June 17, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Already called "the best surf novel of the 21st Century" by author Kate Arnoldi, Tyler McMahon's Kilometer 99 is a thrilling coming-of-age story set in post-earthquake El Salvador.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"In this dark adventure tale, McMahon summons both the mystical joys of surfing and the angst of young people trying to navigate a treacherous world."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My new novel, Kilometer 99, is set in El Salvador during the aftermath of a destructive 2001 earthquake. I lived there from 1999-2002, and much of the book is based on my experiences in the country. While writing this novel, I recalled a lot of the music that I used to hear: on my neighbors' stereos, by mariachis on street corners, and on long bus rides. At the time, I was uninformed about the local music's origins and background. In the years since, it's been fun and eye opening to research the stories behind the songs—and to hear the recorded versions online.
"Tres Veces Mojado" by Los Tigres del Norte
It's hard to know where to start with Norteño. This accordion-fueled genre essentially is the pop music of a huge swath of the Americas: from El Salvador through Mexico and on into most of Texas and California. But somehow it's been effectively excluded from Latin music awards and such, in favor of more Caribbean tastes.
Los Tigres are sort of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of Norteño rolled into one—with some decidedly Springsteen-esque tendencies. I hope that a great biography of them is written one day, as their story defies brief summary. I highly recommend checking out some of their videos and sketches.
Los Tigres del Norte are massively popular in rural El Salvador, and though they're not Salvadoran, there's something about their music that seems to capture the national character: hard-working but also mischievous, hokey and edgy at the same time. This song is written from the perspective of a Salvadoran immigrant travelling to the States; the title refers to the three borders that he's required to cross.
Like many gringos, it took me a little while to warm up to Norteño. Now, it brings back vivid memories of hitchhiking along dusty highways in the blazing heat of the day. If a pickup slowed enough to hear that distinctive oom-pah bass line and accordion flourishes, it was the most welcome sound in the world.
"Casas de Carton" by Los Guaragauo
When I was in El Salvador, I always thought that this song was written by Los Guaragauo, about the Salvadoran civil war, and that the band was Salvadoran. In the years since, it's come to my understanding that Los Guaragauo were actually Venezuelan, that the song was written by Ali Primero (the composer of "Sombrero Azul"), and that it was more generally about the multiple conflicts that occurred in Central America during the eighties and nineties. The prettier, more melodic remake by the Guaragauo seems to be the preferred version in El Salvador.
There are a couple of great performances of this tune in the 2004 film Voces Innocentes. The way that the characters whisper it in hushed tones, behind closed doors, is indicative of the manner by which a lot of these leftist folk songs were played and heard—even many years after the war. (They also travelled by way of Radio Venceremos, the FMLN's underground radio network, which is also well rendered by the film.)
"El Rey" by Vicente Fernandez
Vicente is like Sinatra in Central America: old fashioned, corny, the sort of thing your parents listen to—but also a mega-talented legend that transcends categories. He put on a concert with his son in San Salvador not long before I left the country. I wasn't able to attend, but the whole city talked about it for weeks afterward.
A gas station along the Boulevard de los Heroes in the capital was a popular place to sit on the curb and drink beer. In the evenings, Mariachis would stroll up in full regalia and play for tips. "El Rey" was my all-time favorite request. Everybody would shout along to the "Con dinero o sin dinero!" part.
I always ask Mariachis in the States for it, but it doesn't seem to be part of their standard fare.
"El Sombrero Azul" by Ali Primero
Though written by a Venezuelan singer, this song is overtly about the Salvadoran civil war. Like many folk songs from the era, it is sympathetic to the FMLN and critical of U.S. involvement. These were all topics to tread lightly upon during my time in El Salvador, especially in a village like the one where I lived—which was largely created by agrarian reform, and juxtaposed ex-army families with ex-guerilla families.
But this song always struck me as an exception of sorts. In spite of its revolutionary origins, it managed to cross over to become a nonpartisan sing-along. This might be partly due to the numerous Cumbia and Salsa Clave remakes that now play in bars and discotequas. But I believe it has more to do with the catchy "Dale Salvadoreño!" call-and-response bit.
"Todo Cambia" by Mercedes Sosa
I got a chance to see the late great Mercedes Sosa at the Feria Internacional in San Salvador. She was probably in her late sixties at the time—not long before a bad series of falls would force her to sit in a chair while singing. She put on a phenomenal show. It wasn't just her voice, but something about her very presence on stage that was captivating. By that time, Sosa had outlasted most of the dictators she'd spent her life protesting and singing about. She probably didn't need to be touring, and certainly didn't need to stop in El Salvador. But the audience was rapt, the singer's joy absolutely contagious. To see the whole crowd singing along to "Todo Cambia" was a moving, uplifting experience.
On the way out, I found a blue-and-white concert poster and took it home. It hung it on the walls of my little house for the next couple of years.
"El Amigo Qué Perdí" by Grupo Die Blitz
This is another tune that I often heard performed by local musicians. I've had a hard time piecing together its origins. It seems to be traced to a Salvadoran band called "Grupo Die Blitz" or "Los Die Blitz" or the "Die Blitz Band." An article in the Salvadoran daily paper claims that they got together as schoolmates in the seventies; the song's first success came at a juvenile talent show.
I always thought of this as a pretty, sentimental tune. Finding the original version online was a nice surprise; it's much more lo-fi and gritty than I expected, with a singer whose voice is reminiscent of Eric Burdon. It was even nicer to find out that at least this iconic song was 100% made in El Salvador.
"Ojalá" by Silvio Rodriguez
We can't talk about lefty Latin American folk singers without mentioning Silvio. This album, Al Final de Este Viaje, is one of my favorites ever. The songs are amazing; the production is perfect. It's the Cuban maestro at his best: mixing the political with the personal, over nothing more than a classical guitar line.
This song wasn't a national favorite so much as it was popular with the expat community and the San Salvador elite. I'm not sure exactly who turned me on to Silvio, but I'm eternally grateful. He was in constant rotation in the cheesecloth-covered tape deck I listened to during my time there.
"Matador" by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
I saw this Argentine rock/ska band in San Salvador in 2000 or so. It was one of the best concerts I've ever seen, and the crowd went duly crazy. This sort of music wasn't popular throughout the country, but it was a favorite of the upper class kids who hung around La Libertad (where much of my novel is set). "Matador" is actually another protest song, which references both the desaparecidos in Argentina and the Pinochet regime in Chile. In the States, it became famous as part of the soundtrack to the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank.
"Hotel California" by The Eagles
I have absolutely no idea why the original version of this song was so massively popular in El Salvador. Suffice it to say that I heard it several times a day, from the city streets to the countryside—and on many, many long bus rides. Translating the lyrics was a constant source of casual conversation with strangers.
Tyler McMahon and Kilometer 99 links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists