Meet the Kids of Mexico’s Ruidosón Nation

By Kamren Curiel

From a Once-Blighted City, A New Genre Blossoms Over the Internet

A barren border town, a lawless and violent no man’s land, an abandoned demilitarized zone between the US and Mexico…since 9/11, Tijuana’s bowed under the weight of perceptions both true and false. But take a closer look and discover a secret young tribe of Tijuaneses gathering around a new sound — ruidoson. It’s a sexy mix of electronica and Mexican folk, and as the ruidoson nation pumps music from bedrooms and backrooms onto the internet, it’s just waiting to sweep the world.

I’m third-generation Mexican American, and was born and raised in L.A. My parents took us to Tijuana as kids during the ’80s and ’90s. We’d cross the border and bounce from one taco stand to the next in search of the best pastor in town. We’d buy soft woven poncho hoodies with “Corona” written on the back, cloth-braided friendship bracelets, and some of the most beautiful handmade silver jewelry I’d ever seen. We’d even sneak inside some of the clubs that catered to drunken American students on their spring vacation, just to see what was going on. I remember watching, in amazement, my dad get tequila poured down his throat by a busty Mexicana who blew a whistle, her boobs popping out of a tight Lycra top.

That Tijuana that so many of us loved and hated is gone. 9/11 created immigrant phobia in the US, beefing up policing at the Tijuana/San Diego border, where lines to cross back into the US can take up to two hours. Mexico’s drug violence, which peaked in Tijuana in 2008, made matters worse. The herds of tourists that once flocked to TJ’s La Revo (Avenida Revolución) disappeared, making ghost towns out of businesses that depended on wide-eyed American day-trippers. And even the locals were scared to go out.

This dark period hit the resilient people of Tijuana hard. Everyone, from the brave 5-year-old hustlers who weave through jam-packed lines at the border hawking Chiclets, to the shop owners selling wooden-framed black and white Emiliano Zapata photos, to Chicano activists, felt the loss of tourist cash.

Ivan Rodriguez, aka El Hijo de la Diabla, now 27, remembers this time well. His family ran a coffee shop, Espression Cafe, that functioned as part coffee shop, part art gallery, part music venue, creating a sense of community that was lacking in TJ. Rodriguez was the first to host a Tony Gallardo performance. Gallardo, aka María y José, is inspired by the Internet, girls, and cumbia, and was knee-deep in his electro synth punk pop project Unsexy Nerd Ponies at the time. “He played music on his computer and sang to it,” Rodriguez said. “It was weird, but I liked it.” Espression Café was forced to close in 2008 — the customer flow trickled to a halt as gunfire in the streets kept people indoors.

What is Ruidosón?

In the midst of this chaos and paranoia, a sound movement was born. Ivan Rodriguez (whose brother Alejandro plays accordion in Nortec Panoptica Orchestra), began spending all his free time making frenetic music on his laptop, playing guitar in rock fusion band Koñorteño, and adding electro hip-hop elements to his live cumbia band La Diabla. His digital reinterpretation of traditional Mexican rhythms caught the attention of other local cats who were doing something similar. Soon Rodriguez reunited with Gallardo, whose María y José project was just brewing, and got to know the newly formed Los Macuanos.

Moisés Horta, the Los Macuanos bassist, coined the term ruidosón in late 2008 while talking to Gallardo on MSN chat. They were teenagers at the time, growing up as a generation glued to computer screens, imbibing multiple information streams at once. They were sick of the chaos in TJ, could barely remember the annoying American Spring Breakers who once exploited their city, and yearned for a scene to call their own.

Influenced by the hippie aspects of LA noisemakers The Smell, ruidosón is more subculture than genre, albeit with dance music definitely at its core. It combines two words — ruido (noise) and són (roots) — and represents past and future musical elements woven together through bedroom-produced laptop beat constructions, digital samplings, and sequencers. A beautiful ceremony of I-don’t-give-a-f*@k electronic rebellion that makes the head bop with an ingrained tradition of accordion, bajo sexto samples, and cumbia rhythms to carry the hips.

