What made Chalino Sánchez a legend in the Mexican music scene wasn’t that he was shot as he sang onstage. No, it was that he pulled out a gun and fired back.
That moment, perhaps more so than any other, seems to define the narcocorridos, or drug ballads, that have become a staple subgenre of Mexican regional music -- their spirit being one of danger, bravery and standing up to the enemy.
That bravado may also help explain why Pepe Garza struggled with the lyrics for a narcocorrido music video that opened Sunday night’s episode of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” the cable series about a chemis- try teacher-turned-drug dealer named Walter White. It’s believed to be the first time a narcocorrido video has been prominently featured on a major American television show.
“I wrote two versions,” said Garza, a composer and longtime programming director for L.A. radio station KBUE-FM (105.5), which calls itself Que Buena. The first version, he said through a translator, was a literal translation of the English lyrics that show creator Vince Gilligan presented him. In that one, Heisenberg, White’s drug-dealing alias, wins out in the end. But in Garza’s second take, the drug cartel exacts revenge.
“I felt the [corrido] audience wouldn’t quite identify with a song that had someone from a different nationality, named Heisenberg, beating the Mexican,” he said. And so the song ends: “The fury of the cartel / Ain’t no one escaped yet / But that homie’s dead / He just doesn’t know it yet.”
The Emmy Award-winning show chose his version of the tune, titled “Negro y Azul” (Black and Blue), performed in Spanish by Los Cuates de Sinaloa. The song matches two speedy guitars and a bumbling bass with the enthusiastic vocals of Gabriel Berrelleza, who sings of the mysterious gringo from New Mexico who’s making the new sought-after form of methamphetamine.
Drugs, guns and stacks of cash grace the screen, along with lifeless bodies on bloodstained earth. The video, made to resemble the bevy of low-cost and often homemade narcocorrido examples that populate YouTube, lasts three minutes, 35 seconds.
But just what those three-plus minutes may actually mean for the narcocorrido genre -- once hailed as a sort of “musical newspaper” of current events but recently criticized for sometimes glamorizing elements of the drug trade -- is up for debate. Garza, whose radio station helped popularize the genre when it started playing narcocorridos in 1998, went so far as to call it “historic.”
But Elijah Wald, author of the 2001 book “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas,” wasn’t so sure: “I don’t think we’ll know until we see how much attention either the show or the song attracts.”
Watching the video for the first time, though, the author grinned. “They’ve got the iconography just right,” he said. “What interests me about the Cuates is there was this group called Miguel y Miguel, and back when I was writing about this stuff, they were the first modern group to come out just doing the guitars -- without accordions, without brass bands. It always seemed to me then that they were the obvious crossover group if there was ever going to be one, because, I’m sorry, accordions and brass bands just aren’t hip.”
The guitar-picking duo of Miguel y Miguel was in fact the biggest musical influence for Los Cuates de Sinaloa (the Sinaloa Twins, though they’re actually cousins), started by Gabriel and Martiniano Berrelleza. Like Miguel y Miguel -- along with Sanchez, who was killed less than four months after infamously firing back in a shootout at a Coachella club in 1992 -- the Berrellezas, both 25, grew up in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a region famous for producing drug lords and corridistas (balladeers).
In Mexico, those pursuits often intertwine, with aspiring musicians writing corridos for members of the drug trade in exchange for money, equipment or connections into the entertainment scene. They went north instead, crossing the border into Nogales, Ariz., when they were just 14. They landed in Phoenix, where they still reside, but were initially homeless for two months, playing music on the street with borrowed guitars.
Six albums eventually followed, two of them going platinum on the Latin sales charts. And now this: a crossover to American TV. “It’s a beautiful surprise,” Gabriel Berrelleza said through a translator. “We never expected to perform for an American television show, and we really never expected to sing about an American gringo drug lord.”