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Postcards from Tijuana: The Cultural Constellation and New Sounds in Bordertown

Despite the tired mantra of a generation of Tijuana musicians about the cross-cultural influences and the access to global exchange working a border town affords—a narrative that became obsolete years ago if it was ever even true—imitation, not innovation, has been the rule here.

It's of little surprise then that contemporary music in Tijuana—a city where serious arts and music criticism is not tolerated—is dominated not by the forward-thinking pastiche of global influences that are shaping avant-garde musical movements through out the world, but instead by what can best be described as decade late, cheap, local knock-off reproductions of sounds made elsewhere.

Tijuana is a city still clamoring for recognition from its northern neighbor as anything other than a den of poverty, vice, and violence. Its large music scene—a point of pride here—could be that narrative changing impetus. But it has proven difficult for Tijuana acts to gain traction outside of the city. While the vanguard of music scour Youtube and Soundcloud—the contemporary version of crate digging—for compelling and under-reported musical currents around the globe, the majority of Tijuana's music makers are busy replicating what has already been done with imperfect versions that are of little interest to anyone.

"If you look at the people who are properly innovative, you can count them on one hand," said Tijuana resident David Hiriart, a supporter of the small cadre of Tijuana musicians that are breaking from the formulaic, but receiving little support from the city that gave rise to their sounds.

Tijuana's Moment

After a dark spell of catastrophic drug violence sparked a DIY cultural response that ruptured the old ways of doing things, a unique cultural climate emerged in Tijuana.

Despite the fact that most of the music made here is derivative and the patronage of local institutions continues to flow to a small handful of artists that are as connected as they are uninteresting, in the last few years, Tijuana has quietly become an epicenter of avant-garde music in Mexico, with some of the world's most influential music makers eyeing what's happening here.

Emerging Tijuana's "moment of truth," as Hiriart described it, came last weekend, during three days of loosely coordinated music events that signaled that Tijuana is a place that can attract cutting edge international acts, but more importantly, it's a city recognized around the world for producing them.

"There's all these young kids producing electronic music and indie music [in Tijuana] and it's right there on the other side of California so that it's kind of this long continual cultural strip," said DJ and journalist Jace Clayton/DJ Rupture to Fader Magazine in a recent interview. "They're pulling in all these different Mexican influences and electronic influences and then reflecting the really heavy context of Tijuana, which had all this violence and was going through this sort of musical and artistic renaissance right now."

DJ Rupture has always had the pulse of the musical goings on in Latin America. He wrote the now famous Tribal Guarachero piece in Fader that broke 3Ball MTY and brought the the Americas' cumbia renaissance to a whole new audience. His recent mixtape, 'Change the Mood,' featured the song 'Up' from Tijuana's Dani Shivers laid over a loose, tropical drum beat.

DJ Rupture was selected to curate this year's Norte Sonoro 2012, a music project by Monterrey, Mexico's NRMAL collective that brought six renowned DJs and producers from around the world to Tijuana for a week to work with local artists Los Macuanos to explore and contextualize the sounds of Northern Mexico.

Taking the logical next step in the global trend of fusing regional music to create something completely new, Norte Sonoro's participants spent a week on the streets "getting an on-the-ground sense of contemporary Tijuana, and of the context that gave rise to the sounds we're working with is key."

Their experiences in the city culminated with a party at the infamous Leyva's Disco featuring this year's participants, DJ Rupture, Cardopusher, Poirier, Psilosamples, Sun Araw, Venus X and White Rainbow, with a second stage featuring Tijuana's Dani Shivers. In the coming weeks, the resulting sounds from the Norte Sonoro's collaborations will be made available as a free, downloadable EP.

The very next day, the All My Friends Music Festival—a Tijuana-based DIY organization in its third year—came through with its most ambitious lineup to date—40-plus bands on three stages on a tree lined hilltop with stunning binational views of Tijuana and San Diego's downtowns.

