'Twelve Heads': A Mexican Murder Ballad

The Krayolas Page

The Krayolas, founded in the late 1970s, won the buzz of a South by Southwest crowd for "Twelve Heads in a Bag." Al Rendon hide caption

itoggle caption Al Rendon

President Obama's recent visit to Mexico forms part of a federal effort to aid the country in its vicious drug war. For residents of San Antonio, Texas, Mexican drug violence has long made local headlines.

A San Antonio band called The Krayolas has recorded a song about some of the terrible casualties. Lead singer Hector Saldana was inspired to write "Twelve Heads in a Bag" after reading about a grisly retaliation against the Mexican government's war on drugs. Gangsters dumped a plastic bag filled with human heads near a mall in southern Mexico.

"They had no bodies. They had no ID," Saldana says. "They could not be identified. Some, they figured, were soldiers because of the short haircuts that they had. They had a note on the bag that said, "For every one you take, we'll take 10.' "

The song is on The Krayolas' new album, Long Leaf Pine. Saldana says he wrote it originally as a folk-rock tune. But it came out like a corrido.

"A corrido is like the blues is in the American idiom — it has a certain sound," Saldana says, adding that it also features recurring themes of "political implications: murder, usually, drugs."

"Twelve Heads in a Bag" mixes Spanish and English, Mexican conjunto music, rock and traditional folk. "Twelve heads in a bag / Left on the side of the road / Found in a country / God no longer knows," Saldana sings.

A Known Quantity

Saldana covers music for the San Antonio Express-News. He and his brother founded The Krayolas as teenagers in the 1970s. They've scored a few regional hits, making them a known quantity at last month's South by Southwest music festival.

The Krayolas performed at a showcase hosted by Little Steven Van Zandt, best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen and the HBO series The Sopranos. Now, Van Zandt plays The Krayolas on his New York-based satellite radio show.

"Oh, we love them, you know," he says. "We're probably the only ones in the country playing them, and we play them in heavy rotation."

Up until now, The Krayolas' members have been mostly known for boppy garage rock. But Saldana says he had to create a response to the staggering number of drug murders — more than 6,000 since last year.

"I hate to say it, but you almost get numb to it," he says. "You read these stories all the time. And the details are there in these news accounts, and it was on my mind, and it actually became a song. And my mother actually saw me writing these words down — I was at her house — and she was saying, 'That's so gruesome. Don't write about that.' "

But Saldana says the lyrics just poured out of him.

"Twelve heads in a bag / Screaming out what did you do / Wrapped up like garbage / Be thankful it ain't you," he sings. "Found a few in Chiapas / Down in Juarez, too / Where the girls lost are faceless / And the killers wear no shoes."

Hector Saldana and his family are Mexican, but they've lived in the U.S. for generations. As a kid, Saldana used to visit relatives in small Mexican towns that he says were once boring. Now, they look and feel like war zones. He hopes that someday, they'll be boring again.

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