50 Years After Johnny Cash, Los Tigres Del Norte Perform At Folsom Prison The norteño band became the first major Latin band to play at Folsom Prison since Johnny Cash did in 1968.
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50 Years After Johnny Cash, Los Tigres Del Norte Perform At Folsom Prison

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50 Years After Johnny Cash, Los Tigres Del Norte Perform At Folsom Prison

50 Years After Johnny Cash, Los Tigres Del Norte Perform At Folsom Prison

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Inmates and staff at Folsom Prison are going to hear a legendary act tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: It's the second night that Los Tigres del Norte is playing at Folsom, the first major Latin act to ever do so. And in the back of their minds, they're thinking about the legendary act that played there 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY CASH: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CHANG: Folsom's inmate population has dramatically changed since that show. NPR's Felix Contreras was at the prison for last night's performance by Los Tigres.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: The spirit of Johnny Cash is everywhere on this gig.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get to keep that as a souvenir.

CONTRERAS: Los Tigres del Norte and its crew walk through the very same massive security gates...

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLICKING)

CONTRERAS: ...As did Cash and his musicians on a cloudy January morning in 1968.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Como estas?

CONTRERAS: Today the musicians' green room is in the prison's Greystone Chapel, immortalized in song on the 1968 album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREYSTONE CHAPEL")

CASH: (Singing) There's a greystone chapel here at Folsom, a house of worship in this den of sin.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CONTRERAS: And the magic number of 50 hangs in the air - 50 years since Cash's performance and 50 years since Los Tigres del Norte played its first gig in another prison.

JORGE HERNANDEZ: When we came to this country, the first performance that we did in this country was in a prison in Soledad, Calif.

CONTRERAS: Jorge Hernandez is the band's vocalist and plays accordion.

J. HERNANDEZ: It reminds us it's a blessing that we can accomplish to be here in Folsom, playing and celebrating our coming to this country, performing in a prison but also performing now in Folsom's prison.

CONTRERAS: Los Tigres del Norte have sold over 30 million albums, and their fans span generations of Mexican immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE SONG, "LA JAULA DE ORO")

CONTRERAS: Their stories are the subjects of the band's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA JAULA DE ORO")

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Two years ago, the musicians submitted a request to play at Folsom. When Johnny Cash performed here, the inmate population was predominantly white. Today it's mostly black and Latino. And a few months ago, the band finally got the blessing of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for this show.

RALPH DIAZ: When Johnny Cash first came in, it probably wasn't real popular by the staff or the warden at the time.

CONTRERAS: Ralph Diaz is the department's undersecretary of operations in Sacramento.

DIAZ: But in the end, he just wanted to let the population know there's a voice out there for you. I'm that voice.

CONTRERAS: Are you a Tigres fan?

DIAZ: Oh, most definitely. I grew up listening to Los Tigres at grandma's kitchen table to the time I got my own stereo. So definitely, Los Tigres have been part of the Diaz family.

CONTRERAS: Another Los Tigres fan is Manuel Mena. He's from Tijuana, Mexico, and he says Los Tigres inspired him to start his own band. Then one night after a show, he got into a scuffle with a fan who threatened him, and Mena killed the man. And that landed him in Folsom for 36 years to life.

MANUEL MENA: (Through interpreter) We are the forgotten of society. And to have the privilege of experiencing something like this, well, it means we haven't been completely forgotten. It means there's someone who remembers us, someone who gives us the strength to keep going, the strength to keep moving forward.

CONTRERAS: And in almost the same way that Cash performed a song written by a Folsom inmate, Los Tigres del Norte invited Mena to play accordion on one of their songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: This performance is being recorded for a documentary for the Univision television network. It's being produced by multiple Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician Gustavo Santaolalla, who echoes Cash's belief in the power of music to give the inmates a voice.

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: Getting them close to art and music, it's a way, actually, not only of entertaining themselves but also to open their souls and to open their minds to the possibility of a better world.

CONTRERAS: About 800 denim-clad men stand in the prison yard under wispy clouds and a bright blue sky and the watchful eyes of correctional officers on the ground and in five gun towers surrounding the yard. Many sing along. Others shout out requests. And a few more dance alone, seemingly lost in a moment of nostalgia.

And afterwards, band member Luis Hernandez stands on the steps of the chapel reflecting on what just happened.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: It was just so emotional to see these people here singing our songs and transporting themselves to, maybe, how their lives could be or maybe the mistakes they make. And, you know, they relate to our songs in that way. It's impressive how, when you come here and sing in front of these people, how you can bring them happiness, how can you bring them their life back.

CONTRERAS: Or as Johnny Cash sang 50 years ago...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREYSTONE CHAPEL")

CASH: (Singing) It's a flower of light in a field of darkness, and it's giving me the strength to carry on.

CONTRERAS: And tonight, the inmates of Folsom Prison got a little of that strength from Los Tigres del Norte. Felix Contreras, NPR News, Folsom, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish).

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