A daily bulletin of news & opinion

30 June 2010

At some times, in some places, a singer takes his life in the same hand as his microphone. Earlier this week, Mexican balladeer Sergio “El Shaka” Vega was shot dead in Sinaloa state, a casualty of the local drug wars that supplied him with his lyrical material.

Vega sang songs called “narcocorridos”: lurid chronicles of Sinaloa’s wealthy, ruthless cocaine barons. It is a high-risk occupation: several of the region’s singers have met similarly grim ends in the last few years. Ironically only last weekend Vega had denied a rumour that we was dead.

Vega won’t be the last artist to be consumed by the milieu that inspired him, and he wasn’t the first. There are parallels between his doomed trajectory and that of Tupac Shakur, the American gangsta rapper for whom death imitated art in September 1996, when he was shot dead in Las Vegas, apparently a victim of a feud between East and West coast hip-hop (Shakur’s associate turned rival, Biggie Smalls, met an uncannily similar end in Los Angeles six months later).

Vega will doubtless be posthumously burnished with the sheen of martyrdom, as Tupac was, but there might be more deserving candidates for such recognition. In a bewildering proportion of our world, music is regarded as an affront to God by that weird species of person who feels authorised to act on his behalf. The rai musicians of Algeria suffered a fearful toll amid their country’s convulsions in the 1990s. The singer Cheb Hasni was murdered by Islamists in Oran in 1994, and rai producer Rachid Baba Ahmed in the same city a year later (the death squads roaming Algeria during this period were not particular – they also, in 1998, murdered the Berber kabyle singer Lounès Matoub).

It is even harder, in similarly afflicted portions of the planet, to sing with a woman’s voice. In Peshawar, Pakistan, last year, local artist Ayman Udas defied the threats of the fundamentalist tendency at large in the region to sing on television – and was murdered by her brothers, who believed that she had dishonoured their family. Some may argue that the shooting of a defenceless woman is a rather greater stain on a clan’s reputation.

It’s little consolation to the lost, but some to the rest of us, that they are occasionally treated better dead than alive. Like many Chileans who opposed General Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’etat, the singer Victor Jara was interned in a Santiago football stadium, where he was beaten and tortured before being shot dead and dumped in a street. In 2009, he was re-buried with due ceremony, and the place where he was murdered is now called Estadio Victor Jara.


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