While the eclectic guitar-centric lineup from all over the US and Mexico came to play the festival, it was the dance oriented sounds of the local acts that stole the show. Yelram Selectah had hundreds, awash in saturated glow, ecstatically dancing to his laptop cumbias and banging ruidoson. So frenzied was the crowd, a fire extinguisher was sprayed—in what seems to be a new Tijuana tradition every time tribal guarachero music lights up a dance floor. Unfazed, the dancing continued it its surreal, haunting fog. Then Santos, one of the most exciting and underrated producers in Tijuana, continued the party with his dark noir-cumbias.

Hands down, the most exciting performance of the night was Tijuana's own, María y José. Backed by a masked man he called his bodyguard [although he looked more like a portly medieval executioner], María y José's usual tropical sounds took a harder, darker turn. His set moved seamlessly through his two music projects/alter egos, María y José and Tony Gallardo II. And hinting at a new direction, he incorporated elements of rap into his set, leaving one festival goer to remark that his performance was "Selena meets Odd Future."

The night's highlight came when a ski-masked El Hijo de la Diabla, who should have had his own slot at the festival, took the stage to freestyle over El María y José's beats. Everyone had their hands in the air.

While there were several other memorable performances—notably Los Angeles' Holloys, Mexico City's Matilda Manzana, and Mock the Zuma, Juárez Mexico's up-and-coming young star, it was Tijuana's night.

The weekend was capped off Sunday, with the opening of Otras Obras, a new Tijuana-based, New York-run art gallery space in downtown Tijuana. With one of the most raucous dance floors I've seen, New York's Venus X, Los Angeles' Total Freedom, Juárez Mexico's Mock the Zuma, and Tijuana's Dani Shivers played into the early hours of Monday morning.

Otras Obras' opening signals and exciting new era in Tijuana, where the city—the west coast's largest save for LA—starts moving, not in San Diego's orbit, but with the cultural centers of North America.

West Coast City

The oft-repeated narrative of geographic determinism that believes Tijuana's influences derives from its status a border city is an outdated one. For its cultural vanguard, the what-sometimes-feels-like-dial-up speeds of Tijuana's cable providers is infinitely more influential than the international political boundary on the city's northern edge. We are in an era where the importance of borders wanes in global cultural exchange.

Tijuana is at a tipping point. There is a deep pool of talent here and now and the outside world is beginning to pay attention. But Tijuana will never live up to its potential, and will never get its due, if the city's static leanings push out the very people who are putting it on the map. With virtually no support from Tijuana's entrenched, tight-knit cultural mafia—protectors of the provincial, while Tijuana is trends towards cosmopolitanism—a 'push-pull' has already resulted in a musical brain-drain for the city.

María y José now calls Monterrey home. Los Macuanos and DJ Nombre y Apellido are off to Mexico City. Dani Shivers is already there, and Santos has mentioned he will probably follow suit. And that's just the city's music scene. The list of people in the arts community forced to leave Tijuana because of its cliquishness, provincialism, and failure to foster artists outside its own incestuous inner circle, is too long to mention.

If Tijuana's music community wants to change the conceptions of their city, the would be right to look to the blueprint authored by Baja California's chefs, who built an internationally renowned culinary scene based around a new and innovative take on local ingredients—using the best of international and domestic traditions and influences—to create something totally unique.

But in order to do that, it takes constructing a creative community that embraces and elevates, that pushes music forward, that solicits intelligent criticism and feedback as a healthy and necessary part of every successful artistic movement in every city in the world. Most importantly, it must reflect on classist classifications that define the deep wealth of regional Mexican musical influences as tacky, while failing to recognize a disinterest for those producing blatantly mimeographed reproductions.

The internet, not the border, is the creative force that now defines Tijuana. As DJ Rupture observed during his stay in here, the city now joining the West Coast's 'long continual cultural strip.' And despite the obstinacy of those who would rather see Tijuana remain as it it once was rather than cede power to the globally oriented generation of a city that is increasingly cosmopolitan, Tijuana is now part of the cultural constellation of cities in the Americas making some of the world's most interesting music—and there's no going back now.

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