Album Review: Juan Cirerol’s “Punk Feeling” — Mexicali’s Poet of Poverty Returns
By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Juan Cirerol has been accused of idealizing desperation. He disagrees. “I am well-anchored,” he responds.
2021 seems to be the year that Juan Antonio Cirerol Romero has decided to return from a self-imposed exile. He had been laying low since 2017, when he controversially tweeted his indifference in the wake of an earthquake which killed 300 people in Mexico City. His logic exposed the vast divisions in Mexican society, both in terms of class and region: “Tragedies happen all the time, and is the vox populi offended? Go to Hell, I’d rather you kill me than to live among you.” Not the first time a norteño (Northerner) would feel abandoned by the heavily centralized nation to local violence, lawlessness, and unemployment.
Juan Cirerol was born in Mexicali, Baja California in 1987. He trained on classical guitar, learning norteño and country before he started his music career in punk. While touring in America he had an epiphany and set off to create his distinctive blend of outsider alt-folk — a blend of norteño and punk. Consider him a kind of Mexican Johnny Cash who draws on the wild, untamed vocal stylings of the original narcocorrido singer Chalino Sanchez. To that combination, add some great poetry. Despite a fall from mainstream grace (his words about the earthquake had cost him his relationship with Universal), Cirerol has maintained a cult following devoted to his social criticism, northern individualism, and unwavering commitment to defiant vitality. His best work poses class and regional consciousness against the stereotype of the lazy poor and the narco-thug… unless, that is, he seems to you to fit into those slots.
A chilango Mexico City denizen) wrote in the Northern Milenio paper that Cirerol is merely “an invention of the mafia in power … but in the power of the ‘indies’ and ‘alternative’ media. That mafia [turned] a kid who sang in the cantinas of Mexicali into a pseudo idol, with an unintelligible pronunciation and a music that abbreviated [the band] Los Tigres del Norte […] [His music] was a mere curiosity, until it was ‘discovered’ by those who make and undo the tastes of the Mexican rock public.” Examples of that “unintelligible pronunciation” can be found in Punk Feeling, where “la cucaracha” is rendered as “la cucarasha” in the cachanilla accent local to Mexicali. That lyric is in the first track, “Somos tú y yo (los rechazados)” (“We are You and I (The Rejected)”): “Step on that cockroach — we are low class.”
The rest of the song articulates what Cirerol thinks about life:
People have left the party, everything has been destroyed. We have lost a bet, and life is not bad. I learned a little of your faults, I kept you clean of substances. I wrote some poems and we made dinner. We are you and I. […] Fix yourself up for the party, don’t look anyone in the eyes. Drink a little bit of courage and swell with honor. You were sunken in the prison, and I was lost over there lifting up the rubble of a life fallen into pieces. We are you and I.
Cirerol is nothing if not honest, and he believes that his self-consciousness lends him special insight. In “Hermano la vida es bella” (“Brother Life is Beautiful”), he reflects on his status as an artist:
I find it easy to adapt myself to slamming doors. I don’t need to fly, I don’t need to think about the future that awaits me. To enjoy the terror, to embrace the glare of your sad eyes. Sunset had not yet come and I was already thinking about yesterday. I have gone farther than I thought I would, dragging my feet. No, I don’t like to lose, but I always lose… it’s such a shame. Society excluded me, and it told me the truth. However, I am not offended… I am a real Christian.
The final expression, however tongue-in-cheek it may be, should not suggest that Cirerol thinks he is a saint. He is content to be a truth teller, and a truth believer. As he sings in “Picando cebolla” (“Chopping Onion”), “I don’t have anything to do, not here nor there. I am looking for pretext to forget my story,” before adding, in an English that would make the USA-educated members of the chilango elite cringe: “I just wanna drink, fight and fuck!” In “No me recuerdes tu sabor” (“Don’t Remind Me of Your Taste”), Cirerol lets us know that his faults are what give him insight into the way things are:
As I would like not to complain about my lying life, you almost came and loosened up that sticky song. You go out every day to the chaos and there is no one to marry you, but then you take it out. You have to go to work, let’s go to some tombs.[…] As it is difficult to give thanks to the stupid lie that does not let you breathe and really takes you away from the people you love and cannot separate you, there is no more than walking in time, after all, and I don’t owe you, I don’t owe you money.
