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Border Crossing 

The Chinese New Year that starts this week is the delicious-sounding Year of the Boar -- but in some circles, it looks like the year of the tiger. Or tigers, plural -- specifically, Los Tigres del Norte, the legendary norte–o band, which is riding the crest of a 40-year career that's not showing any signs of ebbing. The band recently scooped up a Best Norte–o Album Grammy for the 2006 release Histories Que Contar (Fonovisa Records), which in itself wasn't a new experience for the group. Since forming in 1968, it has collected multiple gold gramophones, plus several Latin Grammys since the separate awards show was created in 2000, and scores of other awards and recognitions from the large (and increasingly powerful) Latin music community. This year, though, the iconic Mexican band -- known to their fans as "los jefes de jefes," the bosses of bosses -- will also be honored as BMI icons in a special ceremony at the 14th annual BMI Latin Awards in Las Vegas, joining an elite group of honorees that includes James Brown, Dolly Parton and Brian Wilson.

The band started out in the late '60s when the Hernandez brothers (Jorge and Eduardo, who both play accordion and guitar, Hernan, who plays bass, and Raul, who has since left the band for a solo career) and their cousin Oscar Lara (who plays drums) crossed the border from Mexicali to play an Independence Day concert in San Jose. Jorge, the oldest, was only 14. The group decided to dedicate themselves to music when their father found himself unable to work because of an accident. A customs official called the teenage boys "little tigers," and the name stuck.

Norte–o, structured around the accordion and the bajo sexto -- a twelve-string guitar -- is a very traditional Mexican sound, though it seems to be popular both across generational boundaries and in both urban and rural areas in Mexico and the U.S. The beat is a lot like a polka, festive and cheery; traditional norte–o is all accordion and strings, but Los Tigres' modern sound includes a rock 'n' roll backbeat and some horns, for more of a border town, Tex-Mex sound. Without some fluency in Spanish, though, it's easy to miss out on the element that cinches the band's spot at the top of its genre -- the lyrics and topics of the corridos, heartfelt, vivid stories of life in Mexico and as immigrants in the U.S. (the band is now based in San Jose). The group is noted for multiple songs that deal delicately -- and quite evocatively -- with the theme of the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. as well as illegal immigration and for using effects like sirens and machine gun fire to punctuate the music for a passionate effect. It's probably this social conscience that earns the quintet -- which always wears matching mariachi suits and hats -- its other nickname, "Los Idolos del Pueblo," or, the people's idols. They're working-class heroes who manage to walk a fine line between preaching and glamorizing thug life (as some popular tejano and norte–o acts do, photographing themselves with weapons or drugs a la American gangsta rappers), simply telling stories that reflect the experience of many in a way that resonates, apparently, not only with millions of people but for dozens of years.

Sometimes referred to as the Beatles of Latin music, Los Tigres del Norte is an interesting case. Although constantly touring, recording and realizing superstar-level fame and income, a lot of Americans have not heard of the group. It's generally agreed to be the longest-running and most influential band in the norte–o genre, with a trophy cabinet to prove it. The group has recorded 55 albums, according to BMI, made 14 films and achieved total record sales topping 32 million. Los Tigres is a household name in North America and soon it won't be limited to predominantly Spanish-speaking households. In fact, the popularity of the three Hernandez brothers and their compadres is amazingly representative of the huge Latino shadow culture in the U.S., which has of late asserted itself as an increasingly escalating market force. The introduction of the separate Latin music Grammy show was a major indication of that. Demographically, Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic population in America, and have already asserted their presence politically. But the real sign of arrival or assimilation in America has always been in the cultural arena, and unmistakable signs of Latin influence are starting to crop up. The ABC series Ugly Betty, based on a popular telenovela and featuring a predominantly Latino cast, just took home a Golden Globe award. The Latin Grammy Awards are establishing themselves, and Shakira -- after starting to record in English -- is taking her place shaking it next to Britney and Christina. Could Los Tigres be far behind?

click to enlarge Los Tigres del Norte has been one of the most popular - norteo bands for more than four decades.
  • Los Tigres del Norte has been one of the most popular norteo bands for more than four decades.
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