Nortec Collective presents: Bostich + Fussible
Salon Jose Cuervo, Mexico City, August 5, 2011
By Grant Cogswell
Tijuana is a city bigger than its neighbor San Diego (the fifth largest in the U.S.), immediately adjacent to the most frequently crossed
international border on Earth. It is home of the Caesar salad, and, undoubtedly, the donkey show; of the “upside-down” margarita, and – I’ll say it – the greatest band in the world right now.
Nortec Collective started in Tijuana a decade ago: after splintering in 2008, no partial assembly of original members has rights to the name, so the remnants go under the moniker ‘Nortec Collective presents’.
But, to the world, this is Nortec: Bostich (Ramon Amezcua) and Fussible (Pepe Mogt) are the electronic wizards at the heart of the
dream, black-suited and standing at the back of the stage tinkering with iPads, in futuristic cyborg masks. Out front are the finest
instrumentalists from the Norteño tradition, the border music played on Central European instruments that drifted south from the Texan Pedernales a hundred and fifty years ago.
This addition to techno feels entirely natural, what all the elements were made for: steered by the cyborgs and Juan Carlos Reyna’s six-string bass, the analog complexity of Juan Telez’ accordion rattles the skittering highs just as Adriañ Rodriguez’s tuba is like the love handle on a slightly gorda sweetie you grab while you drive the beat home. And no one has made a composition turn on a trumpet-blast quite like Gustavo Medina since James Brown’s band: this is soul, the players are showmen, and you will dance.
There are scarcely any lyrics, and only on one song a singer. Instead, Hispano-robotic mottos weave through the electro-wave, chanted along by the crowd, to essay all the emotion this outfit stirs up: ‘Eres muy hermosa’; ‘Tijuana makes me happy’; ‘Tijuana sound machine, SOUND MA-CHINE!’
Despite the paucity of language, the Collective’s songs are eloquent, evocative, and very specific. Their subject is the border and its
juxtaposition and mixture of cultures, the heroic tragedy of want and striving that is played out along it, the locura of its place between worlds. For all their stylistic distinction, their live performance (I caught them once before, at April’s Vive Latino festival) calls to mind another band at the height of their moment: Radiohead ten years ago, when it seemed (and, I would say, things turned out this way) that the very direction of popular music and the something of the broader culture’s sense of itself was being determined right then, by this band.
The iconography of Nortec’s subject matter, recast in cartoon or documentary reels, screened up behind them as they play, is rendered into the live-action of their videos. ‘Akai 47’ has one of the best (modestly produced) videos of recent years, and one which expresses well one aspect of the band’s music: a rakish wedding crasher steals drinks, dances into a tight conga line, even does a little networking with a local jefe before being thrown out on his ass to find himself in Nortec’s limo, where the principals mix on their iPads and his whole routine begins again. The trickster, the drunk at the wedding feast, the immigrant trying to rise any decent – if illegal – way he can, are all there in the wordless instrumentals of this band.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToA10mNrmuI]
‘Tengo la Voz’ (I have the voice) says nothing but that in words: the video shows the group commandeering a humble pesero bus (windshield greasepaint reading ‘Bostich City’) to cruise the daylight streets of Tijuana, finally twinkling over the traffic to arrive at night at the ‘Dandy del Sur’, a scabby-ceilinged, neon-lit dive where everybody dances.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkqA_m7zLH4]
This is (literally) brassy, happy music, more joyous for not shutting out tragedy. Somehow this band has made a music for the absurd
contradictions of a place that seems to lay out the insolubility of justice, of community, in a live allegory represented by Ernesto Aello’s concert visuals: the rusty, corrigated fence of the Mexican frontier – a century-old stone plinth reading Limite de la Republica de MEXICO with the barren demilitarized zone before the giant silver teeth of the American fence beyond, ignorant of the broken red bluffs and their greenery under the clouds sweeping in from the anonymous sea, then turning to thin black teeth and disappearing into the surf like a work by Christo, ragged figures running through (if you drive the border highway you have to dodge them as they cross) an enigma this music stares into, generating mystery.
The thing almost nobody knows is the border is a beautiful place, and Nortec’s music takes it in and, prophetically, renders it universal. They have charted a future of nations dissolving to the enrichment of the floating universal new citizen in an international economy and culture whose loyalties are to the human, beyond those boundaries, and the old rituals of community thriving on the flux.
The fans – five thousand of them sell out the city’s biggest sub-stadium venue tonight – love this band. Many wear cowboy hats, in a nod to the border.
Nortec, though, are a techno band with traditional instrumentation, not the reverse: when the show breaks down after an hour and a half into a musical territory with less features on it and a stronger beat, something like a dance party, the crowd is more excited.
Backstage before the show I met the principals – a little star-struck – and found them both to twinkle with genius yet without pretense.
Fussible, bearded with dark shoulder-length hair, addressed me in native English. He grew up on the border (he and Bostich are in their early 40s) listening to the early alternative station 91X, running up to Oceanside to buy records. His family all live on the US side, in Chula Vista: he is the last one in Mexico, living in Playas de Tijuana, where the border dissolves into the ocean. He tells me the Avenida Revolucion drag that pulled gringos across the border for generations – my grandparents partying on the cheap after World War II, my father in a sombrero astride a burro painted like a zebra under a sign reading Tijuana New Years 1963, teens like myself twenty-five years ago looking for sex and liquor – is gone since border-crossing tightened considerably after 9/11, and it hasn’t come back.
Bostich comes originally from the Distrito Federal and fronts a rather techno-y clean-shaven pate and black hornrims: his clear Norteño Spanish has a wry cadence that makes you think he is the source of the band’s wit. Grasping at the contradictions, the beautiful tragedy, I wave my hands as I do when I need to say anything complex in Spanish. I ask him what he would say to a gringo audience – ignorant of almost anything about Mexico, not to mention the wider and new truth of Tijuana – the complexity of the human situation in the city he calls home, the sometimes searing beauty. He smiles and says, “Tijuana makes me happy.”
Seattleites: Nortec is playing Bumbershoot. Go.
Grant Cogswell has lived in Mexico City since 2009. His new enterprise, Under the Volcano Books, will be the capitol’s only English used bookstore, opening in October. His former political life in Seattle is the subject of a forthcoming feature film, Grassroots, coming out in February 2012.