El Gran Silencio’s border crossings
BY JOSH KUN
In front of the Museum of Mexican History in the center of Monterrey, a Mexican girl is pretending to be Destiny’s Child’s Beyoncé Knowles. She’s dancing on the edge of a fountain that’s spraying water in tall, elegant arches and singing the DC hit " Survivor " while her parents videotape her.
There’s a photo of that fountain in the CD booklet for Chúntaros radio poder (EMI Latin), the second album from the Monterrey band El Gran Silencio. And the band leave their own mark on its smooth gray tiles: they put down a clunky, old-school boombox with speakers covered with stickers of La Virgen de Guadalupe. That’s the kind of music El Gran Silencio make — everyday Mexican culture blasted through Afro-urban woofers: cumbias and polkas tangled up in hip-hop and dancehall, electronica that smells of the carne asada that saturates the Monterrey air. For El Gran Silencio, being " el mérito Nuevo León " (keeping it real Monterrey style) means wearing a Run-DMC shirt while you play a vallenato.
El Gran’s boombox and the girl’s performance are both Mexican responses to mainstream US culture — a culture that’s been made available by the helping hand of globalization — on city-funded grounds meant to celebrate Mexican national history. (Although they do it from opposite angles: she puts the local in the global, they put the global in the local and end up with new genres like " freestyle norteño " and " rigomuffin. " ) It’s this kind of open back-and-forth that Monterrey — Mexico’s biggest city of multinational industrial crossing, and its most gringofied (English, 7-Elevens, and Domino’s Pizza abound) — has been known for since the mid 1800s. Even its landscape — a flat and wide urban sprawl of highways and factories hemmed in by towering mountains covered with lush green forest — suggests contrast.
By the time La Familia Mendoza paid tribute to the city in their 1928 song " Monterrey " ( " How beautiful is Monterrey, " they gushed, " with its Cerro de la Silla " ), it was already the established Northern stop for European goods on their way to US stores. There were stagecoach and train lines that connected it to US cities, and there was already a pattern of musical collision that bumped orchestras and European military bands up against the sounds of norteño, polka, and corridos. Monterrey is still the capital of música norteña and grupera, synonymous with the matching outfits and accordion and the bajo sexto pop polish of groups like Bronco, Límite, Luis y Julian, and Los Invasores del Nuevo León.
Control Machete were the first Monterrey crew to water the roots of this tradition while tearing them out. Their 1997 debut, Mucho barato, imagined a Bronco concert hijacked by hip-hoppers. On Chúntaros radio poder, El Gran Silencio come off even more neo-norteño. They send shout-outs to Celso Piña and La Tropa Colombiana, and in the video for " Circulo de amor " they play to an audience of Mexican grandmothers who rock out in rocking chairs. And with a nod to legendary megawatt Monterrey radio stations like XEG and XET, they imagine a station of their own, with each song getting its own customized front-sell from a different local Monterrey radio jock.
This imaginary station and its songs have a target audience: los chúntaros del barrio, Monterrey’s peso-strapped ’hood dwellers, who have benefitted the least from the city’s economic success. " I am the voice of those who cannot speak, " El Gran Silencio sing on " Canto de la serpiente, " " The voice is also a weapon. " But because this is local Monterrey radio, it is also border radio (the bustling Laredo–Nuevo Laredo crossing point is only two hours away). When El Gran Silencio beatbox, it comes out in Spanish and English. When they fall in love, they fall in love with a Chicana and head to California with " kisses in Spanglish. " When they pay tribute to living in Latin America, they reach for Stephen Sondheim.
Their version of West Side Story’s " America " — the archetypal Broadway goof on immigrant American dreamology — is delivered as " I Like To Live in Mi Tierra. " But instead of Puerto Ricans wanting to live in America when they already were, El Gran like to live where they already are, in an accented América that exists on both sides of the border. Which is to say that when El Gran Silencio want to live in America, they want to live in Zacatecas and in Arizona, an imaginary borderless country where’s there’s room enough for chúntaro b-boys and Mexican Beyoncés to bounce their songs off the walls of Mexican history.
Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001