Remembering Ariel Camacho, the 22-year-old star of Mexico's narcocorridos

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Marco Werman: Now to that other story out of Mexico I mentioned earlier, it’s also about a promising young man there, sadly, a young man who’s no longer with us. The Norteño musician Ariel Camacho died in a car accident on wednesday. He was the lead singer of Los Plebes Del Rancho. That’s the Plebeians From the Ranch. They’re known for the narcocorridos, songs that recount the exploits of the drug cartels. Camacho was only 22 but he already had a big following on both sides of the border. In fact, he was supposed to start a US tour this coming weekend. Elijah Wald is the author of “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas.” I asked him to tell us about Camacho’s background.


Elijah Wald: He was from Gusabe, and that’s the absolute, as they say “heartland of the drug world.”


Werman: So, northwest Mexico.


Wald: Down on the coast. The nearest town people would probably have heard of up here is Mazatlán, which is the main port on the Pacific Coast.


Werman: So, Ariel Camacho and his group, Los Plebes Del Rancho, were part of this new sound of Norteño music. What was new about this sound?


Wald: Well, it’s not Norteño. Norteño is the accordion sound, and what’s cool about them is they combine the two Sinaloan sounds. The classic old-fashioned sound everywhere was just guitars and singers, and the classic Sinaloan sound is brass bands, and about a little over 15 years ago this guy called El Canelo y Los Dos del Sitio out of the real heart of the drug dealing area, which is ?????, put together this group with two guitar players and a tuba player playing lead. I thought it was going to be a one-off novelty but it actually caught on, there have been a few other groups like that, and Los Plebes Del Rancho, that’s the sound. It’s Ariel Camacho, who’s a really hot 12-string guitar lead player and a very hot tuba player on lead and then a rhythm guitarist.


Werman: It is a unique sound for sure. Narcocorrideros for years have been mostly men who will sing songs for praise of drug dealers and kingpins. They get paid and they deliver these kind of folk songs of worship for them. Was Camacho part of that tradition?


Wald: Judging by what he did, no I don’t think he was probably doing anything for hire. His songs were mostly about the really famous narcos, and that’s not for hire, that’s like for Hollywood movies. That’s taking the big stories, like he did a song called “War of Powers,” about how the biggest drug dealers were fighting it out for control of the market. Those are news corridos.


Werman: So, Ariel Camacho did narcocorridos. He also did some love songs too, didn’t he?


Wald: He actually was known as the “King of Hearts,” and his biggest hit was a thing called “Let’s Talk.” If you go on Youtube, you can see it. He was only 22-years-old, he’s a good looking, young guy and he really had romantic appeal, and that’s a big deal because part of what’s going on here is that sound of the two guitars is much gentler than the sound of brass band or accordion. He’s very handsome, a young guy, he did the romantic song and narcocorridos, like gangster rap, has mostly been a boy-style, but he clearly was a guy who appealed to young women.


Werman: He was going to cover all the demographics--love songs for the girls and narcocorridos for the guys. Narcocorridos are interesting--they go back to the “˜30s. What’s the history of the genre?


Wald: Corridos have been around for a long time, they were songs of brave gunfighters. Really in the “˜20s, the big news in brave gunfighters in the border area was prohibition. The whole story of narcocorridos, the first big drug smuggling operation, was smuggling alcohol. Many of the cartels start as bootlegging cartels and then in the “˜30s they just switched over from bootlegging alcohol to bootlegging Mexican heroin, opiates first of all in the “˜60s and “˜70s, and then went to marijuana. Then when the Caribbean connection got shut down in the “˜80s, they became the main transshipment point for Colombian cocaine.


Werman: I know this was an automobile accident but given Ariel Camacho’s connections with the drug world, is there any suspicion of foul play?


Wald: None whatsoever. As with most touring musicians, the most dangerous thing is the touring itself.


Werman: Elijah Wald, the author of “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas.” Thank you very much for coming in and telling us about the late Ariel Camacho.


Wald: Thank you very much for having me.