And although the young Mipsters (Mexican hipsters) involved in ruidosón don’t like to label it, saying it means different things to different artists, the tropical bass heads don’t care as they gleefully ingest it as part of a global mashup music diet. Ruidosón exemplifies our bicultural future — the marriage of powerful techno-style beats, cumbia rhythms, and norteño and banda cuts that produce mystical dance music. These young, mostly middle-class music creators are proud to wave the Mexican flag and explore their African roots at the same time. It’s party music, it’s lounge music, it’s music that’ll impress the hell out of your little cousins who think they know so much about electronic music.

The Great Hope for Mexico

“If it wasn’t for the Internet, we probably wouldn’t have this project,” says Moisés Horta of Los Macuanos. He met fellow bandmate Moisés López (percussion/laptop sequencer) on a fan forum back in 2005. Lopez and Reuben Torres (synth) are cousins. Los Macuanos, a term Lopez and Torres’ grandfather used to describe a stereotypical sombrero/mustache-wearing Mexican, officially formed in 2008. Inspired by Detroit techno, Chicago house, the tragic corridos and cumbia Mexicana that blasted out of 5:30 a.m. cab rides to school, Los Macuanos started throwing parties together in 2007. The parties were called No Rave to purposefully separate themselves from regular raves which attracted too many people. This was just for them, for the like-minded. Intimate parties that still created a music utopia vibe. Unlike the ecstasy-fueled raves I used to candyflip at however, these were purely weed and alcohol induced. And, of course, the music.

It was another lazy Sunday afternoon in East LA when I put Los Macuanos on speakerphone. The trio just woke up in Reuben Torres’ rooming house at UC Berkeley. He transferred from Chula vista to study film, digital media and philosophy back when financial aid still existed. All the band members possess dual citizenship, giving them the luxury to move freely between two cultures. They’d performed at San Francisco’s weekly ritual of African-rooted Latin rhythms, El Super Ritmo, the night before and, judging by their hacking coughs and giddy fits of laughter, the Mission had embraced this new sound.

“I just felt kinda nostalgic for the most regional things,” Torres, who grew up right outside TJ, said about his move to Berkeley. “I guess we were all experiencing similar things. It was a weird connection.”

Though nostalgia is forever fleeting, there’s warmth in tracks like “Ritmo de Amor,” or their latest, a tribute to Chicano rock star Ritchie Valens, “Oh Donna.” Classic cumbia beats that could have been lifted from my parents’ old Ramón Ayala records, African drums, and electronically-produced tempos from our digital reality — the mix is sneakily thrilling. Armed with a laptop, a sequencer, and a wooden güiro, Los Macuanos have yet to put out an LP. But they’ve already have performed at SXSW to acclaim, and no less than Mexican Institute of Sound mastermind Camilo Lara, called the trio “the great hope for Mexico in the coming years.”

Another great hope is Los Macuanos’ compatriot Tony Gallardo whose María y José debut, Espíritu Invisible, was called the best Mexican album of 2010 by Club Fonograma. Maria Y Jose puts a darker, more psychedelic spin on this movement. Gallardo grew up in Jalisco and lives in Tijuana. A cholo who bumped Biggie and hit on girls 24/7 in middle school, then a spike-wearing, Slipknot metal fan in high school, ruidosón he says, is now his life. His catchy beats and deep melodies poetically reflect a generation raised in crazy times.

María y José’s new DIY video for “Granada,” which looks like it was shot in Gallardo’s bedroom (the vertical blinds, the Jesus figurine) is an eerie prelude to his next album. He wears a Marcos ski mask and talks about losing his soul and the desire to explode things — all set to the beat of a cat’s meow.

“I don’t do drugs,” Gallardo says of his insanely creative process. “That’s why I make awesome stuff. My sound is a mix of tropical sweat and a lot of genres. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s too hot.” Fruity Loops and Ableton Live are the preferred at-home production tools of the ruidosón community. Live performances usually involve an Akai APC40, which creates high-quality controls for real-time mixing, remixing and production.

On March 21, 2009, Los Macuanos and María y José performed together for the first time in TJ under the ruidosón moniker. The event was called Ruidosón Pa’ La Pasión and the venue, La Maquila, was as grimy as it should be for something this underground. The funky dance party was the perfect distraction from the violence happening outside. The fact that it took a couple of young experimental music makers to get folks to leave their homes at night and dance again reveals so much about the power of this burgeoning music scene.