Cirerol ends with the tune with a deep-seated (if somewhat anti-social) optimism that asserts his superiority over his conventional critics: “You’d better start thinking that life is beautiful and there is no reason to complain or to start crying […] You’d better leave me alone, for I do not want to see anyone, because I am well-anchored” (or “bien fondeado,” which could alternatively mean “well-heeled” or “on the lam”).
Punk Feeling features songs previously released on other collections and in other versions. But that chaos is typical of how Cirerol self-releases his music. This year also saw the appearance of a few other items on streaming media platforms: an EP Las Que No Iban a Salir featuring two songs from Punk Feeling, and re-releases of the albums Ofrenda al Mictlan, Cachanilla y Flor de Azar, and Mexicali. Cirerol’s strategy seems to be to reclaim his earlier commercial success for himself. Punk Feeling’s title echoes the title of a 2015 EP, Country Feeling, which was at the time an effort to return to his raw, pre-Universal sound. Punk Feeling is an attempt to make a comeback in another way.
The album gives us Cirerol’s diverse musical scope, but reduces it to his signature sounds. There’s the driving harmonica in “Noches de prisa” (“Nights in a Hurry”) and an obvious homage to Cash’s “I Walk the Line” in “La muchacha de las tierras lejanas” (“Girl from the Distant Lands”). There’s the honkey tonking “Picando cebolla” (“Chopping Onion”) and “Corazón de perro” (“Dog’s Heart”), a rockabilly number with the same title as a famous Vicente Fernández ranchera song that showcases Cirerol’s impressive vocal range, albeit in hoots and hollers. The love song “Paseo a Mazatlan” (“Trip to Mazatlan”) is set in the Sinaloan coastal town down the road from the state capital and home of the narco-saint Jesús Malverde. The track’s lyrics are simple and Cirerol’s delivery is unpretentious, but the song manages to avoid sentimentality while being genuinely touching.
Perhaps the album’s best track of self-deflating social critique is “Canción al ocio” (“Song at Leisure”). Its lyrics are worth quoting in their entirety:
It seems like today, but it is not today. I have a lot to do. I have 20 pesos that they gave me yesterday. Let’s see if now you start doing something useful; beer is not a good hobby. Here in this place there is a fugitive from justice, they say they are looking for him at the local kennel. It’s Antonio Cirerol and he doesn’t like kibble, and his hobby is chasing bikes. And now it seems incredible that my bike can’t be patched and now I have to walk; I hate public transport. I hate the life of politicians, and on the days that I have to wake up… And now to say goodbye to this beautiful song, I send my blessing to the ‘productive men’, the cornerstone of this country. You have to keep account with God, working eight hours a week, with benefits above the law.
One wonders if Cirerol, earthquake controversy in mind, would respond differently to another recent Mexico City disaster. This year’s Metro overpass collapse killed working people from the poorer boroughs on their way to their jobs. “Hey Soledad” (“Hey Solitude”) probably supplies an answer: “If I go to the ranch, there you are. If I go to the city, also there you follow me, Solitude.” This is reminiscent of poet Octavio Paz’s definition of solitude: “Man [sic] is nostalgic and in search of communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself, he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.” In a previous version of this song, Cirerol included Mexico City among solitude’s victims: “If I go to the federal district, also there you follow me, Solitude.” Yet here he has changed the reference to “Mexicali”. He goes on: “Hey Solitude: leave me alone for once. Is it not enough, everything you already took from me? Now you want to take my guitar, now you want to take my brothers/sisters [carnales]. Leave me alone.” Cirerol is articulating what he and others feel. But, though the singer feels the agony, does he understand what it calls for? To my mind, this is the solitude that once brought together Villistas of the North and Zapatistas of the South to sing in union, “Somos tú y yo… los rechazados.”
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.