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Exposure from behind the scenes

Times Staff Writer

A coldblooded family killing climaxes an early episode of “Kingpin,” NBC’s six-part series about a Mexican drug lord. As the main character’s brother blows away an uncooperative uncle on a yacht, the husky, mournful voice of Lila Downs is heard singing “La Martiniana,” a haunting Zapotec Indian folk song from her latest album, “Border/La Linea.”

The contrast between the scene’s unblinking brutality and the song’s spiritual tenderness makes the violence even more chilling. Used in this context, says series creator David Mills, the sorrowful tune becomes a “lullaby of death.”

“I don’t speak a lick of Spanish,” says Mills, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C. “But even if you don’t speak Spanish, it just fits the moment so well that, man, it still moves me when I hear it.”

“Kingpin,” with its raw depictions of Latino smugglers, killers and sundry lowlifes, has drawn some limited criticism from those who say it perpetuates harmful ethnic stereotypes. But when it comes to the music, the program casts a welcome spotlight on some creative, daring and underexposed works by Latin artists.

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This is not the first time a television program has won praise for its soundtrack. “The Sopranos,” most recently, is known for its musical taste. But “Kingpin” is unique in making Latino music such a high-profile part of the musical mix -- especially recordings by critically acclaimed artists who get little exposure, even on Latin radio in the U.S.

“I can only hope that the music makes such an impact in the show that people want to find out who these artists are,” says Mills, co-author of a book about funk star George Clinton. “Another thing I wanted to accomplish is to have a Latino audience tune in and feel that ‘this is a show for us, not just about us.’ ”

Although the program features a wide variety of musical styles, Mills says he made sure each episode included at least one tune in Spanish. He also wanted to spotlight songs by U.S.-based Latin artists, such as “Tranquilo” by Los Angeles rock band Voz de Mano and “Follow You Down” by Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. The final two episodes, which air Sunday and Tuesday, include numbers by Mexican alt-rockers Cafe Tacuba, rapper Fermin IV, flamenco guitarist Ruben Romero and Mexican tropico-electronica group Kinky, whose pulsating song “Mas” was also used in ads for the series.

Placing a song on a show doesn’t necessarily affect record sales, label executives say, especially if it’s a one-time shot. But it can pique the public’s attention.

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“You’re always trying to find any avenue you can to expose the artist to different people, to try to build a following,” says Bruce Sullivan, artist development coordinator for Narada, which released Downs’ 2001 CD. “That’s just another avenue to have the music heard by consumers.”

Mills, who personally picked all but the Kinky tune, says there were some numbers he sought but couldn’t get. One non-Latino artist, for example, objected to the program’s violent content.

But Downs had no such objection.

“I was very impressed” with the show, Downs said this week. “It was a very strong and meaningful use of the song’s lyrics. It’s about life and death, really, and that’s what was going on at that moment. I was very moved.”

Amazingly, Mills had minimal knowledge of Latin music when he began work on the series. All he knew is that he wanted tunes to be featured prominently at key moments. His model was “Miami Vice,” the stylish 1980s series that used atmospheric songs such as Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” to enhance the drama.

“I didn’t have an easy time of writing,” recalls Mills, who won two Emmys for his work on the HBO series “The Corner.” “But somehow it was almost a revelation to say, ‘Make it like “Miami Vice.” ’ Have four or five songs and make them carry a lot of the weight.”

The screenwriter’s search for songs took him to the racks at the Amoeba Music record store in Hollywood, where he impulsively picked up a CD by Calexico, an Arizona folk-rock band whose eclectic sound blends in mariachi horns. The group’s brassy “El Picador” plays almost in its entirety over a montage of scenes that includes the gruesome killing of caged dogs.

But Mills said his best source was the Web site emusic.com. That’s where he discovered the avant-garde, pre-Hispanic space-rock of Mexico’s Jorge Reyes and the aggressive Mexican punk rock of Ultra, whose “Quema El Diablo” plays over a meth lab scene.

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Mills also unearthed an offbeat, obscure band from Mexico, Nine Rain, composed of two Europeans and two Mexicans.

It’s now one of his favorites. At the opening of Tuesday’s final episode, the group’s “Alex’s Torture Song” plays during a steamy sex scene.

“The song is unnerving, just like the sex scene itself is unnerving,” says Mills.

What’s the key for choosing the right music?

“You’re not looking for a song that’s going to grow on you,” Mills says. “You’re looking for music that, whether with the mood or the melody, is going to make an immediate impact.”


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