Tijuana nightlife always begins with a wink: a leering, beckoning gaze. It doesn’t matter what your point of origin is – the craggy corners of Cucapah, some loft overlooking the imported gloss of La Recta, the unimaginable drudgery of rambler-laden Chula Vista suburbs on the other side of the wall; the city awaits, in quiet fury. Its glimmering lights trickle over the hilly urban sprawl visible on the horizon as you speed down the 5 freeway or la vía rapida. The myth of Tijuana awaits, with faint brass sounds heard in the distance, maybe real, maybe imagined, or maybe the result of the FM signal fluxing into local banda station La Invasora 99.7.
Santos too is a myth. He’s a legend befitting of the umber-tinted booths in the city’s endless brothels-turned-dive bars. He is Tijuana nightlife’s most apt metonym, at once an unwitting spokesman and its purest embodiment. Walking down the iconic La Revu strip on a Saturday night, you might happen upon abrasive percussion and the manic wails of a party-monger blasting from one of myriad clubs nearby, and it could very easily be el monje del ruidosón himself, mid-show and sweaty. It’s in this garish panorama that Agonía is born, a work so tacitly filled with the elements that, when put together, capture the spirit of Tijuana in 2017.
Embedded in every bar of Agonía is the weighty history of Tijuana nightlife, timeless like the swaggering, grupero organ-laden groove in “La Quebrada,” which like the city itself, invites you into reckless abandon (“Solo quiero bailar, disfrutar esta noche… contigo amor”). It shows the contradictions inherent in the city’s rapidly gentrifying landscape, amidst urban facelifts and sunny indie festivals (of which Santos himself is a constant headliner), while stats on the city’s record-number of homicides flood the local papers. Tracks like “El Bazucazo” and the pre-Hispanic war cry of “El Gatillero” reveal the uncomfortable silence that hides between the lines of every phrase uttered about Tijuana, eluding talk of another bloody peak in the country’s Sisyphean drug wars.
Santos’ Agonía is the incidental music of a cross-border geopolitical milieu that inches further into darkness, updated for the post-drug wars, post-Wall generation. It is the soundtrack to the taxi ride home from the party towards your home in another gang-ruled neighborhood and the four-hour long line you endure while you wait to your turn at the Customs and Border Protection inspection booth, dreading increasingly invasive and dystopian searches. And after the final distant “ahhh’s”of “Piedras” have faded out, those bombastic horns that preluded the album in the “I N T R O,” in retrospect, reveal their inherent dread, appearing less like an invitation and more like a forewarning. The descent into agony has only just begun.