On a Pacific Ocean-cooled Sunday night last October, a crowd of 25,000 people thronged the streets outside the Tijuana Cultural Center to witness a startling musical experiment.
Packed two- and three-deep on the outdoor stage near the Avenue of Heroes, several members of the Baja California Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Ivan del Prado, conjured lush melodies more suited to a concert hall than a gritty urban thoroughfare. Overhead, a jumbo screen flashed Pop Art graphics (“BANG!”) and images of border fences, billiard halls, scowling tough guys in cowboy hats and other Tijuana emblems.
Standing directly behind the violinists and woodwind players, Ramon Amezcua and Pepe Mogt -- better known as Bostich and Fussible of the electronic music ensemble Nortec Collective -- tapped out metronomic tempos on hand-held computers, alternately merging and body-slamming their beats with the rich orchestral harmonies. Punctuating the complex rhythmic pulse, an accordionist, trumpeter and tuba player pumped out shotgun blasts of banda and norteño chords, while the moshing multitudes below snapped cellphone pics and roared their approval.
The free, open-air concert was a welcome diversion for this sprawling border city of 1.5 million, which has suffered a months-long spate of brutal drug-related killings and kidnappings that has demoralized locals and terrified U.S. tourists, who’ve been staying away in droves.
“It was more than anything a celebration, because Tijuana has received a lot of bad notices from violence and other things, and the people were very anxious,” Amezcua said in an interview last week.
But for the Grammy-nominated duo of Amezcua, 48, and Mogt, 40, the concert also marked the latest creative shift in a subtly evolving career. After more than a decade of remapping techno’s DNA by splicing electronic beats with Mexican regional folk music, while also producing and recording their own records, touring with Los Lobos and remixing songs for the likes of Morrissey and Lenny Kravitz, the tandem has added yet another chromosome to its sonic gene pool: symphonic musicians and orchestral arrangements.
For several months, Amezcua and Mogt have been working with two well-traveled and adventurous pop-classical pros: Del Prado, the young, Cuban music director of the Orquesta de Baja California and former director of the Cuban national symphony; and Alberto Núñez Palacio, an expatriate Argentine composer-arranger who worked with the great tango-fusionist Astor Piazzolla and for the last five years has served as the Baja California orchestra’s composer-in-residence.
Already, the collaboration between Amezcua, Mogt and their classical counterparts has yielded fruitful projects, with more likely to come. Last October’s massive street gig with the Baja California musicians, which was part of Tijuana’s annual entijuanarte art festival, was followed a few days later by another orchestral outing with La Banda de Música del Estado de Zacatecas in the south-central Mexican city of Guanajuato.
The performance was chosen to close out the Cervantino festival, considered the country’s most prestigious annual cultural showcase, underscoring how Mexico’s generally conservative fine arts establishment has embraced Nortec and its music. Plans are afoot to record a disc of the Baja symphony performing Bostich and Fussible songs with the duo.
Amezcua said that he and Mogt also plan to weave their orchestral experiences into their new disc, a follow-up to their critically saluted 2008 “Tijuana Sound Machine,” which sold about 100,000 copies worldwide and received a Grammy nomination last year for best Latin rock/alternative album. The new album will be released by North Hollywood-based Nacional Records, probably this summer.
Too often, jam sessions between pop players and black-tied symphonists are pretentious vanity projects that use high-culture appurtenances to mask a paucity of ideas and technique. But unlike many of their pop-techno peers, Mogt and the conservatory-trained Amezcua are longtime students of classical music, and fans of such genre-bending innovators as Krzysztof Penderecki, Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. They can rap for hours about the game-changing synthetic sonic architecture of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” or about how techno is a rich source of the dissonant sounds and serial sequences of which contemporary classical composers are fond.
Tomas Cookman, president and owner of Nacional Records, said that Nortec’s music lends itself to the challenges of orchestral collaboration. “It’s mainly instrumental and it has complex parts, and conductors love that kind of stuff,” he said. “You’ve seen so [many] rock bands put a bunch of strings behind them and they’re basically just backing musicians.”
