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Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World by Alejandro
L. Madrid

Article  in  World of Music · January 2009

DOI: 10.2307/41699873


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Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World.
Madrid, Alejandro L.- Oxford University Press. Oxford, 2008. 254 pp.

Book review in: Asensio Llamas, Susana (2009)

“Review on A. L. Madrid’s Nor-Tec Rifa! (2008)”
The World of Music, 51 (1), pp. 154-156

Emerging from Tijuana, where the story told by this book has its origin, the
metaphor and practice of the border life offers us one of its most singular and dynamic
cultural movements. Alejandro L. Madrid uncovers the network of people and spaces
that nurture the musical, cultural and artistic movement known under the name of
Nor-tec. That was a “collective” of people working in music, design, and culture in
general, but with a special focus in Electronic Dance Music, that gathered their
expressions and sources of inspiration together under the label of “Nor-tec”, norteño
tecno – “Nortec” from now on.

Throughout the pages of this book, the reader will perceive the enthusiasm
that fosters the author’s curiosity in his research. He drives us through a complex
world that carried out a new image of Tijuana to the most select scenarios worldwide,
in the international scene of Electronic Dance Music. As the author suggests in the
introduction, the Nortec collective expressed a “desire for otherness of the global
music industry” (p. 31), but they did it in the most personal way, with parodies of the
most negative stereotypes of Tijuana.

This enthusiasm is transmitted since the tour begins with the introduction of
the contents that unfold the Nortec phenomenon: from the border experience to the
post-national spirit, from the nostalgia revisited to the electronic dance music scene.
Those mixed elements collide together drawing a complex panorama that appeals to
varied local, national, post-national, and international feelings and desires in
continuous renegotiation. For that reason, the book also follows different “legends”
about the beginnings of Nortec, different points of view from its members, their ways
of exploiting the progressive international interest, and the new alliances and
individualities that the phenomenon created along its development.

Accompanying the facts and the names, the stories and their role as
inspirational myths, the world constructed around Nortec, the text benefices itself of
insightful analysis from musicology, anthropology, or ethnomusicology. Other analysis
of audiences and their geographies, of politics and their relationships to society and
culture, enrich the panorama, giving the reader the necessary data to draw the
complex implications of this phenomenon, from tradition to nostalgia, from music to
politics, and from Tijuana to the world.

The book is edited soberly, with black and white photographs of the people,
public and artists, some creations by Nortec designers, and additional data – maps,
music examples, etc. I must note that personally missed some more graphic designs
from other artists, as they have formed an integral part of every performance of the
collective, individually or in groups. And because in some cases, as it happens with
Angeles Moreno and other people in Spain, they have been fundamental to introduce
in the country the curiosity for the music and the whole performance event1. These
designs are already edited by different catalogues and books, such as the reference of
Valenzuela (2004), also quoted by the author.

The book-catalogue Paso del Nortec. This is Tijuana!, by José Manuel

Valenzuela (2004), complements the analysis of Madrid with the graphic sources that
do not appear in his book. Valenzuela’s is a bilingual English-Spanish edition, nicely
edited in full color, with a complete catalogue of visual production. It also has
contributions of several people from Nortec or involved with the movement since the
beginning of their tracks, designs and performances reached significant audiences.
Memorable quotes of this catalogue of sources such are most times self-explanatory,
but agreed to by most people of Nortec. An example could be: “The almost total lack
of lyrics in the Nortec collectives’ music means that iconography becomes their voice;
they try to explain with images everything that the music does not say in words” (by
Rafa Saavedra, no page.) It may be an extreme point of view, but just take a note

In 2005, some members of the Nortec collective were invited, together with other Mexican artists, to
ARCO, the most important Art Fair in Spain. It takes place in Madrid, and parallel to this, other
exhibitions and performances involving Nortec members took place in different cities of the country.

about the many exhibitions of graphic designs that precluded the music for
international audiences2.

This catalogue lacks, however, of many of the points of view that Madrid
incorporates in his book, from the post-national approach, to the musicological focus
on tradition and modernity. It is the academic counterpoint to the visual display
already made by Valenzuela. The chapter devoted to “Nor-tec and the post-national
imagination” (p. 189-204) is, whether the reader agrees with the author’s opinion or
not, an original approach. It may seem in occasions that it frames some of the facts in
larger national and international processes that happen parallel but do not necessary
affect artistic developments. In spite of this, it is true, as Madrid shows in many
different occasions, that these situations normally feed the post-facts descriptions and
analysis made by academics and journalists informed, as everything in Nortec seems to
have many and complex implications and a driving to mythology.

The socio-economic characteristics of Tijuana are also integral part of the book,
appearing in many corners of the text, maybe in detriment of the internationally
constructed myths of some Nortec collectives’ members. By this, I mean that some
artists did construct diverse explanations for their creations in national and
international arena, for the points of reference were different as well, and the
knowledge of the Mexican diversity and richness is still scarce in many of the places
conquered by their music and designs. The wide approach taken by the author gets
additional value with the analysis of diverse international receptions of Nortec, well
documented on many different sources, although neglecting somehow the connection
with some countries such as Germany or Spain, where Nortec had succeed years ago,
and where they got important feedback for constructing their own representations3.

Although the book mentions many of them, I must note that some of them could have additional
importance, i.e., Barcelona, known as an important reference point in graphic design in Europe, where
the designs created by Nortec were welcomed unanimously, may be an example of the impact that
these designs had in cosmopolitan public and audiences.
Examples of sources not quoted in the book could be some catalogues of exhibitions all around the
world, as well as performances significant for the local institutions involved, because sometimes state
and regional governments stress alternatively the international or the local distinctive side of the
productions, depending on local politics of reception.

Finally, the fifty pages devoted to bibliography (including magazines,
newspapers or internet sites), discography, notes and index, give a complete
panorama of the different backgrounds explored by Madrid in his challenge to explain
the phenomenon. Curiously, the book came out in 2008. In January that year, Nortec
members announced through newspapers and web pages that they had decided to
continue individually their careers. That is the paradox of the phenomenon: the
international success was assimilated and integrated by different individuals in such
distinct ways, that the initial unity finally exploded in a myriad of personal productions
and stories – and representations, and myths.

The development of each individual career is still unknown for us, but a
significant approach to understanding their past, their origins and developments
through ten years of Nortec collective, is skillfully made by Alejandro L. Madrid in this
book, fundamental for all people interested in Mexican music and/or electronic dance

References quoted

Valenzuela, José Manuel (2004): Paso del Nortec. This is Tijuana! Mexico City, Mexico:

Susana Asensio Llamas – CSIC, Spain

Short bio S. Asensio Llamas

She got her Ph.D. in Barcelona in 1997 with a research on Emigration and Music and
has been professor at Columbia University and New York University. Since 2004, she
works in Madrid at the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council). Most of her
publications deal with the hybrid space created between culture and politics.

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