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Los Tigres del Norte

History Revisited: "Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison"

In late 2019, Los Tigres del Norte released a live album that marked a milestone in their storied career. The two-CD set captured the band’s historic performance at Folsom State Prison, staged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the legendary concert by country singer Johnny Cash at the same notorious penitentiary. The Tigres event was also filmed for a Netflix documentary, released along with the album on Mexican Independence Day.

            Within weeks, the music industry came to a halt after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and hobbled the economy. Touring was cancelled for most of 2020, depriving the band of key exposure. By December of that year, Los Tigres released a follow-up studio album, a traditional tribute to Vicente Fernandez. The Folsom album quietly took its place in the band’s prolific discography, now approaching 60 albums since 1968.

            I think it’s time to revisit the band’s historic prison concert, especially for those who may have overlooked it. Below are the liner notes I wrote for the album release on Fonovisa Records, part of Universal Music Latin Entertainment. This is the first time the English version has been published, since the CD included only the Spanish translation.

            My original text, with slight modifications, is reprinted here with kind permission of the project’s executive producers, Zach Horowitz and Los Tigres. The band of brothers, in conjunction with the Arhoolie Foundation, helped launch the Frontera Collection through a grant from the Los Tigres del Norte Foundation to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Los Tigres at Folsom Liner Notes

            When Johnny Cash performed his landmark live concert at Folsom State Prison in 1968, Los Tigres del Norte were new immigrants to this country, with only dreams of being recording stars. At the time, these performers – an iconic but troubled American singer and an ambitious but unproven Mexican conjunto – were separated by a battery of natural barriers. They spoke different languages, worked in different genres, came from different generations, and lived on opposite sides of a historically troubled border.

            Yet, half a century later, fate would cause their careers to converge, uniting them musically and spiritually on common ground. In 2018, Los Tigres memorialized the 50th anniversary of Cash’s prison performance with a concert of their own at Folsom, filmed for a Netflix documentary and recorded live for an album, both entitled “Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison.”

            Although scores of artists expressed interest, Los Tigres is the only act authorized to perform at Folsom for the 50th anniversary of Cash’s historic appearance. This soundtrack album is the first live recording from inside the prison walls since Cash recorded his smash album, “At Folsom Prison,” the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.

            The spirit of the late Johnny Cash, who passed away in 2003 at age 71, was evoked from the very start. Los Tigres opened their two-hour set with a Spanish version of Cash’s original opening song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” translated for the first time with the help of Ana Cristina Cash, the singer’s daughter-in-law, a Cuban-American musician now living in Nashville.

            The band offered other references in deference to the unique persona of the Man in Black, as Cash was known for his trademark attire.  When Los Tigres appeared on stage –brothers Jorge, Hernán, Eduardo, and Luis Hernández, and their cousin Oscar Lara – all the band members were wearing black. Then, echoing Cash’s signature line (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), the band in unison greeted the gathered inmates with a similar salute: “Hola, nosotros somos Los Tigres del Norte.”

            Those are symbolic tips-of-the-hat. But a deeper artistic sensibility also binds Cash and Los Tigres, despite those formidable barriers.

            “Personally, I identify with him because of his desire to give voice to our people,” said Jorge Hernández, accordionist and lead singer of many of the group's greatest hits. "We are intertwined through the music we play, both representing our communities."

            Did you notice that choice of words? “Our people,” Hernández said. Not separate audiences. Not white and brown, north and south, English and Español. No, they are both singing to the same audience, from the same tier of their respective societies. The poor and the powerless, the forgotten and unforgiven, the underappreciated and overworked, the outcast and the voiceless.

            Los Tigres could have authentically sung a Spanish version of Cash’s “Man in Black,” with the line, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town.”

            For Los Tigres, however, the verse would have to include the much-maligned immigrant, whose plight they passionately express, whose rights they unfailingly defend. The group has spent the past half-century telling their untold stories, singing about their loves and losses, tragedies and triumphs. For their advocacy, they earned the nickname Los Ídolos del Pueblo, from adoring fans.