Still, fusing the staccato tempo and chill sensibility of computer-generated music with the warmer timbre and more flexible playing of a live orchestra was no easy task.
The idea of a collaboration between Nortec and the Baja orchestra arose after both were recruited to perform at entijuanarte. For their part, Del Prado and Núñez Palacio wanted to stretch the orchestra’s repertoire by working with music that incorporated drum machines, hand clapping and other uncommon ingredients.
At the beginning, Amezcua said, the combination was “a bit of a disaster.” It was especially hard for the orchestra members to sync up with electronica’s machine-regimented squeals and hiccups, samples and loops, he said, and for Nortec’s brass players to tone down their aggressively explosive playing.
But over time, Amezcua said, the players and their different sounds came together. Mogt agreed. “This fusion, well, I believe, it took Nortec to another plane,” he said in an interview at his home recording studio.
Núñez Palacio said that Nortec differs from other electronic artists because they “adopt a position in the avant-garde” rather than cranking out slick commercial dance tunes. By cross-breeding computer-programmed pulses with accordion, brass and the baja sexto, or 12-string guitar, they created a signature mutation of norteño and techno, “nor-tec.” Imagine a Mexican polka band with Philip Glass as its music director, playing covers from Kraftwerk’s “The Man-Machine,” and you’ll be getting a rough approximation of early-period Nortec.
“Nortec’s fusion is a very spectacular thing,” Núñez Palacio said.
Not long ago, it also was a relatively rare thing in Mexico and Latin America. While electronic dance music and its various mutations took off in the United States and Europe in the 1990s with the proliferation of digital synthesizers and computer technology, most Latin artists initially held techno at arm’s length. Many performers and producers regarded it as too cold and impersonal, the antithesis of the emotionally ardent, lyrically demonstrative, singer-driven musica romantica. Even though Latin rhythms such as merengue and samba had helped shape electronic disco music in the 1970s, the Latin recording industry tended to view electronica with suspicion.
Tijuana was one exception. Its remoteness from the dominant fashion mecca of Mexico City allowed it to carve out its own cultural identity.
Nortec started out there at the center of a youth-driven movement, a funky amalgam of like-minded musicians, DJs, graphic designers and visual artists. When Mogt and Amezcua began making music, they were obscure technophiles, bilingual cyber-geeks who’d grown up listening to bands like New Order at small local clubs or beamed in by San Diego radio and TV stations. Their aesthetic was proudly hand-me-down and their methods were aggressively do-it-yourself.
From the beginning, they were used to playing for Tijuana’s sophisticated, adventurous and tough-to-please crowds.
“We were accustomed to going to a concert by Nine Inch Nails or . . . Kraftwerk,” Mogt said, speaking Spanish. “So when you would play electronic music for the people here, they all would be sitting like this, with a face like this, waiting to see what you were going to do. We were more nervous here in Tijuana than in any other city.”
Through long nights of experimenting, Nortec Collective -- whose other principal members include Jorge Verdín, a.k.a. Clorofila, and Pedro Gabriel Beas, who goes by the moniker Hiperboreal -- found a way to make electronic music reflect the social and aesthetic (sur)realities of their border metropolis.
“How do you take polka music and make it cool? They did in a way that was so elegant and cutting-edge,” said Kim Buie, vice president of A&R for Lost Highway Records in Nashville, who years ago signed Nortec to its first stateside recording contract, leading to the group’s first album, in 2001, “The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1.”
These days, Bostich and Fussible are artistic nomads, traveling the world and often drawing large crowds in Northern European countries whose residents wouldn’t know a Tecate from a tequila. But as fathers and family men, they still make their homes here, and in recent months they’ve been gratified to find a resurgence of the community-based creative spirit that gave birth to Nortec Collective. A new generation of bars and clubs are opening. New artists are emerging, or returning after finding success far afield.
“This violence and insecurity created a conscience in Tijuana and a movement to recuperate parts of our city,” Amezcua said. “This is an expression of our desire to take back our city.”