Theme and word analysis in the contemporary corrido (Mexican Ballad)
Summer 2018 Seed Grant Funding Report
Report submitted by Miguel A. Cabañas and Mary Ann Lugo
Thanks to the support of Digital Humanities at MSU, our Theme and Word Analysis of the Corrido initiative has evolved from a proposal to a collaborative, textual-analysis project exploring violent themes in the contemporary corrido and narco-corrido from the 1960s to the present.
In the past six months, we have assembled a project team, narrowed the scope of our inquiry, and begun designing a research strategy for our theme and word analysis of the corrido. The project got off the ground in May of this year with just three initial members, a faculty advisor and scholar of Latin American and Chicano/Latino studies, Prof. Miguel Cabañas, and two doctoral students in Hispanic Studies, José Badillo Carlos and Mary Ann Lugo. Early on we sought the advice of Kristen Mapes, who guided us through the process of setting up a team that includes Cabañas as the principal investigator, Lugo as the project manager, MSU librarian Devin Higgins as our DH programmer and text-analysis advisor, and Badillo-Carlos as a corrido specialist. As our project evolved, we realized we needed expertise in statistical analysis and research design, and therefore invited Prof. Valentina Bali from the Political Science Department at MSU to join our team.
Our work began with asking some foundational questions: What corpus of corridos would we include in our analysis? What criteria would delimit the corridos included in the study? Are there existing archives of corridos that we could mine for such work? How would we digitize the lyrics for these songs? What would be the focus of our study? For instance: would we conduct our study on contemporary corridos or historical ones? Or both? Would we trace the evolution of words and themes in genre across time? Would we focus on the most influential corridos or try to choose a random, representative sample?
Initially, we hoped to create the corpus of corridos for our analysis based on the holdings of the Strachwitz Frontera Archive, the largest extant, digitized collection of Mexican and Mexican-American recordings (http://frontera.library.ucla.edu/). Over the summer we contacted the archive to gain access and learn more about its scope. Working with Devin Higgins, we discovered that the archive includes 10,000 corrido recordings from the 1800s to the 1980s with metadata specifying artists, song titles, genre, recording label, and catalogue numbers for each recording. The process helped us discover some of the archive’s limitations for the purposes of our study: no song lyrics are included and the quality of the recordings will not allow for machine transcriptions. Furthermore, the corridos in the archive are not explicitly dated. Therefore, if we use of the archive, one of our forthcoming tasks will be to locate and date corridos from the sixties onwards and then digitize their lyrics. Thanks to the MSU DH Summer Seed Grant, we have hired an assistant to digitize the corrido lyrics in print volumes that include many written since the sixties. For this task, we have also discussed making use of lyric aggregating sites like Genius.com.
To use the archive, we will also need tools to facilitate locating and dating its contemporary corridos. For example: Devin was able to link about 400 corrido artists in the archive with their MusicBrainz entries (MusicBrainz is an open music encyclopedia like Wikipedia). This process will yield wide date ranges for those artists and therefore for their corridos. We anticipate that we may have left-over Summer Seed Grant funds to pay our graduate assistant for about ten hours towards identifying and dating contemporary corridos in the archive.
Considering the limitations of the Frontera Archive, by the Fall our team questioned whether to refine our study to include mostly contemporary corridos since the lyrics for these are more readily accessible. After a number of discussions, we decided to focus on a question posed by Prof. Cabañas: Is the corrido today a significantly more violent genre now than in the past? How have themes related to violence evolved in the corrido since the 1960s? We arrived at this focus by considering the somewhat infamous reputation of contemporary narcocorridos that tell stories of drug-traffickers. Narcocorridos have anecdotally been labeled a darker, more violent offshoot of the genre, but Prof. Cabañas does not buy that narrative and hopes that a large-scale digital humanities study of corrido and narcocorrido lyrics will add some quantitative truth to the anecdotal perceptions. The analysis will be achieved by engaging in textual analysis of the lyrics and compiling data about the question.
Corridos have a long history of telling stories of heroes and outlaws. The corrido has been defined as a ballad that tells unofficial versions of history, often by the underdog, or those far from circles of power.  Corridos have been sung for nearly 200 years and have been described as an “epic-lyric” that since the nineteenth-century tell of heroes and outlaws in U.S.-Mexican border culture.  In the 1970s, narcocorridos started to appear and two decades later they had become a lucrative industry. Some of the most successful producers are Mexican-American artists in Los Angeles selling music to Hispanics in the United States and Mexico who have never met a drug trafficker let alone picked up an AK-47. Possibly because of their commercial success, narcocorridos have been the subject of public curiosity and debate. Narcocorridos became the subject of national debate during the Presidency of Felipe Calderón when violence related to drug trafficking in Mexico reached crisis levels. In Mexico, the genre was banned from certain radio stations, and in the U.S., newspapers published stories exploring the links between the fictional stories sung in the narcocorridos and actual violence inflicted by drug cartels. For example, in 2009, NPR published a story titled “Narcocorridos: Ballads of Mexican Cartels” telling of the murder of narcocorrido Mexican musicians who became too closely associated with the drug wars. In another example, in 2013, The Washington Post ran a story about the release of a documentary called Narco cultura (2013) produced by photo journalist Shaul Schwarz. The article describes Schwarz’s journey in which he ponders the relationship between the narcocorridos and Mexico’s actual violence. This sensationalist documentary features only one group to show how narcocorridos permeated a violent society.
No doubt media and political portrayals of narcocorridos have contributed to the perception that the corrido today contains previously unheard-of levels of violence. Yet, it is hard to know whether these perceptions are accurate or not without a more comprehensive study. For this reason, our analysis of corrido lyrics will focus on analyzing themes of violence in the genre at large.
Armed with this question, in the last month our team began designing a new research strategy. We first explored whether we could generate a list of thousands of contemporary (since the 1960s) corridos and narco-corridos to serve as the dataset for a random sampling of the genre. We surmised that the results of the random sample could yield a manageable list of corridos whose lyrics would be digitized and analyzed in a second phase of work in the Spring. For this task, we invited Prof. Valentina Bali from MSU’s Political Science Department and specialist in statistical analysis. Working with Prof. Bali, we discovered that creating a comprehensive list of contemporary corridos is a surprisingly complex endeavor, as the record labels and distribution channels for selling corridos are diverse. For example, the issue is complicated by the various forms of distribution in this industry ranging from CDs sold at Walmart to giant record companies distributing content online through well-known platforms like iTunes or Spotify. Furthermore, scholars of the corrido have tended to catalog older corridos (as in the Frontera Archive), but contemporary recordings have not been systematically catalogued in any one place.
Given the complexity of generating a comprehensive catalogue of contemporary corridos, we weighed the options for choosing a corpus for our analysis. Prof. Bali advised us to try a two-fold approach: 1) Conduct a pilot study of a few major performers who have been producing corridos for several decades. The pilot study will then trace the evolution of themes related to violence from the earlier parts of these artists’ careers to now. 2) At the same time, continue to research strategies for assembling a comprehensive a catalogue of the genre. This could serve later DH researchers and would also be a model for research with music genres.
At the moment, we have settled on conducting a pilot study with the following artists:
Los Tigres del Norte, Tucanes del Norte, Grupo Exterminador (Tijuana), and Huracanes. We plan on working on this for the next few months.
 Hernández, Guillermo.“What is a Corrido? Thematic Representation and Narrative Discourse,” in The Arhoolie Foundation’s Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings edited by Agustín Gurza. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2012. p.176