            At first glance, Cash and Los Tigres seem unlikely musical allies. Fifty years ago, few would have predicted their careers could ever intersect.

            Cash launched his country music career in 1955, with his first single recorded on Sun Records, the fabled Memphis label that initially signed Elvis Presley. At that time all but one of Los Tigres weren’t even born. Like Cash they grew up poor, raised in Rosa Morada (Purple Rose), Sinaloa, a rural hamlet so remote the boys had to learn songs by word of mouth because there was no radio, no phonographs, no sheet music.

            By the mid-60s, Cash had recorded 20 albums for Columbia Records, and was deep into the drinking and drug use that would stall his career. Meanwhile, the Hernández boys were performing for tips to help pay medical bills for their father, who had suffered a disabling work accident. The band was so informal, it didn’t even have a name.

            For both Cash and Los Tigres, 1968 would be a pivotal year. While the band of youngsters was being born professionally, the veteran singer was suddenly reborn.

            Cash had overcome his professional malaise and was riding high again after the success of his live Folsom album. The now classic single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” hit No. 1 on the country charts and earned a Grammy for best country vocal performance. He went on to use his renewed notoriety to advocate for prison reform.

            Los Tigres, meanwhile, had lucked into the biggest move of their nascent career – relocating permanently to the U.S. and settling in San Jose, California. Initially, they came on a 90-day work visa, but never moved back.

            The early years would be a struggle for the band, but at least now they had a name. They were christened by a friendly immigration agent when crossing the border for their first U.S. appearance, coincidentally at Soledad State Prison. The agent asked for the group’s name, but they still didn’t have one. So he dubbed them “the little tigers of the north,” impressed by their go-get-‘em attitude. At the last minute, the helpful agent wrote “Los Tigres del Norte,” allowing them time to grow into the name as adults, if they were to last that long.

            In San Jose, they soon signed with a small local label, Fama Records that was also just getting started. Within a few years, Los Tigres scored their first big hits, “Contrabando y Traición” and “La Banda del Carro Rojo,” rocketing them to international fame and kicking off the modern narco-corrido trend.

            Los Tigres have been riding high ever since. Over the next five decades, they sold tens of millions of albums, toured around the world, and emerged as the pre-eminent norteño band in the business and one of the most influential Latin bands of all time.  Through all their success, they’ve never lost touch with their community.  “For us it’s all about the special connection we feel with our audience. We tell their stories in our music.” said Hernán Hernández, who sings lead vocals and plays bass.

            The group’s most remarkable achievement has been its staying power. They have remained steadily at the top of their field, resisting fads and fickle pop tastes. So when they arrived at Folsom, they had nothing to prove, or to gain necessarily. When they passed through those forbidding gates and stepped inside the massive stone walls of the 138-year-old prison, they had a social mission in mind, not a career calculation.

            “I never felt afraid to be inside the prison, but the experience of being there affected me emotionally,” said Eduardo Hernández, who sings vocals and plays accordion, alto saxophone and bajo sexto. “I heard stories from the prisoners that touched my heart deeply. For them, the experience is a way of releasing pent-up feelings, or perhaps the regret and guilt they keep inside.”

            The prison population has grown exponentially in the past 50 years. And the percentage of prisoners who are Latinos has also exploded. In 1968, the year Cash played at Folsom, there were some 28,000 total inmates in California. Today, that number has more than quadrupled to 130,000. Back then, the inmate population was mostly white. Today, Latinos make up the largest share, over 43 percent, of those incarcerated in California’s state prisons, up from 30 percent in 1990.

            This dismal demographic is one of the reasons the band wanted to do this project—to help generate a dialogue around the important issue of Latino incarceration.

            Not surprisingly, the audience for the two Folsom concerts, 50 years apart, went from mostly white to overwhelmingly Latino. And there were other differences as well.

            When Cash played two back-to-back shows on January 13, 1968, the weather was chilly, the concert was held indoors in a cafeteria, and the atmosphere was tense because prisoners had recently taken a guard hostage. Armed guards kept close watch on the prisoners, who were told not to stand during the show.

