Ariel Camacho: A Mexican singer, made history earlier this year with a tune about cartels, firearms, and murder. However, by the time the song reached number one, 22-year-old had passed away. Josh Langhoff distinguishes between reality and fiction while delving into the mystery.
Six different songs have topped Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart thus far this year. Five of them included renowned stars such as Enrique Iglesias singing about love or dancing, but the sixth was unique. Corridos are like “current news reports—a Mexican counterpart of Chuck D’s depiction of rap as black America’s CNN,” according to Salon’s Alexander Zaitchik. They’re part of Mexico’s century-old ballad tradition of everyday heroes confronting extraordinary circumstances. Corridos have mostly given way to narcocorridos, tale songs lauding the exploits of criminal kingpins and their employees, as Mexican drug gangs have grown in power over the last few decades. However, no narcocorrido had topped the Hot Latin chart before last March.
Then there was “El Karma.” The song’s eight short Spanish stanzas depict a tightly coiled plot and are credited exclusively to a mysterious songwriter named El Diez. After relocating to a prominent cartel hotspot, our narrator begins making money in the trafficking game. Someone is envious of his wealth. They kidnap his girls and demand a payment in exchange for their release. Rather than paying, the father uses his rifle to “collect the loan,” but his Browning is no match for the kidnappers’ Remington R15s. The moral of the narrative comes from beyond the grave: Karma comes and goes, but no one can avoid the reaper.
Ariel Camacho: As if to emphasise this point, the song’s lead singer
Camacho establishes himself in a dangerous realm between between fact and fiction with the song’s first lines: “I was born in hot water, then I got to Culiacán.” The mythical Culiacán, on the other hand, isn’t where you go to get out of hot water—where it’s you go when other solutions aren’t working or hot water feels like home.
Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa state and the cradle of legends and the Sinaloa Cartel. The prominent narcocorrido singer/songwriter Chalino Sánchez originated from its semi-arid terrain, as did note drug lord and prison escape artist “El Chapo” Guzmán—although Sánchez relocated to Los Angeles when he found himself in hot trouble after shooting the man who had raped his sister. Sánchez returned to his hometown in 1992 to do a concert. The next day, he was discovered shot twice in the back of the head beside a ditch.
Camacho, like Sánchez, died in the middle of the night after performing in Sinaloa. He was not, however, shot. Camacho and four pals piled into a 1994 Honda Accord, which was nearly as old as its occupants, after spontaneously stepping onstage with the brass band Clave Azul to sing “El Karma” at the Carnaval Mocorito, a large fair less than an hour from his house. Around 3 a.m. on February 25, police received a distress call: the Accord was speeding and the driver lost control, killing Camacho, as well as Julio Valverde, a 24-year-old college student, and Melina Durán, 22, who left behind a little kid.
Suspicions persisted despite the lack of evidence that the occurrence was anything more than an accident. Following Camacho’s death, award-winning journalist Sam Quinones, who penned the definitive study on Chalino’s legacy, tweeted two inconvenient facts: “Dangerous job, singing drug songs… Ariel Camacho, a singer for the #narcocorrido, has died.” He went on to suggest Camacho was part of a style of “menacing narco singers” known as the Movimiento Alterado, which thrilled a lot of gringos early this decade, and linked to a blog post that listed numerous other musicians who had died of unnatural circumstances. Everyone from Fox News to the documentary Narco Cultura wrung their hands over it, prompting OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano to issue a refreshingly frank rebuke: “Yes, Mexican Music Is Violent.” “It’s Over.”
Quinones responded via email when I contacted him about his blog post, saying that Camacho’s “altered” narcocorridos, some of which glorify strong cartel individuals by name, are “a distortion of the corrido’s original aim,” which is to celebrate underdogs. “I don’t infer Ariel Camacho was slain because he was a narcocorrido singer,” he said on the singer’s death. I just state that it is a hazardous occupation. … Touring based on these corridos has proven to be risky over the last decade and more, especially as the Mexican drug world has developed and become more blatant.”
Quinones’ original message on February 27 was published just hours later, and news from Mexico confirmed his suspicions. On March 15, 20-year-old Rogelio Contreras Rivera was playing timbales with his dance band in Monterrey when several men climbed onstage, kidnapped him, and murdered him outside; and a week later, the 23-year-old narco singer Javier Rosas was riding past a Culiacán mall when assailants fired AK-47s at his SUV, critically injuring Rosas and killing two of his
Even in this toxic environment, though, it’s difficult to reconcile the image of a “menacing narcosinger” with anything known personally or publicly about Ariel Camacho. “He was a highly gifted but quiet individual, always kept to himself—quite smiling, very positive guy,” says Steve Weatherby, Vice President of DEL Records, which published Camacho’s CD El Karma last year. About course, the fact that Camacho’s label talks glowingly of him, as well as a difference between private life and public image, should come as no surprise, given that many narco singers live in genteel suburbia.
Camacho’s public persona, on the other hand, defies the narco stereotype: “Entre Platicas y Dudas,” one of his horrific narcocorrido videos, depicts a calm, unsmiling young man with a permanent squint and a keening voice, as if he’s staring into the distance to find his storey. Camacho analyses his instrument as if it were a puzzle in the video, his intricate requinto solos substituting the effervescent gritos and shoutouts of other, more convivial corridors. It all seems to support the singer’s carefully constructed image of calm solemnity; he wasn’t your average narcosinger, and “El Karma” wasn’t your average narcocorrido.
