San Diego

Postcards from Tijuana: The Digital Goth Rock of El Muerto

El Muerto.

Baltazar Hernández, better known as El Muerto--or Death--has been a fixture in Tijuana's Parque Teniente Guererro for the better half of last year, where his brand of digital deathrock over default keyboard beats has entertained the decidedly normal mid-afternoon park going crowd of gossiping elderly women, children running about, and men deeply involved in their respective chess matches.

It was sometime in early fall of last year when I stumbled across El Muerto. My friend Ximena and I had just hit a thrift store downtown, when we suddenly heard his music reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It had to be coming from the park. But this wasn't the mediocre, albeit spirited, singers giving it their all, doing renditions of ranchera classics and the occasional Mexican pop number, like you normally find at the park.

This was different. Even muddled, and from several blocks away its genius could be heard -- a bastardized cross between dark punk's early era, droning witch house, and lo-fi out-of-left-field cult sounds in the vein of Canada's Tonetta. Ximena and I hurried to catch up with it. The music became more defined as we rounded the gazebo that obscured him. I expected to find some hipster teenage internet beat-making wiz, cool beyond his years, but too young -- or not connected enough -- to be playing the bars along Tijuana's nightlife corridor, La Sexta, with the park being the only venue available.

It was the exact opposite. El Muerto, it seemed, came straight from a script, and I couldn't believe my eyes. Well into the third stage of his life, tall, with stringy chin length white hair, there he sat behind a beat up keyboard, dressed in all black with a leather trench coat, and a silver crucifix adorning his neck. Think Bela Lugosi playing Dracula, only during the Ed Wood period, with a more storied face covered with caked-on white make-up and painted-on eyebrows that equally evoke María Félix, the starlet of Mexican cinema's Golden Age, and 90s Southern California chola culture. My friend and I found the nearest patch of grass, sat down, and watched the rest of his short set in amazement.

Afterwards, we quickly introduced ourselves, asking where we could see him again, or hear his music. He went by San Baltazar then. No webpage, no Soundcloud, no Facebook. "I just came down from the mountains," he said, remarking on his lack of savvy in all things internet. His live sets at the park were it. Over the course of the next few months, I would head to Parque Teniente Guererro to hear him play.

Recently, during a private show at a dingy pool hall off an alley in Tijuana's downtown, El Muerto talked about his music, and the theological underpinnings behind it. The scene was surreal. Against the cosmic backdrop of a skeleton in an Aztec headdress, beneath a disco ball that hasn't spun in years, El Muerto tapped out his song 'Satánica,' with glitter orange nails, for an audience of a few. He had clearly developed more confidence since his early shows in the park, with a new, more flamboyant stage presence, that included genuflections, the stations of the cross and Gene Simmons' Kiss-like tongue acrobatics. While religious imagery in the form of Christian crosses, the Star of David, and pentagrams were part of his early performances, I hadn't realized how deep his faith was until we sat down and talked after his performance.

El Muerto sees his dark apocalyptic pop compositions as soapbox street preaching in musical form -- lo-fi deathrock proselytizations for his unique theology -- a 'new religion,' he calls it -- of egalitarian social Christianity that incorporates liberation theology and its tenants of decentralized worship, with new age metaphysical traditions, gay liberation, and a belief that Jesus is already among us, and can be found in everybody.

This year looks like it will be El Muerto's. He's been garnering a small buzz around town, which will no doubt lead to bigger things. While it's exciting to see his rise, for a very brief but magical moment, El Muerto represented all that has been lost to the internet era. Uncontrived and unaware of the in vogue lo-fi dark wave of the moment, El Muerto is the last of pre-Googleable music underground, where only the adventurous and interesting discover music's treasures. One of Tijuana's most exciting music acts was all but unknown, save for park goers who met his brand of musical evangelization with curiosity, and the small group of fans he seduced there.

There is no doubt that the internet-era has spawned one of the most interesting and innovative periods in music history, but as the collective identities that produced subcultural scenes are replaced by easy accessibility and early virtual adoption, El Muerto's brand of goth gospel -- steeped in convictions and the do-it-yourself ethic -- represented the last of the punk rock underground. Some music can't be discovered behind a computer screen and can only be found during random strolls downtown.

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Top Image: El Muerto.

About the Author

Jason Thomas Fritz is a journalist and graduate student at San Diego State University living in Tijuana. Acknowledging that Tijuana defies any attempt at defining it, his online journal Tijuanalandia aims to explore this most misu...
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