Bo White’s Music to Die For
By John Schacht
With his eclectic new LP, Bo White celebrates Mexico’s resilience in the cartel drug wars
In the mid-90s, when Charlotte musician and Kinnikinnik label chief Bo White was a middle-schooler in his early teens, he accompanied his church on a missionary trip to Mexico. White — who’d never been in a plane before — and his fellow missionaries, all older high school kids, flew over the Mexico City megalopolis before landing at Benito Juárez Airport. They then hopped a bus for their ultimate destination, San Luis Potosí, 270 miles to the north.
During their week-plus stay at different host-houses in the SLP suburbs, the group attended services, ate exotic regional dishes, and took in some local color around the city’s main square. They also traveled into the countryside where, White says, they tried to put an infinitesimal dent in the region’s Third World conditions. He concedes that a bunch of American kids more “used to playing video games” weren’t able to do much, but now he realizes that was only a by-product of the visit’s real purpose.
“The trip did exactly what it’s supposed to do,” White says in his soft, South Carolina-bred drawl. “It made an impression on everybody.”
You can trace that impression forward a decade-and-a-half in White’s life. Now 30, White pays the rent as a music programmer at Mood Media Muzak in Fort Mill in addition to his other musical pursuits. As part of his job, he hunts down new music via Internet blogs and websites for the company’s varied playlists. During that task a couple years ago, White stumbled upon a story about Mexican singer Sergio Vega, nicknamed “El Shaka” for his laid-back bonhomie.
Among his repertoire, the singer from the state of Sonora performed narcocorridos — colorful ballads that play up the exploits of drug dealers, not unlike gangsta rap here — which unfortunately made him a target for rival gangs who felt disrespected or excluded. In fact, after a spate of singer killings, Vega was assumed to have already been murdered when he appeared on an entertainment website in June of 2010 to insist he was in fact quite alive. But just hours later, assassins gunned Vega down as he drove to a festival performance. Newspapers listed him as the sixth singer of narcocorridos to be killed in the first six months of that bloody year.
Back in Charlotte, White listened to Vega’s songs, which also included Mexi-pop and traditional forms like rancheras, cumbias, baladas, and boleros. The songs’ variety and their singer’s humanity hit home with White — “the man just had a heart about him,” he says. So White decided to honor the country he visited as a boy, its long-suffering populace, and musicians like El Shaka with an album depicting and celebrating life amid the drug wars.
He would name the Kinnikinnik release Same Deal/New Patrones. Depending on the context, “patrones” can translate to “bosses” or “patron saints.” It can also mean “patterns,” as in New Patterns — that too was among the sentiments White hoped to portray.
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“It’s hard to imagine a record made with clearer vision,” says Great Architect saxophonist Brent Bagwell, who heads a long list of contributing musicians White tapped for these 13 eclectic visions. “This is just one facet of Bo’s musical personality, too. I’m convinced he could make a record in almost any style and — most importantly — mean it. He doesn’t callously borrow from source material, but internalizes it, reflects it, and makes it into something new and personal.”
That’s apparent in White’s resume. His production credits range from Great Architect’s inside-out avant-noise to Appalucia’s barnburning hoedowns. He’s added songwriting and essential guitar parts to the gang-chorus pop outfit Yardwork, Black Congo N.C.’s highlife-flavored excursions, ex-noise-rockers Calabi Yau, and his own myriad solo-plus-band iterations.
White turned to the musicians in one of those acts — the jazzy guitar/vibes/drums set-up of Duo Select — when he realized recruiting local Mexican brass musicians for the new LP wasn’t going to happen. So after scratching out chords and melodies on guitar in February of 2011, White got together with Charleston-based vibraphonist James Cannon and drummer Kain Naylor, who flew down from New York, and the trio sussed out each song’s vibe over a long weekend that March.
“Originally, I had all these grand ideas, I was going to try and find some banda musicians in Charlotte and put together a group, but obviously that’s pretty difficult,” says White, whose Spanish consists mostly of Google translations. “So I thought, ‘I’ll just do an album my way.’ And this band is basically an amalgamation of every other kind of band I’ve done in a weird way: it’s kind of funky, kind of indie, there’s softer, more ballad-y, jazzy stuff.”
During the next several months, trombone and tuba players, cellists and bassists , and a host of other musicians dropped by White’s Yauhaus studio — also his home and a former house-show venue — to record overdubs. There were happy accidents, of course, as there often are on the shoestring budget at which Kinnikinnik operates. Adam Engle, the only trumpeter White knew, had handed him his phone number years earlier at a gig in case he ever needed a horn-player; White finally got in touch a week before Engle left Charlotte for grad school.
“You plan for the album as much as you can,” White says, “but sometimes you just have to let stuff fall into place and it has just as much of an impact as the planned stuff.”
