The red glow of the giant neon star welcomes dancers to La Estrella. The illumination from the “Dancing Hall” sign lights the cement on Sixth Street, just around the corner from Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. Where the glow ends, the dark, narrow entrance to Dandy Del Sur begins. The two bars face each other like old friends, and indeed, both have been on the block for some time. But over the years, Dandy has become trendier and trendier—thanks in part to Nortec Collective’s track “Dandy Del Sur”—while La Estrella remains in some sort of impenetrable time capsule. On the old wooden floor of Estrella, middle-aged patrons dance until 6 a.m. to cumbia, banda and norteño. Meanwhile, over at Dandy, a younger, hip set sips Bohemia while a jukebox blasts Depeche Mode and Devo, with an occasional Mexican pop song thrown in for fun.
Standing between the two bars is a lot like listening to Nortec Collective. Since the late-’90s, the foursome has been mixing traditional norteño with electronic music, and to anyone who’s spent time in Tijuana, the result sounds almost as if Nortec walked around the city with recorders and added an electronic beat. It’s chaotic, melodic, a little wacky and a hell of a lot of fun.
Tijuana Sound Machine, the newest album by Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible (Ramon Amezcua and Pepe Mogt, respectively), is, as Mogt describes it, an audible trip from Tijuana to San Diego and back again. Fresh from a sold-out show in Mexico City—where the duo played with a small crew of norteño musicians (made up of accordion, trumpet and tuba) and visuals guy Ernesto Aello, who uses a live feed and animated computer graphics to give the live shows extra oomph—Mogt paces his Tijuana apartment clarifying the albums’ concept.
“When you listen from the beginning to the end,” he explains, “the album has to do with living on the border. We arranged the songs so that this car—the car pictured on the album—is driving in Tijuana, crossing to the U.S., then coming back to Tijuana. Ramon is living in San Diego now; he’s been living there since two years ago, so doing this album, we were crossing back and forth, and the album reflects that.”
The track “Reten,” for one, uses samples of radio signals Mogt captured while driving around TJ. It was around the same time 13 people died in a gun battle, and Mogt picked up all kinds of police communications.
“There were a lot of checkpoints around the city,” he recalls. “Soldiers would come to your car with a 15-milimeter machine gun, and everyone was more worried about the soldier—that he’s going to mess up and fire the gun. It’s a very stressful situation. The idea was that if you’re going to be at a checkpoint, you just put on that track and relax.”
Another track on the album, “Jacinto,” uses samples of interviews Mogt did with kids in Tijuana. When asked what color would describe the city, most kids answered red, purple or black. When asked why, most answers related to the violence. Needless to say, Mogt describes it as a “very sad song.”
But then there’s “Mi_Casita,” a track written and produced by Amezcua. The happy-go-lucky song likely reflects Amezcua’s less-stressful life in the States. While Mogt acknowledges that things can be easier stateside, don’t expect him to move across the border anytime soon.
“I’d miss the liberty you have” in Tijuana, he said. “It still seems like it’s a city that has no rules. In some situations, it’s good. When I cross the border back into Mexico, I feel free, but if you saw me in the U.S. driving, I make my stop for three seconds, and I’m very careful. When I come back down here, everybody’s free—it’s still like the Old West. Sometimes, though, it’s not good, because things can get out of control. But I’d miss the trivial things, too, like good tacos and good cantinas.”
First published in San Diego CityBeat.