August 10, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sebastian Rotella's debut novel Triple Crossing is a fast-paced, well-written thriller. An award-winning journalist, Rotella's knowledge of drug and human smugglers, as well as their law enforcement counterparts, is always evident and eye-opening.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Crime fiction with energy and righteous indignation . . . reveals the gnarly circuitry of international collusion in greed and tyranny, the alternating currents of cooperation and betrayal, and the courageous men and women of conscience who risk all for truth and love. A strongly choreographed, authentically detailed, and sharply funny tale of cultural complexity and raging global criminality."
Triple Crossing is my first novel. It takes place at the San Diego-Tijuana border and at the "triple border" of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. I got know the territory while covering the Mexican border and South America for the Los Angeles Times. The book is about crime, corruption and the borderlands: a treacherous and magical international space, a zone full of lawlessness, intrigue and cultural convergence that embodies the best and worst of globalization. I listened to a lot of music while I wrote the book. Music played a strong role in helping me create the characters and the sense of place. The narrative alternates between the two heroes: Valentine Pescatore, a young U.S. Border Patrol agent of Mexican and Argentine descent, and Leo Mendez, the reformist chief of an elite Mexican police unit. When I wrote the Mendez and Pescatore sections, I listened to different kinds of music that I associate with their personalities. But it wasn't a rigid north/south, American/Mexican division. The charm of the borderlands lies in the cross-cultural swirl, the unexpected hybrids and creative juxtapositions. Here's a list of songs that evoke the characters, the settings and the moods.
1. "Low Rider. Kid Frost/Latin Alliance,"
A rap version of Low Rider, the 1975 barrio classic by War. We meet Pescatore while he's on patrol and listening to this song, the overture of the book. The propulsive bass and percussion make for great driving music. Pescatore likes Low Rider, although it reminds him of gang members and activists who aren't exactly fond of the Border Patrol. Another Latin Alliance cut, Runnin', paints a brutal caricature of the Patrol. Pescatore listens to it ironically, to remind himself of all the enemies out there. And his musical taste is a sign that, as an instinctive undercover man, he has an identity crisis about which side he's on.
2. "Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana," Pietro Mascagni
This piece from the one-act Sicilian opera plays on the car radio when Mendez first appears riding south of the line. Mendez is a former journalist and human rights activist turned cop, a leftist Tijuana intellectual with eclectic tastes: from classical music to Latin American folk-protest music to Santana (More on him later). The melancholy Intermezzo reflects Mendez' brooding personality. The opera, Rustic Chivalry, ends with the protagonist dying in a duel of honor. Mendez is reading a book about the renowned Sicilian anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated. Mendez sees Falcone's story as an ominous mirror.
3. "Cuba Libre," Gloria Estefan
Isabel Puente is a beautiful Cuban-American federal agent who works with Mendez investigating cross-border corruption. She recruits Pescatore as an informant and they become romantically involved, setting up a triangle of tension. Isabel likes Latin pop music with an emphasis on Cuban-American and female artists, especially Gloria Estefan, the queen of Miami. I chose "Cuba Libre" because it reminds me of Isabel's ferocity and pride. It's an ode to Cuba demanding freedom for the island and denouncing the Castro dictatorship: a political statement you can dance to.
4. "Sabor a Mi," Los Lobos
With his family living in California for their safety, Mendez spends solitary hours listening to ballads like this one by the Mexican composer Alvaro Carillo. The singer tells his sweetheart that, despite time and distance, their love has left a taste of him in her mouth forever. In this version, the consummately talented Los Lobos resurrect a vintage bolero from their parents' era with virtuoso guitar work and sweet harmonies. It's a labor of love by a band from East Los Angeles that crosses musical borders with ease.
5. "Forgiven," Los Lonely Boys
The Garza brothers, Henry, JoJo and Ringo, are monsters. Forgiven is a rock-and-roll prayer about guilt and redemption. It fits Pescatore's tormented mood as he gets ready for a gun-running operation that is part of his undercover mission. Maybe because they are family, Los Lonely Boys have an incredibly tight and muscular sound. It echoes Santana and Los Lobos, but is fresh at the same time. The Garzas are from San Angelo, Texas. To paraphrase a promoter played by Martin Scorsese in the movie ‘Round Midnight: tough places produce tough music.
6. "Corazon Espinado," Carlos Santana featuring Mana
Pescatore and Mendez dislike other and see the world differently, but they both like Santana. I've been a Santana fan since I was a kid. I always found it interesting how he appealed across ethnic lines, from white metal-heads to Latinos to African-Americans. Santana spent his formative childhood years in Tijuana, where he absorbed the mix of genres—blues, British rock, soul, Afro-Cuban and of course Mexican—that forged his unique sound. Corazon Espinado teams him up with Mana, one of the best Spanish-language rock bands, and its soulful singer, Fer Olvera. The title refers to a heart pierced by a thorn. The singer laments that he is "bien entregado," (totally devoted) and therefore condemned to suffer in love.
