Tijuana music is more than roving mariachi bands and the ungst-ungst-ungst of outdated dance tunes pouring out of discos and strip clubs on Avenida Revolución. Revolución may be the "World's Most Visited Street," but it's hardly a fair representation of all the city of almost two million people has to offer.
TJ's music scene has always been up and down, sometimes peaking to the point of recognition in San Diego, if not by the rest of the world. More than a decade ago, Iguana's and other venues drew big-name punk and alternative acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Bad Religion. But for the last several years, the boil has cooled to a long slow simmer.
Yet a simmer still scalds, and TJ has a thriving scene that is proving more attractive to bands from San Diego and beyond.
TJ's latest crop of venues includes Tilly's, Voodoo House, the Tequila House and the Doberman Bar. The Doberman has filled the gap left when the Patio 5 club quit hosting live shows to attract more upscale patrons. Doberman Bar and Patio 5 are both located in Plaza Fiesta, a favorite destination for TJ locals. Its proximity to the border and friendly atmosphere make it attractive to skittish Americans who've heard the horror tales of banditos and corrupt cops.
Movers and shakers on both sides of the border want to see a more unified scene between San Diego and Tijuana, a plan that is slowly being realized. "Both scenes are much related, San Diego and the rest of California and Tijuana," says Jorge Cortez, webmaster for www.tijuanahardcore.tk. "Most Americans come to Tijuana to play on shows and our people go to the U.S. to play on gigs or go to shows.
"In Tijuana, the scene is growing little by little, but in a very impressive way," he says.
Show promoter Rene Espinoza, who runs Fuerza Positiva Productions, agrees the scene is improving, but notes some differences.
"The Tijuana hardcore punk scene is very different from the San Diego one in some aspects," he says. "First of all, we barely get two shows a month and it's harder to convince bands to play here. Shows are cheaper in TJ and kids seem to be there for the music, not the social scene.
"Tijuana kids are getting more of this kind of stuff in recent months compared to how it used to be in the past. Nowadays kids are more involved in what we are trying to do for our city."
Hardcore locals Bumbklaatt could serve as the poster boys for San Diego/TJ scene unity. The quartet is composed of two people from Chula Vista and two from TJ, all of whom are veterans of their respective scenes and cross into both worlds with minimum effort.
Bumbklaatt has also worked hard to bring big American bands to Tijuana. They ran the short-lived live music venue called El Guano, which hosted a few shows but had to close, in part due to TJ's shadier aspects: some equipment was stolen and the building's power supplies were vandalized.
Cortez also admits risks are involved, recalling when metal band Beheamoth had guitar pedals stolen a few years ago. But equipment is regularly stolen from shows, practice spaces and homes north of the border, too.
Despite efforts to clean up corruption, regular radio spots promoting the region's safety and a big-ass fancy new arch, a dangerous reputation based partly in reality and partly in urban legend remains. But what's not lacking in TJ is enthusiasm and willingness to make things better.
"When people from the U.S. come to shows here in TJ, we are like one gathered family, everybody shows support, we also mosh-pit together and dance hard as we can," Cortez says. "Every show is intense as a hardcore gig in the U.S."
"Some people play in bands, others love going to shows, others support this genre in very different ways and others book shows. I gotta tell you, it's one of the few things I really appreciate from my hometown city.
"The musical scene is very strong, not just in the hardcore scene, but in the punk, ska, reggae and metal scenes as well."
Though TJ is safer than some think and efforts to improve safety have been largely successful, bands and fans crossing the border need to use common sense.
"Getting equipment into Tijuana is super easy, just go to U.S. customs and ask for a sheet to register equipment going into Mexico," Espinoza offers. "Declare your equipment with the Mexican customs too and don't worry-you are protected because you have that form that the U.S. customs gave you."
Espinoza says he usually helps foreign bands with the paperwork.
"Write down every piece of equipment you are bringing over with a full description of it (name brand, serial number and physical description) and have this sheet on hand when you go through the customs. It only takes about 20 minutes to do it, so why take chances?"
To further alleviate musicians' fears, many bands and promoters offer to loan equipment to touring bands, so bands can leave a lot of their equipment at home.
Espinoza also warns bands do an informal background check on a show's promoter and keep an open line of communication.
"Ask for a phone number to locate him in any circumstance. Ask for a résumé of all the bands the promoter has worked with in the past. Some guys don't have experience booking shows so they may do something when they have no background supporting their work."
Cortez also offers some advice: drive carefully and carry proper registration so as to not be hassled by crooked cops. Park in lots rather than on the streets or "you will probably see your car window smashed and stereo stolen," he said.
But Cortez says the one thing Americans in TJ need to fear is drag queens.
"It's a great experience," Espinoza says of his hometown. "Don't miss out just because somebody who probably doesn't know what the hell they are talking about told you a weird story. Most people don't know what Tijuana is really like."