Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World by Alejandro L. Madrid

Madrid, Alejandro L. Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 272 pages; $24.95 paper.

Alejandro L. Madrid’s groundbreaking Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World traces the birth and growth of the Nor-tec aesthetic in Tijuana in the early 2000s. Nor-tec—a derivative of norteño and technology—mixes traditional Northern Mexican music and kitsch popular culture with computer technology to create dance music and audiovisual works. Most of the practitioners of Nor-tec are male (a fact that Madrid does not delve into), middle class professionals in their thirties who at one point or another since 1999 have been part of the Nor-tec Collective, a group of artists that explore its “hybrid aesthetic” (5).

Part musical ethnography, part postcolonial cultural criticism, part personal journey, Nor-tec Rifa! shows how, through the production and consumption of the Nor-tec aesthetic, Nor-tec artists and tijuanenses in general, negotiate identity, desires, and aspirations of cosmopolitanism in a globalized world. The book is concerned with the porosity of borders: of nation-states, of the tourist areas of Tijuana, of the Internet, of middle-class and lower class Mexicans, of the center (Mexico City) and the periphery (Tijuana).

There is no linear chronology of the Nor-tec movement in Nor-tec Rifa!. Initially, this absence of linearity makes the concept of Nor-tec hard to grasp and follow. However, Madrid’s approach is to unfold, one by one, themes of origins, tradition, distribution, production, and dancing of Nor-tec music and the imagery of Tijuana. Through this thematic, circular approach, Madrid lays out the myths (or lack thereof) and the constructed origins of the Nor-tec movement, which the artists keep modifying as time goes by. Madrid traces the development of electronic music in Tijuana, a scene in which much of the Nor-tec artists were involved starting in the 1980s—this is in fact not a movement made up of young amateurs. Despite changing members and the music’s meteoric popularity, the Nor-tec raison d’etre has been constant: “renovation, originality, cosmopolitanism, as well as a reevaluation of local traditions and popular culture as claims for authenticity within larger processes of globalization” (43). Barely two years after their inception in 1999, the Nor-tec Collective were invited to play at international music festivals and at the Zócalo square in Mexico City. The book explores how the artists’ anxieties were quenched or exacerbated once they left Tijuana. This is not fortuitous: the members of the collective, seasoned in dealing with music labels and with underground artistic movements, deliberately distributed their first tracks for free via email and blog postings at a time when there were very few social networks and before it was at all a common practice.

In the second chapter, Madrid goes on to detail the production of this new hybrid electronic music and the source materials it mixes. Tracing it in connection to the developments of the so called “traditional” Mexican genres of norteño, banda, and onda grupera. Nor-tec, according to Madrid, bases itself in “empty” authenticity, on genres which are not even local to Tijuana, but get resignified as such and consumed by society. The appropriation of those genres, in turn, renders them authentic (65).

Madrid delves also into the musical production of Nor-tec, analyzing half a dozen tracks, illustrating them through the use of pentagrams. As opposed to other EDM (electronic dance music) artists that sample folk or popular music, Nor-tec artists disdain Mexico’s regional music and avoid overtly quoting music passages from other works. The decontextualization of norteño music as kitsch reevaluates this “unsophisticated” popular music through irony, resignifying it into Nor-tec’s own cultural order.

Besides taking over the marketing and distribution of their music (they were signed to the American label Palm Pictures, which did not know how to market them), Nor-tec artists also take over physical spaces in Tijuana such as small clubs and bigger dance halls that typically host norteño and banda music. They also have participated in a Heineken-sponsored tour at small venues in the United States catering to Latinos who are fans of electronic music (as opposed to fans of Latin music). Madrid does a great job laying out how the diverse Latino populations in the US have been unsuccessfully marketed to over the years as one homogenous block by US and Hispanic media alike.

In Chapter 4, Madrid crystalizes his fieldwork research and sampled theories through Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “reterritorialization”: “In Tijuana, Nor-tec has appropriated the myths and stereotypes about the city, turning them into goods for consumption […] and [as a] reclamation of the physical and sonic sites of performance” (115). Not only are Nor-tec artists taking over physical spaces, but through the titles and lyrics of their songs (such as “El Dandy del Sur” and “Tijuana Makes Me Happy”), they make visible parts of the city that are otherwise unknown to most middle class tijuanenses and, of course, tourists.

The last three chapters in Nor-tec: Rifa! deal with the live performance of the artists as DJs and its evolution. In addition, Madrid analyzes dancers at Nor-tec events in Tijuana, Los Angeles, and Chicago, in a very poignant comparison of how Mexican and Mexican-Americans consume— through dancing—notions of identity, heritage, roots, and ideals of a “desired cosmopolitan future” (203). For Madrid, Nor-tec does not want to present a sanitized vision of Tijuana but rather show its contradictions, its dark spaces, the potential and strategic survival mode that is its vitality.

Nor-tec Rifa! is also an important work because the author is himself a product of the border, although as he clearly states, not from the locus of Tijuana itself. Madrid thus brings the unique, nuanced perspective of a semi-insider. In fact, since he chooses to interpose his biographical background into the work, one wishes the anecdotal passages of his fieldwork and background were less dry and included more vivid descriptions and prose. Madrid’s academic goals make him enunciate clearly (yet sometimes repeatedly) his hypotheses and conclusions as each chapter goes along, achieving through his writing a mimetic reflection of electronic music’s own loops and repetitious nature. Nor-tec Rifa! is one of the few existing interdisciplinary case studies that delves into the multicultural connections of dance music, technology, the Internet, and Mexican-American border cultures. Hopefully, it will prop open the door for more to follow.

Nuria Net received a Masters of Arts degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in May 2011. She has worked covering Latino music and entertainment at Latina magazine and MTV and as a freelance writer for Billboard, The New York Daily News, AOL and Entertainment Weekly. She is the co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of, an online guide to Latino cultures in New York, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Born in Barcelona and raised in San Juan, she currently lives on Loisaida Avenue in Manhattan.