With no banda musicians available, White’s arrangements avoided on-the-nose genre instrumentation just as the songs steered clear of traditional Mexican forms. With the exception of the Spanish guitar-fills that joust with tuba, sax and strings over the syncopated drag of “Nervous Clamor,” there’s little here that grounds the music geographically. On the haunting bridge of “El Cantante,” White samples and then shades with eerie vibes a medley of native Taramarahura— whose ancient ways the cartels threaten — songs taken from an old Folkways recording. On the up-tempo “Ulama Con Marta,” he uses the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame ulama as a metaphor for the domestic bliss of a street-vendor and his beloved. But in both songs, highlife guitar lines and sympathetic horn fanfares bridge the Chicago experimentalism of a Jim O’Rourke or Joan of Arc and the West coast of Africa. There’s not a mariachi horn or oversized Mexican guitarron to be found.
This cultural and genre mash-up persists throughout. “No Pain on Arrival” chronicles immigrants’ across-the-border hopes with a sprightly but poetic melody that runs Fagen & Becker jazz guitar and counterpoint horns through The Sea and Cake’s song structures; White brings alive the artistry and brutality of bullfighting on “Fiesta Brava” by having Lee Renaldo-inspired guitar feedback spar with baritone sax for two open-throttle minutes, a rousing chorus and melody emerging from the noise and bloody fury; the fluting horns, tuba blats and vibraphone shades that color “Juarez,” White’s ode to the murdered women of that cursed border town, closes the record with the wistful beauty of Arthur Russell’s most touching work. White’s unassuming nature would rightfully shy from such namedropping, and really the others are just signposts you pass on your way to Bo White’s world, a musical oasis bereft of borders or boundaries.
Says Bagwell of the record’s unique arrangements, “At first, they might seem unusual, but repeated listening reveal them to be ideal and inevitable.”
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The Mexican-born oligarch Carlos Slim, since 2010 the richest man in the universe, anchors one corner of the cover art for Same Deal/New Patrones. Illustrator Matt Nelson, White’s former Yardwork bandmate and ex-Yauhaus roommate, depicts the Eighteenth-century nun Sor Juana de la Cruz in the opposite corner. The feminist poet, mathematician and thinker came from privilege but dedicated her life to the poor.
Those kinds of dichotomous pairings — a Colonial War minuteman armed with an AK-47; El Shaka’s family seal and the chemical symbol for cocaine; the extraterrestrial Soumaya Art Museum in Mexico City and a set of prison gates, etc. — mirror and echo the fully fleshed out characters that populate White’s narratives. Nelson took as his template Fela Kuti’s favored album-cover artist, Ghariokwu Lemi, and cleverly transposed some of the characters in White’s songs with those on the cover of Fela’s 1989 LP, Beasts of No Nation. What could have come off as unearned chutzpah reads instead as tactful and relevant homage.
“In a way, I would like to imagine that Bo and my process in creating this ‘package’ was much the same as Fela and Lemi’s,” says Nelson, who now lives in New York City. “The end product directly benefits from a collegial relationship based on mutual respect and the shared creative caldron that was certainly stewed by living down the hall from each other.”
Temperamentally, though, the Nigerian firebrand Fela and White come from very different places. The narratives make it pretty clear where White falls on hot-button issues like immigration and the United States’ consumption-king role that fuels the cartel wars. But so far from the front-lines, White opts wisely for humanizing portraits and slices-of-life vignettes rather than pissed-off political rhetoric. Real people live in these songs, and their plight, however desperate or misguided, doesn’t annul their humanity.
The assassin in “Sinaloa,” a strings-and-muted trumpet waltz, dances between sinister-shaded verses and a heart-swelling chorus proclaiming his love for his home state. In “Plurales,” White takes an “objective camera” to corruption in a tempo-shifting shuffle. The picture that emerges finds street-level drug-runners and high-end drug consumers, corrupt Mexican judges and racist American officials, all suffering the same curse: They’re members of “a wild human race stripped of its grace,” White sings with his David Byrne-like warble. If there are heroes here, they are the people caught in the moral and literal crossfire. Through resilience, they hang on to their dignity: The young woman who escapes her likely unpleasant fate by heisting a chollo’s car (“Promesas Para Ellas”), the street vendor who happily perseveres despite his lot in the shadow of a wealthy resort, the immigrants betting their lves on a brighter — and safer — future across the border.
“I wanted to approach it from a way that somebody like Sergio Vega would write an album,” White says. He’d have his drug songs, his love songs, and songs about his mom.”
In the end, we’re left with a portrait of a specific era and place that nevertheless transcends time and borders — especially the one inextricably linking these neighbors. If our fates are so entwined, as Same Deal/New Patrones passionately implies, why not let it be our kinder angels that unite us, rather than the weakest, darkest and bloodiest.