Today, La Sexta is the poppin’ street in TJ that houses most of the ruidosón parties. Young, hip Tijuanenses were inspired to reclaim their land and create spaces that catered to locals, giving them a place to dance in their own ‘hoods. Bars like La Chupiteria, a small past-meets-future drinking hole, started cropping up. Restaurants like Pizza Al Volo opened to foodies’ delight. Local business partners and eccentrics Sergio Gonzalez and Cesar Fernandez opened an all-Mezcal bar called Mezcalera in 2009 and a trippy American-style diner called Pop Diner in 2010.

“The Mezcalera was the first hip bar to change Calle Sexta,” Gonzalez said. “Now, 22 bars have opened on the same street. Our clientele has changed too. In the beginning, it was drunks, rich people, hipsters, cholos, and club kids. Now, it’s anyone who likes the music in our jukebox.”

From Beneath the Nortec Shadow

While the headquarters of the ruidosón movement have always been TJ and San Diego, the majority of the love seems to come from outside Baja, California. The phenomenon has created quite a bit of commentary on music blogs: “Talented local people are making cutting-edge music yet are completely ignored at home,” said Tijuanalandia blogger Jason Thomas Fritz, who coined the term “Bor-tec” to express his frustration with the way the Nortec Collective label seems to consume Tijuana’s new breed of experimental artists.

Fritz, a self-described music geek who moved to TJ in 2009, isn’t alone in this belief. Los Macuanos told me straight up: Nortec was 10 years ago; their sound doesn’t relate. And it’s true. Los Macuanos and María y José are in their early 20s and represent a new generation that came of age in an entirely different TJ. Fritz cottoned on to the ruidosón movement from inception, and was outraged when only 50 people (25 were with the band) showed up to last year’s two-day Guacamole Music Fest, which brought together Los Macuanos, María y José, Santos, and El Hijo de la Diabla. A few days later, one of the Nortec guys drew over 200 people to Don Loope in downtown TJ.

“I have nothing against Nortec,” Fritz said. “Their songs are catchy. They continue to exist. My concern isn’t them, but why people in Tijuana fail to embrace new musical currents, preferring the dated and/or mediocre instead.”

Ruidosón’s inclusive style has the power to change all of that. They support other upcoming artists, DJs, producers, and even the designers of their flyers in a way they feel Nortec failed to do. While you can’t deny Nortec’s ability to put Tijuana on the map, the ruidosón contingent want to build an even bigger movement in TJ, eagerly using social networks to create a sense of community. Their latest party, Chupetón Ruidosón, schooled everyone gathered inside TJ’s funkiest new bar, La Chupiteria, on the future of Mexican music. Los Macuanos, María y José, El Hijo de la Diabla, and Santos all performed that night. Every mipster in TJ was there to support — and to quickly “like” them on Facebook after the show.

Santos, born and raised in TJ, describes the day in 2010 he got involved with the ruidosón crew as instant magic. He started DJing festivals and parties in 2002, remixing in 2004, and producing his own tracks in 2009. There’s no doubt that his 2011 debut, La Sombra de Satán (The Shadow of Satan), is ruidosón-inspired with its cumbia, banda, and norteño flavor. Santos grew up with tradition imprinted on his soul. He woke up to his uncle’s Los Cadetes de Linares corridos and ranchera songstress Paquita la del Barrio blasting out the window. Disillusioned by Tijuana’s individualistic music scene, he told me how good it feels to finally feel a part of something bigger.

And like any great movement, ruidosón is only spreading. One of the newest recruits is a talented 17-year-old from Mexicali who goes by the name den5hion and produces what El Hijo de la Diabla calls cumbia dubstep. He invited den5hion to their last show and the guys liked his style. With this inviting spirit and unpretentious vibe ruidosón is doing something pretty major for Tijuana: dropping seeds of a sound firmly rooted in Mexico around the world.

Curious to know what other artists in TJ think about these kids, I asked alternative singer/songwriter Orlando, for his take. “How can you not like those rhythms?” he responded. Orlando is organizing musicians of all genres through his Tijuana Music Alliance, which promotes the local scene and fights for more infrastructure from the city. He’s already brought together 500 artists under the TMA umbrella, including ruidosón’s own El Hijo de la Diabla and María y José, and is passionate about uniting more.

“We are a town of rock stars,” Orlando said. “But we don’t have proper recording studios and venues. We aim to change that and grow as a musical city.”

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