            Conditions were noticeably better for Los Tigres who performed on two consecutive days April 17 and 18, 2018. The weather was sunny and warm, the concerts were held outdoors, and the atmosphere was much more relaxed. For Los Tigres, inmates were not only allowed to stand, but they had the freedom to dance and sing along with abandon.

            For the men’s concert, the band also enjoyed an impressive backdrop. The stage was set up in front of Greystone Chapel, immortalized by Cash who performed a song, written by a Folsom prisoner, about the imposing Gothic structure. Los Tigres also used the chapel to meet and mingle with some of the inmates featured in the documentary.

            One other important element distinguished the Tigres event – a female audience. On the second date, Los Tigres played for female prisoners at a separate, smaller facility, which did not exist until 2013. The women’s show was so festive it had the feel of a backyard party. Since the women at Folsom are considered lower risk than the men, the band was permitted to play at ground level, face to face with the female fans.

            The women responded gleefully. They smiled, sang along, and danced, both in sync like a chorus line in front, or as couples in the back.

            For a moment, it was easy to forget they were in prison.

            The state did impose one major restriction: No songs that appear to encourage or glorify crime, violence, and drug dealing, or that might even inadvertently undermine the prison’s security and rehabilitation efforts. For Los Tigres, that eliminated some of their biggest hits, especially those famous narco-corridos that fans still love.

            But the rule prompted a creative solution that provided the show with a brilliant structure. The band selected songs based on the stories of inmates who had been interviewed for the documentary a few weeks earlier. There was such a wealth of material in their repertoire, so many relevant songs, that the selections seemed tailored to every individual story.

            Early in the set, the band sings “Jaula de Oro,” about a distressed father who makes money in the U.S. but loses moral authority over his family. At the same time, we hear inmate Juan Fernandez talk about starting his life of crime at 19, despite the example of hard work set by his upright father. And he doesn’t know why he lost his way.

            “It was an unforgettable experience just speaking with the prisoners, listening to their stories about why they’re there, and hearing them say how happy it made them to see us,” said Hernán Hernández. “One of those prisoners told me that when he hugged me, he felt he was hugging his brother, because he said I look like him. I felt joy being there, and it made me think of the importance of family and friends. Because those prisoners don’t know when they’ll ever have another opportunity to return to their loved ones.”

            These songs are like parables. Unlike Cash’s outlaw image, Los Tigres have always focused on morality tales, especially in their songs about drugs and violence. They don’t judge, they try to inspire. They understand the lives of these prisoners, the pressures they face, the mistakes that brought them here, consumed with regret.

            You can hear those stories on this album in the inmates’ own voices, via interview clips interlaced between tracks. Neither the performances alone nor the interviews alone have the power they pack together, merged as a single piece of art. The emotional impact is palpable in the documentary and reflected on the record.

            The result is a work that feels natural and seamless. But making it a reality was far from smooth sailing.

            The nearly three-year struggle to stage the live event would make a riveting documentary of its own. Along the way, there were approvals and rejections, high hopes and disappointments, promises made and broken.  Given the state policy against the release of concert films and albums recorded inside California prisons, getting a green light would require the help of powerful political leaders – former Congressman Howard Berman, then-Secretary of State and now U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, and the offices of two California Governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom.

            The relentless driving force behind the effort has been Zach Horowitz, former President & COO of Universal Music, who partnered with Los Tigres to produce the project. Oscar-winning film composer and 18-time Latin Grammy winner Gustavo Santaolalla, a legend in his own right, was tapped as music producer and offered creative advice along the way. He and his longtime partner Anibal Kerpel, the album’s co-producer, were ensconced in a cramped remote studio truck at Folsom, with so many cables, dials, and gauges it resembled a space capsule.

            To bring the project to fruition, Horowitz found a key ally in state prison chief Ralph Diaz, who retired last year as Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, then the highest-ranking Latino in the agency’s history. Diaz also happens to be a lifelong Tigres fan, ever since he was a boy at his grandmother’s side, growing up in the San Joaquin Valley.

            Rehabilitation is the key that unlocked Diaz’s cooperation. It’s a priority for the prisons, and completely compatible with the message of Los Tigres.

