell stories of drug runners and gun dealers: thug life set to a 2/4 beat. Some singers glorify the life, others critique it, many say they just tell it like it is. In the spirit of the best corridos, Los Tigres del Norte also tell stories of the biggest gang members of all: politicians, presidents, and those who profit off the poor.

The corrido's origins date back to more than a century ago. Originating in the Texas-Mexican border region, corridos are folksongs which traditionally told the story of a lone Mexicano - a warrior hero (to borrow the term from the late, great Américo Paredesó who stood up to Anglo aggression) typically meeting a tragic end. Passed on from singer to singer, conjunto to conjunto, town to town, corridos functioned as a musical newsweekly in a time before television. Think of them as a South Texas version of a three-minute Homerian epic, only accompanied by an accordion and set to a lively polkita or pulsating cumbia.

As time progressed, the corrido's popularity continued to grow and, stylistically, diversified into the different versions heard today. Texas-Mexican conjunto artists (San Anto's own Flaco and Santiago Jiménez, or Tony de la Rosa) and their Northern Mexican Norteño counterparts (like the classic Los Relampagos del Norte, or the playful Tucanes de Tijuana) have all contributed to the genre, but few can match Los Tigres in terms of popularity, longevity, and generosity. (The majority of the earliest corridos were never recorded; of those that were, few survive today. Recognizing the value of their musical heritage, Los Tigres are funding a major restoration and recovery effort of some 12,000 Spanish-language disks released during the first half of the 20th century.)

Los Tigres' lineup has changed little in a career spanning more than three decades, yet this consistency has not given way to complacency. Certainly, they were successful enough singing narcocorridos and love songs, both of which combined still make up a sizable portion of their repertoire. But what distinguishes them from their Norteño contemporaries - and earned them, in the words of one reviewer, a "lasting transcendence" - are their songs about immigration and identity, culture and community, assimilation, and adaptation. Just because it's danceable, popular music doesn't mean it can't be message-driven and political as well.

Songs like "Vivan Los Mojados" ("Long Live the Undocumented"), "El Otro Mexico," and "El Mojado Acaudalado" ("The Well-Off Undocumented") poignantly tell of the struggles Mexicanos faced finding work in low-wage jobs, carving out a niche in a new environment, and coping with the pains of separation between home and family. In "Juala de Oro" ("The Cage of Gold") a father invites his American-born son to return to Mexico only to be rebuked, while in "Ni Aquí Ni Allí" the narrator compares post-NAFTA Mexico to a store where everything is for sale and realizes that "everywhere it's the same": Conditions, economic and otherwise, are bad on both sides of the dividing line.

Immensely proud of being Mexican, after years of living in the states, Los Tigres have developed a Chicano consciousness. It is most evident in "Somos Mas Americanos" ("We Are More American") off their 2001 release Uniendo Fronteras. In it, they build upon the classic Brown power protest slogan "We Didn't Cross the Border, the Border Crossed Us," claim their roots as "Indios of two continents," and raise the ire of conservative pundits by reminding listeners that the Southwest was once Mexican land.

Unapologetic and assertive, "Somos Mas Americanos" is emblematic of the group's body of work which, when taken as a whole, is an apt metaphor for the lived experiences of millions. Los Tigres del Norte, together with those who listen to them, those whose stories they tell, are boldly affirming - as if there were any question - Raza's right to be here and, in the process, redefining what it means to be an American, on our own terms, to our own rhythm. •

Sunday, February 9
Stock Show & Rodeo
SBC Center
1 SBC Center
224-9600 (Ticketmaster)