7. "Always and Forever," Heatwave
Pescatore ends up among a group of street gang veterans from California working as triggermen for a drug lord in Tijuana. When they have a party, they spin soul classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s like this one. Cholos like oldies. I once interviewed a member of an inmate choir at a talent show at a juvenile jail in Los Angeles. His name was Ivan and he had been locked up for car theft. He said he had developed his vocal skills by singing Always and Forever as a lullaby to his baby sister. It was hard not to like him when he told that story.
8. "Lush Life," Billy Strayhorn
Mendez does not speak English too well and he's wary of his U.S. law enforcement allies. Like many foreign intellectuals with anti-American leanings, though, he loves the definitive American art form: jazz. During a sleepless night he listens to a disc by Billy Strayhorn, the Mozart of Harlem, the erudite composer and arranger who was Duke Ellington's close collaborator. The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn is a rare album featuring Strayhorn on piano. It was recorded during an overnight session in his beloved Paris. This is an instrumental version of Lush Life, a melancholy masterpiece that he wrote when he was 17.
9. "La Suburban de la Muerte," El Poder del Norte (formerly Los Pioneros del Norte)
The chief of the cartel gunslingers is Buffalo Mendoza, who balances his personal code with loyalty to a vicious drug lord. Buffalo is proud that a band has written a song about him. The narco-corrido genre of northern Mexico is a musical newspaper about the drug wars. "The Suburban of Death" mixes a bouncy, polka-style melody with lyrics about the iconic war wagon of the underworld: the Chevrolet Suburban. I have a vivid memory from when I covered Tijuana of counting the bullet holes in a drug lord's red Suburban after a shootout. It still had California license plates because it had been stolen from a driveway in suburban San Diego.
10. "The Line," Bruce Springsteen
Pescatore is an angry working-class American and a Springsteen fan. This song is a stark portrait of a Border Patrol agent in despair. Full disclosure: Springsteen based "The Line" and the song "Balboa Park" on articles I wrote in the L.A. Times. You can hear them on the album The Ghost of Tom Joad. As you can imagine, it was a cool experience to have Springsteen inspired by my border stories and set them to music. (Journalist colleagues suggested that I shoot myself because nothing would ever top that.) Bruce invited me to the concert and we have been in touch over the years. In The Line, the verse "hunger is a powerful thing" comes from an interview I did with a Mexican vendor on a hilltop overlooking the canyons of the San Diego-Tijuana line.
11. "Canzoneta," Alberto Marino
At the triple border, Mendez joins forces with Facundo the Russian, an Argentine private investigator and intelligence operative. The loud, sharp and witty Facundo lives in Puerto Iguazu, the Argentine border city, but he's from Buenos Aires and has the Italian-Spanish-Jewish flair of that capital. He listens to this tango, which like many tangos is about nostalgia: an Italian immigrant in a waterfront bar pines for his mother, for the old country, for what was and might have been. Marino has a voice like a house. Canzoneta showcases it, culminating in his thunderous rendition of the title verse from ‘O Sole Mio.' The tango is a quintessential New World genre combining influences of Africa, Southern Europe and Cuba.
12. "Ojos Asi," Shakira
Isabel Puente likes Shakira, the Colombian artist whose talent and cheerfully sexy style have survived massive commercial success. The Middle Eastern instruments and wailing, chanting energy of this song come from her Lebanese heritage. Arab immigrant culture has a powerful presence across Latin America. As a crime story, Triple Crossing looks at the dark side of the Middle Eastern community of the triple border, a hub of mafias with links to Islamic extremist groups. But Shakira is just one example of the prominence of Latin Americans of Arab descent in art, culture and politics. Ojos Asi (Eyes Like That) evokes a sense of love with an edge—like the dangerous relationship between Valentine and Isabel.
13. "Somos Mas Americanos," Los Tigres Del Norte
Los Tigres are the kings of Norteno music. Corridos are not just about gunplay. The prolific, wildly popular Los Tigres also chronicle the struggles of border-crossers. This anthem sends a political message in defense of Mexican immigrants, declaring "We are more American" than the descendants of Anglo-Saxons. The wounds of 1848 haven't quite healed; Los Tigres recall that Texas, California and other states once belonged to Mexico. "I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me," croon Los Tigres, who live in Sacramento, California. This is a song that Mendez loves and Pescatore loves to hate.
14. "Europa," Santana
We end where it all begins: a ‘70s instrumental classic by Santana. Pescatore is on the run at the Triple Border, armed and desperate, when he hears this song echoing among buildings of the Ciudad del Este riverfront. The gentle, soaring, inimitable wail of Santana's guitar brings him to a stop. He knows the guitar line of Europa note by note, like the words to a song. It fills him with longing, sadness and hope. That's what good music does. I hope you enjoy Triple Crossing and this attempt to put music to the words.
Sebastian Rotella and Triple Crossing links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
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