            “The band came to us with a unique proposal. They didn’t want to just play a concert; they wanted to hear from the inmate population and send a specific message through their music,” Diaz said in an interview for a state newsletter. “While this concert could have only been about entertainment value, it became clear that their message of hope and rehabilitation was in line with ours.”

            Halfway through the set, the band invited one of the Folsom inmates, Manuel Mena, on stage to sing and play accordion with them. He’s a former professional musician serving a 36-year to life sentence for killing a man in a dispute after one of his shows.  It’s a highly emotional moment, not just for Mena, but for the band and everyone in the audience. The song he sings with the band is “Un Día a la Vez,” a plaintive cry for divine help to survive this malevolent world, “one day at a time.”

            The sight of a fellow convict on stage with these superstars sparked a cheer from the men, gazing up at the stage from the recreation yard. In this often-hostile environment where prisoners learn to watch their backs or perish, the men seemed to let down their guard and celebrate a special moment for one of their own.   

            "We are the forgotten of society," says Mena, who was born in Tijuana. "And to have the privilege of experiencing something like this? Well, it means we haven't been completely forgotten. It means there's someone who remembers us, someone who gives us the strength to keep going, the strength to keep moving forward."       


            – Agustín Gurza




Artist Biography: Los Tigres del Norte

The four brothers who make up Los Tigres del Norte, the world’s premier Mexican norteño band, have been playing corridos since they  were boys growing up in Mexico. In keeping with the music’s oral tradition, they learned their first songs from older musicians in their hometown, a tiny rural hamlet with the poetic name Rosa Morada, the Purple Rose, in Sinaloa state. The Hernández boys had no sheet music, no songbooks, no albums or tapes to guide their instruction in this rustic folk genre. In fact, they didn’t even have access to a radio in their rancho. It was the 1960s, and the brothers – Hernán, Luis, Jorge and Eduardo – were starting to perform informally as a local group. They could not have dreamed that they would eventually become known throughout the world as one of the most enduring, beloved, and critically respected bands in the Mexican norteño genre. Their story is one of struggle, family devotion, charmed choices and an unwavering commitment to a musical vision.

           Los Tigres’ hometown is no more than a cluster of homes surrounded by farmlands, near the city of Mocorito in northwestern Mexico. Its fame today is due entirely to its most successful native sons, who left over 40 years ago. Their parents were campesinos, small farmers who worked the land with ox-drawn ploughs. Jorge, the eldest son, born in 1954, still recalls one of the biggest events in the life of his little town—the day his grandmother brought home a Philco radio. It was the only electronic contraption of its kind in town, and nobody was sure it would even work, considering the area’s hilly terrain. Amid the static, it managed to pull in just one radio signal – a 150,000-watt powerhouse from Harlingen, Texas, which played pure norteño music, “música de acordeón.” That’s when the eldest brother heard the music of major norteño artists for the first time, groups like Freddie Gómez, Los Donneños, and Los Dos Gilbertos, who were already making waves across the border, who were known only in the United States at the time.

          During fiestas in the brothers’ hometown, people set up an old Victrola with a bullhorn for a speaker hung from a post and turned it up full blast. At those parties they were introduced to other big-name norteño acts such as Los Alegres de Terán, as well as national mariachi stars such as Pedro Infante. Aside from commercial music, they picked up on oral traditions from the older men of their town who taught the boys old corridos about bandits and rebels, horses and heroes. They memorized verse after verse about historic and folkloric figures such as Gabino Barrera, Lucio Vasquez, Rosita Alvirez, and Pancho Villa. “They knew them all, start to finish, and they knew them by heart,” recalls Jorge . “We would just sing them that way and we didn’t know if we were right or wrong, because we had no record or documentation to say this is the original. Later, when I came to read the lyrics of these corridos, they coincided with the lyrics they had taught us.”

          Jorge always thought of being a professional singer. He aspired to communicate through his music, “to convey to people our history, our way of life, how we act and who we are.” He yearned to let the world know that what they played was more than just cheap beer-joint music—“música de cantina”—that people with good taste looked down on. “When we started to sing this kind of music, everybody said we were crazy. The more they stubbornly stuck to the negative idea that what we believed in wasn’t possible, the more I was determined to show just the opposite, with deeds.”

          When the elder Hernández was not yet twelve, a tragic accident ironically became the catalyst for the launch of their musical career. In 1966, his father suffered a serious back injury that left him unable to walk. To raise money for his medical care, Jorge and his brothers decided to take their act on the road. As a band, they still didn’t have a name. They were known around town simply as the Hernández boys – “los hijos de Lalo y Consuelo” – called to play at parties. With the family in a bind, they decided to go out and look for regular work every night, in addition to their day jobs. “So we made a kind of pact among brothers to support our father,” says Jorge.

          Soon, they were in demand as far away as Los Mochis, the coastal city where the elder brother had gone to study to be a teacher. They played a regular gig at a restaurant, singing at tables for tips. But still they were the band with no name. “People sort of called us whatever they wanted,” says Hernández. “Los Norteñitos de Chihuahua. Los Alegres de Rosa Morada. Wherever they wanted us to be from, that’s what they called us.”

          Pressed to earn even more money for their father’s medical bills, they decided to move to the border town of Mexicali, where they hit the city’s busy bar and restaurant circuit. Here, to their amazement, they could draw a dollar a song. They got so busy they even took on a manager and acquired a van so they could work venues all across town from noon to dawn. It was here in Mexicali that they caught the break that would change their lives, and the future of norteño music forever.

           In order to send money home, Jorge made regular visits to the telegraph office in Mexicali. By chance, the telegraph worker who handled his business also happened to book acts for state-sponsored fairs all across Baja, California. One day the man told Hernández of an opportunity for his band to perform in the United States. A promoter in San Jose, California, had put the word out that state authorities were looking for Spanish-language acts to entertain Mexican inmates at the prison in Soledad. The gig did not pay, but it would give the boys exposure. And with a 90-day visa, they could stay and look for additional gigs in the area. The Hernández brothers jumped at the chance. They were hired as part of a caravan of artists brought in for the prison show.

          While filling out their visa papers, a U.S. immigration agent asked what the group called itself, but the boys still didn’t have a name. “Put down whatever you want,” Hernández told him. So the border bureaucrat came up with a name on the spot. In America, he said, boys who exhibit a go-get-’em spunk are often affectionately nicknamed “little tigers.” And since they were headed north, the agent dubbed them the Little Tigers of the North. But on second thought, he eliminated the diminutive so they wouldn’t outgrow the name—should the band remain together, that is.

          “He was the one who christened us,” says Hernández. “So when we arrived at Soledad and had to introduce ourselves, I said, ‘Tell them that we are Los Tigres del Norte.’ ”

          After the prison performance, the promoter brought the group to San Jose, which has been their base ever since. The city had a growing Mexican-American community at the time, and it planned to celebrate its very first official Mexican Independence Day the following month, on September 16, 1967. The band was hired for the event and the plan seemed to be working fine. But soon, says Hernández, they discovered that the other artists from their prison caravan had vanished, presumably back to Mexico. Also missing: Los Tigres’ passports. But being stranded turned out to be another lucky break: The band started working every Sunday at a spot on the Eastside of town called Paseo de las Flores. It was a popular open-air venue that people nicknamed “El Hoyo,” the Hole, because it was sunken between railroad tracks and the creek. For a time, the band lived in the promoter’s home behind his Mexican store, La Internacional, on Alum Rock Avenue. They made the rounds of bars and restaurants, still passing the hat. They also did live radio shows on KOFY (referred to as Radio “Coffee”), the only Mexican station at the time.

          At one of their early shows, a photographer named Richard Diaz approached the band with word about a British-born record distributor who wanted to meet them. His name was Art Walker, and he would become the first person to put the music of Los Tigres on record. At first, remembers Hernández, they couldn’t even communicate, because Walker didn’t speak Spanish and the Tigres hadn’t yet learned English. Fortunately, Walker’s wife was bilingual and served as an interpreter, thus laying the groundwork for what turned out to be one of the most successful relationships in the history of the Mexican music business. Walker (later nicknamed “Arturo Caminante” ) took the group to Fresno that fall to make their inaugural recording, a single titled “De un Rancho a Otro.”

