Guillermo Martinez de Velasco on the music scene that's sprung up amid Mexico's drug war.
For almost six years now, Mexicans have been living amidst a combination of mass executions and extortion that has come to be known as the ‘drug war’. I don’t understand why they call it a war. This term implies at least two antagonistic parties, which in Mexico is not the case. When state officials and the army work in collusion with obscenely violent drug organisations, it’s hard to tell who is fighting who. The situation is particularly tense along the United States border where daily killings are the norm. Given the circumstances, who could possibly imagine the emergence of a vibrant and extremely popular electronic music scene here?
Like all things in this country, the origins of 3bal (pronounced tribal) are not clear. Initially called Tribal Gurachero, the genre is traced back by some to one producer, Ricardo Reyna in Mexico City, who started mixing traditional pre-hispanic music with tribal house. However, half a decade into the growth of the scene, one might conclude that contemporary 3bal is a mix of pretty much everything a dance-minded teenager from Mexico would be exposed to on the internet: Kuduro, cumbia, two-step, house, techno, and generally all things bass, are present in this peculiar sound.
Teens in places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana spend a lot of time indoors. When high unemployment, mafia-imposed curfews, and vigilante police units are a reality outdoors, teenagers can interact in two forms: online, and in improvised parties that take place in anything ranging from an indoor tennis court to someone’s living room. The focal points for the growth of the scene have so far been file sharing sites and the local tinaguis or street markets. DJs (most under the age of twenty) upload mixes for people who run pirated CD stands. In turn, the stand-owners download, burn, and sell them. This is how 3bal managed to spread amongst the border’s working class and ultimately into the parties of Mexican communities in the southern United States.
Although sonically diverse, 3bal reflects the reality of growing up surrounded by violence. It speaks about the normalising process that makes people accept death as something immediate; of seeking a way for life in an awkward age, to find a voice in places where it normally wouldn’t; of carving out fun in an otherwise hellish place. The deep, haunting basslines alongside pre-Hispanic sounds conjure images of the death-and-sacrifice-centered cosmology of the Aztecs, which contrasts heavily with the cheerful lazer-like synths that seem to come straight out of nineties techno and rave music. The Afro-Cumbian influenced percussions work well by providing a guiding rhythm for the two. In such a paradoxically tight-knit and spread out scene, another identity marker is, of course, dress. Music videos like 3bal Mty’s Inténtalo (watch it below) showcase the bota puntiaguda, or pointy boots, that seem to have taken the scene by storm.
Although new to most North American and European audiences, 3bal music has now been well established for a good three years in Mexico. Most 3bal music is self-released online, though there are some independent labels such as Choles Records and Cocobass that issue good EPs and compilations. The recent international jump the scene’s young DJs are making will be interesting for this style of music. As it caters to audiences that are not cultural constituents of the society that gave birth to it, one can only expect exciting mutations. Most 3bal musicians live and work in their communities, however a few artists have managed to score big label deals and play outside of the genre’s typical venues. Last year’s Mexico City MUTEK festival focused more on local experimental acts like Tijuana’s Mock The Zuma.“We haven’t seen a group like this, that is young and has such a vision,” said the festival’s organiser to in an interview for the *LA Times. One thing is certain: this year, more people will be shaking their hips to the sounds of 3bal than ever before.
Here are the key players that exemplify the evolution and diversity of the 3bal sound: