If film directors like Altman and Fellini ever run out of suitable sites for their confettilike pageantries, they might do well by turning towards Tijuana. The rolling hills, crippled streets, lopsided architecture, high pressure street merchants, instant marriage and divorce vendors, promenading sex and permeating music from the bars and cantinas, all conspire to provide the tourists with a dizzying, round-the-clock ambience to remember. It's as heated and hallucinatory as anything in Nashville and Roma, and it's tucked safely across our border, close to home, and strategically located for a quick entrance and exit. No chance for homesickness on these mean streets. When visiting Tijuana, prudent Americans behave as if they are in a gritty Mexican Disneyland — look, lap up, and leave.
Besides, most visitors know exactly what they are there for; neither restful vacationing nor trouble. Tourists from other parts of America have a myriad of alluring spots to choose from — Caliente, Jailai, bullfights, or simply border bargain bins. But San Diegans, particulary young ones, know that Tijuana is surely not short of its dance musica: every conceivable variety from '50s excursions, Top 40, heavy metal, disco soul, and jazz. Since every other place to go in Tijuana is a bar, a nonstop soundtrack filters the streets at night. Music is another pulsating element of Tijuana's phantasmagoria.
The popular bars: Aloha, Coco, Gato Negro, Hector's, Mike's A Go Go, The Tropciana, are located primarily around the Revolucion Avenue district. These nightclubs, with names that are undistinguished, atmospheres that are indistinguishable, and music that is largely interchangeable, reflect the ups and downs of American pop music like an electric mirror image. Whatever is "in" over here is "in" over there. Although this may not seem like such a noteworthy form of cross-cultural communion, it tends to confirm the commercial pervasiveness of American pop. They feed "our" music back to us nightly.
Bar bands in Tijuana contrast interestingly with bar bands in San Diego. Despite the obvious handicaps of note-learned, phonetically recited lyrics, the sensibility informing the TJ nightclub musician is one of imitative enthusiasm rather than the self-effacing resignation of his American counterpart. No stifled sneers from the bandstand. It's the difference between hot-blooded studiousness and cold-blooded awareness.
These numerous groups sport names as transient as similar American bands — Los Jokers, Dynamicos, Chapparell, Chameleon, etc. Presently, the material covered ranges from a few embossed in goldie oldies ("Angel Baby," "Johnny B. Goode"), east-to-master- chord bashers ("Takin' Care of Business'), and forayes into funk ("Pick Up the Pieces," "Shinin' Star"). All selections are subject to constant fluctuation.
Enrique Herrera, a pianist turned cabbie originially from Ensenada, now residing in Golden Hill, explains the role of the Mexican rock musician in terms of economic determinism.
"American club musicians always complain about being forced to perform the same old numbers every night. Big deal. It's the same everywhere. It helps to sharpen your outlook. If you're not able to write material, why shouldn't you woodshed by playing what the people wanna hear? That's how TJ bands look at it. Get good by copping note for note. I mean, you'll hear TJ bands play American rock just as expertly as the originals, except for the accents. There ain't no whining about creativity. It's a job, a good one if you can get it. I couldn't. That's why I'm here."
If these bands lack the condescending attitudes traditionally attributed to nightclub musicians, it might seem equally true that they lack any notions of musical ambition as well.
The one definite exception to this rule is Chameleon, the house band at Mike's A Go Go. This jazz rock crew is a remarkably polished, professionally accomplished group of musicians. Their stylistic range hovers between the music of The Crusaders and Average White Band. Their material includes elongated versions of "Work To Do" and "Put It Where You Want" that show off a marked bolstering of energy. This band pulls off the difficult trick of improving seemingly unimpeachable numbers. They have a revised arrangement of Freddie Hubbard's "First Light" that mixes subtle voicings for alto sax and trumpet with a Latino underpinning from the rhythm section. Chameleon's lead guitarist, Roberto Betuco, in particular, is a dazzling soloist. His style is cool, intricate, and symmetrical. At his best moments, this guitarist comes across in the range of polar opposites such as Pat Martino and Onnie Macyntire. Incredibly enough, Chameleon maintains a danceable rhythm within every arrangement. Their improvisation are precise, well-modulated. They are a rarity, even among professionals — subtle craftsmen.
Of course, from that standpoint, Chameleon seems to be alone among Tijuana's dozens of bistro bands, who, if they weren't playing American pop for a living, would probably be driving cabs. Still, Tijuana's music scene remains incontestably noteworthy as a swarthy reflector of American pop music directions. No car radio? A go go to TJ. Right about now a repertoire upheaval is in the offing. Count on "Cut the Cake," "Get Down Tonight," and "Fight the Power" to resonate from every bar, bistro and cantina on Avenida Revolucion.