Musicians Pepe Mogt and Ramon Bostich peer through a hole in the high metal wall that divides their city, Tijuana, from the United States. On the U.S. side, three cyclone fences topped with razor wire deter immigrants from the American Dream, while here in the Colonia Nido de Aguilas, junked cars decompose and half-starved dogs troll for food. A Border Patrol helicopter buzzes overhead, and in an odd moment, the pilot waves at the musicians and they wave back. Bostich points out a fence made entirely of washing-machine lids that encircles the junkyard.
'It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?' says Bostich, admiring the fence as if it were a piece of art. 'In Tijuana, everything inspires our music.'
Mogt, 30, and Bostich, 37, say they aren’t bothered that the outskirts of their town look like a militarized zone. Spending time in this chaotic border town of 3 million where gleaming new maquiladoras with names like Sony and Hitachi meet crumbling poverty is like wandering through a post-apocalyptic movie set where the Third World meets the First. If Tijuana is like a surreal movie, then Mogt and Bostich have created the perfect soundtrack for this final Latin American frontier. They call it Nortec, a hybrid of techno beats and Mexican Norteño rhythms.
On weekends, Tijuana’s Nortec music fans pack the Jai Alai stadium on Avenida Revolucion or the clubs a half-hour down the coast in Rosarito to dance all night to electronic groups like Mogt’s Fussible or Ramon Bostich’s one-man trance groove– inspired outfit Bostich. Mogt and Bostich are hesitant to call these happenings raves, preferring instead to call them 'parties' where like-minded electronic music fans meet. In the past year, Nortec has started to grow into something more than just a musical style—it’s become a full-blown movement in Tijuana, including art, design, and even architecture.
A longtime presence in Tijuana’s electronic music scene, Bostich (a.k.a. Ramon Amezcua) started playing ambient techno in 1988. (He took the name Bostich from the title of a song by Yello, a Swiss duo now considered one of techno’s early pioneers.) But it’s Pepe Mogt who is credited with the idea of merging traditional Norteño with electronic music. Nortec was born in 1998, when Mogt heard a Sinaloense (West Coast Mexican) band at a family wedding and wondered how traditional Norteño music would sound mixed with electronic music.
'I grew up listening to punk rock and electronic music—I hated Norteño,' says Mogt. 'Maybe I’m just getting older and coming back to my roots, but that’s when I really started listening to the rhythms in the music for the first time.'
At a music studio on Avenida Coahuila where many Norteño bands record in Tijuana, Mogt sampled horns, accordions, and snares, then distributed the samples among Tijuana’s electronic musicians, including the other two members of his band, Jorge Ruiz and Roberto Mendoza (now the man behind the electronic ambient sound of Panoptica). He also gave samples to Bostich.
In May 1999, the Nortec sound was compiled on the Nortec Sampler, Volume 1 and put out on Mogt, Ruiz, and Bostich’s own Mil Records label. The sampler featured local electronic bands such as Fussible, Bostich, Panoptica, Hiperboreal, Clorofila, Terrestre, and Plankton. 'Before, people said electronic music here sounded like the mix of breakbeats and hip-hop that you hear in San Francisco or the U.K.,' says Mogt. 'But with Nortec, we knew we had something very different.'
The Nortec sampler caught the ear of Kim Buie, a senior executive with Palm Pictures in Los Angeles, who promptly signed the Nortec musicians to a pressing and distribution deal. A new compilation called The Nortec Collective was released in February.
If music is the soul of Nortec, then art and design are the heart and mind behind the movement. Housed in a semi-abandoned shopping mall near Tijuana’s airport, a cramped storefront studio called Torolab has become a creative hive for Nortec projects.
The studio, run by husband-and-wife team Raul Cardenas, 31, and Marcela Guadiana, 29, is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Factory for the sheer span of its creative ideas and productivity. The studio is filled with computers, turntables, and designs for everything from clothing to houses, all fiercely protected by the couple’s cranky watchdog, a Jack Russell terrier named Wookie. Here Cardenas and Guadiana work with a revolving cast of artists and musicians who design many of the CD covers, graphics, and T-shirts for the Nortec musicians.
An architect and designer, Cardenas, with his scratched-up eyeglasses and frenetic work habits, has become a sort of philosophical guru for the Nortec movement and the biggest champion of Tijuana’s art scene. 'It’s a city where nobody is from,' says Cardenas, who came to Tijuana from Mazatlan 11 years ago. 'There are no chains here. Everywhere you go, you can create history.' For the first time in Tijuana’s 110-year history, Cardenas says, Mexico’s youth are actually viewing the border city as a place of opportunity and creativity and not just a springboard into the United States.
People in Tijuana are used to being outsiders who live at the outskirts of both the U.S. and the Mexican cultures, Cardenas says. This outsider feeling, he says, fuels the Nortec artists and musicians. When people in Tijuana go to a bullfight, they root for the bull, not the bullfighter.
'I called our studio Torolab, because for me, the toro—the bull—is the symbol of a warrior with nothing to lose. That’s the spirit you have when you live here,' says Cardenas. 'Everyone thinks that this city is Sodom and Gomorrah. But this place is really about breaking through barriers.'
From the alternative newsweekly The Austin Chronicle (Nov. 3, 2000). Subscriptions: $60/yr. (52 issues) from Box 49066, Austin, TX 78765.