According to Billboard, “El Karma” was the first song in a “traditional” Mexican style to reach #1 in five years when it charted in March. Even in the context of traditional Mexican music, though, “El Karma” is the oddest thing on the planet. The instrumentation used in the song was unprecedented for a successful song. Camacho’s highly-tuned requinto guitar swaps flamboyant gestures with the tuba, which is raised from its typical duty in the bass to a lead instrument, all triple-tongues and synchronized shoves up the scale, while the other guitar maintains a leisurely waltz strum.
Camacho and his band, Los Plebes del Rancho, used rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and lead tuba on the song, which may seem “traditional” to El Norte ears, but the combination is a relatively recent innovation in Mexico. The particular style, according to Elijah Wald, author of Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, originated as a novelty roughly 15 years ago and has since managed to stick around.
Why did that strange sound ultimately reach the top of the charts? Without a doubt, the death bump helped—”El Karma” had peaked at #16 the month before Camacho died, and you wouldn’t be reading this if it hadn’t been streamed to death after his accident. It also scaled the chart during a sluggish week, with lesser radio audiences and fewer downloads than its rival #1s. Even yet, this murder ballad with two main instruments—one of which is a tuba—had amassed a remarkably large following during much of 2014 and the early weeks of 2015.
“I listen to a lot of songs in that genre, and when a new group comes out, it’s really uncommon that they stand out,” says Manuel Martinez-Luna, 31, of New York City, who works for Sony Music’s The Orchard division and creates regional Mexican compilations. “However, when I heard ‘El Karma,’ I thought to myself, ‘Somebody thought about the lyrics and arrangement.'” “It sounds better since most of the groups play the same way, and Ariel Camacho plays his style,” says Juan Carlos Ramirez, a 25-year-old who lives and works mixing chemicals in the Chicago suburbs.
Los Plebes’ ominously dark, tuba-fied rendition of “El Karma” may be the canonical version, but it’s far from the only one; other renditions of the song highlight Los Plebes’ originality while pushing the original lyric in new and varied directions. The second greatest “El Karma,” released in June 2014, has a fierce duet between accordion hotshot Noel Torres and the quintet Voz de Mando, and plays like the movie Taken, but without the possibility of sequels. Torres’ defiant stance, on the other hand, is an outlier. Other minor norteo ensembles cover “El Karma” with a merry but distracted tone, as if to suggest, “This is only one horrible tale from our repertory.” With their triumphal brass and suave clarinets, the banda renditions sound joyful but inebriated. Camacho himself was drawn into one of these remakes with Banda Culiacáncito, which resulted in his slipping into vibrato crooning at the song’s conclusion: You can see him winking at a lovely girl in the front row.
No one hears “El Karma” the same way, just as no one agrees on Camacho’s place in the corrido world. Is it a rebellious personal drama about a father’s love for his daughters or a cautionary parable about the cosmic hazards of joining a cartel? Is it going to follow the Alterado playbook and relish in shooting and gore after building to its last, violent showdown? Is the ending a critique of the narrator’s harsh circumstances, or is it something else entirely? Perhaps it’s just a fatalistic retelling of Don DeLillo’s adage, “All storylines tend to move deathward.” Yes, a skilled songwriter can condense all of these options into eight stanzas, but so can a novice. What better summarization than the last line El Diez handed Camacho to sing, the last line Camacho sung onstage: Nobody can escape the reaper.
So, which version of “El Karma” was intended by songwriter El Diez? You’d have to ask him, albeit he’s a little difficult to find.
According to BMI’s database, “El Karma” was written by Priscilla Ruby Rocha, suggesting the intriguing possibility that the composer of this immensely popular narcocorrido is a woman. However, this is not the case. El Diez is a man named Diego, according to both Weatherby and Jennifer Bull, Senior Marketing Manager at Sony Latin, and Priscilla Rocha is a relative who receives his earnings, according to Weatherby. “DEL Melodies, one of many publishers that hold music written by El Diez, appears to have no functioning phone lines for Priscilla Rocha or Diego,” Weatherby adds.
Narcocorridos credited elsewhere to Diego Rocha and Diego Avendao can be found in Priscilla Rocha’s BMI library, but El Diez gets public credit for the rest—a bloody lot that comprises, for example, much of the band Otro Nivel’s 2013 album Prendiendo El Motor, meaning Turning on the Motor. The title track opens with a chainsaw powering up and on to describe a horrible storey of evisceration and dismemberment. El Diez is one of those people that displays rather than tells.
Even if you had El Diez’s phone number, you wouldn’t be able to settle all of his songs’ potential. Mishearings and personal obsessions forever change the path from the author’s pen to the listener’s mind. Take, for example, the composer’s most recent song, “No Andan Cazando Venados,” a small radio smash for Noel Torres. It’s a homage to Rafael Caro Quintero, a 63-year-old fugitive who was once one of Mexico’s biggest drug lords. (El Diez compares him to a beast stalking the Sierra’s edge, hence the song’s ominous title, “Don’t Go Hunting Deer.”) Torres adds some complicated requinto/tuba interplay to the song’s banda arrangement, creating a bright yet mournful impact. “I’m sorry—with all due respect to Ariel Camacho, how can you make a tribute to someone who had one song on the radio?” Gabriela Lopez, Torres’ label’s Head of Marketing and PR, says when I suggest the requinto might be paying homage to Camacho’s approach.
Now he has two of them. Camacho’s wonderfully crafted love plea “Te Metiste” reached #2 on Billboard’s Hot Latin chart in August. “Te Metiste” was temporarily the most popular song on regional Mexican radio, where it conjured up images of “El Karma”—a song that continues to entice listeners by casting a jaundiced eye on anyone attempting to avoid a spectre of death that shows no favouritism.