I've loved Mexican singer Juan Cirerol's music since the first time I heard it. But I didn't fully understand it until I traveled to his native Mexicali on an assignment for NPR.
Mexicali is an infernally hot town on the border. It's as traditionally northern Mexican as it gets, complete with white flour tortillas (typical of the north) and de nortena music blasting from the passing camiones. But it also is drenched with the cultural trickle-down of its upstairs neighbor: Calexico, Calif. You hear as much English-language country music on the radio as you do banda. Cirerol told me that, as a music-hungry kid growing up in Mexicali, he lapped up that American country music — particularly his grandfather's favorite, Johnny Cash.
Mexicali is a town where people pass through like whispers in the night, like secrets shared between Mexico and the U.S. It's a town filled with folks trying to head north and people making their way back south, as well as others trying to figure out where on earth to go next. At some point, Cirerol also decided to be on his way. As he tells it, he disliked his stepfather and took up a nomadic rock 'n' roll life, wandering through Mexico and playing his music.
This may or may not be true: Cirerol has a reputation for being a wild child, and for taking pleasure in weaving tall tales for reporters. Here's what I know for sure: The young man from Mexicali is brilliant. His music is a perfect syncretism of the American southwest and the Mexican north.
I'd always been captivated by Cirerol's recordings, but never had a chance to see him play live. Although he resides permanently in Mexico City, he's a nomad within the concrete jungle, and as such can be hard to pin down. We searched for a few days before heading over to his house in one final attempt. It was a cool afternoon in the city, and Cirerol invited us in to treat us to a performance.
You can tell he's no Chilango (Mexico City native) just by looking at his very northern cowboy attire. And he seems to enjoy that — living in Mexico City, but missing Mexicali. He told me that being in the capital makes him yearn for his hometown, and inspires him to write about it.
If Cirerol's albums are good, his live stuff is what legends are made of. He becomes almost possessed when he performs. The kid who was speaking to you minutes earlier on the couch is no longer there, and there's something almost supernatural about the way he wails, the velocity at which he paws at his guitar strings, the force with which he huffs and puffs into his harmonica, and the amount of sweat he sheds. It makes you think he's going to evaporate mid-performance. He's like a Mexicali summer day.
Producers: Jasmine Garsd, Mito Habe-Evans, Diana Oliva Cave; Audio Engineer: Omar Morales; Editor: Mito Habe-Evans; Supervising Producer: Jessica Goldstein; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann, Mark Lima