          The band was far from an overnight success.  It took three years before they had their first big hit, “Contrabando y Traición,” about a drug-smuggling couple whose exploits end in betrayal and murder. Indeed, the song that launched their career helped create the controversial subgenre known today as narcocorridos. That was followed in 1973 by “La Banda del Carro Rojo,” another narcocorrido about a drug-smuggling gang in a red car. Soon, Hernández would realize his goal of bringing his music to an international audience. The big breakthrough came when Los Tigres  began to star in Mexican films alongside top performers of the day, such as David Reynoso and Lucha Villa.

          “And that’s the moment when it all changed for us,” says Hernández. “When people saw us on the screen along with these accomplished and revered artists, they started looking at us with different eyes. The whole panorama changed.” 

          In all, Los Tigres recorded eight albums over 16 years for Walker’s company, Fama Records, helping make it one of the most important Mexican labels on the West Coast in the 1970s. Yet, unbelievably, Hernández says the band was never paid a penny for those records. They made their money from the live concerts, but the label never paid royalties. “Out of gratitude to Arturo, there were never any payments or any of that,” recalls Hernández. “Instead, I recorded with him because we were friends … and Arturo always behaved like a gentleman with me.”

          Eventually, disagreements led the band to seek release from its contract, which in turn led to a lawsuit. Yet again, the band’s problems would become their good fortune. The judge ruled in the band’s favor, says Hernández, giving the group all rights to their songs as well as ownership of their recorded masters, rights which normally stayed with record companies even after artists left their rosters. That old catalog became something of a musical 401K for the group, which retains the rights to this day.

          Los Tigres went on to record for Fonovisa, part of the Televisa empire, and broadened its popularity internationally. They have toured Latin America, Europe, and Asia, making them the first global norteño band in history.  By the time the band celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008, they had recorded more than 500 songs on 60 albums, starred in over a dozen films, scored multiple Grammys and sold over 35 million units worldwide. (The Frontera Collection currently contains 145 recordings by Los Tigres, including many of those early Fama tracks.) In 2003 the group performed at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and four years later won the Latin Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 Los Tigres broke another barrier by becoming the first regional Mexican act to be featured in the popular recorded concert series MTV Unplugged. Last year, Los Tigres became the first norteño band to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

          From the very start, Los Tigres have always considered themselves storytellers, like travelling troubadours of old whose songs simply recounted the daily lives and struggles of common people. The corridos they sang were in the best tradition of the genre as journalism put to music, chronicling the exploits of villains and heroes who predated the Mexican Revolution.

          “For more than 30 years they have lifted up a music once looked down on for its lower-class roots, making norteño a commercially viable pop music,” wrote music critic Chuy Varela in a 2005 feature story for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Yet there is a higher sense of purpose to what they do. Los Tigres give strength to people who feel marginalized and under attack in these days of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.” 

          Perhaps the band’s most enduring cultural accomplishment has been its support for the Strachwitz Frontera Collection at UCLA, starting with a $500,000 donation made in 2000 for the digital preservation and promotion of the music. It was the band’s own thirst for knowledge that led to the massive UCLA project. They had been looking for an authoritative source to provide the musical history that the genre had always been missing. “We read books, but every author had his own version of the story, and they were all different,” says Hernández. “We wanted to know more and we wanted the real history of the corrido.” 

          The group’s grant to the university was the first of its kind from a community-based source, helping establish the largest library archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music in the world. Hernández hopes that future generations will also use the Frontera Collection to learn about their cultural history and traditions.

          The archives provide in an instant what Los Tigres took a lifetime to discover.  “Ours is a group which, like the music itself, came here and has had to work hard to be recognized and acknowledged,” says Hernández.  “We didn’t have the technology that exists today. We had to go from rancho to rancho, village to village, city to city, country to country. In other words, we did it all by hand.”

--Agustín Gurza



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