Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana Taxi by Herb Alpert

So, you're not impressed, you say
With a beat-up Chevrolet
But that driver man Jose
Knows his way around Tijuana town
Most of us have a secret. The quiet ones keep their secrets for much longer than the other kind. Herb Alpert was the other kind. He demanded attention. Born in L.A. in 1935, Alpert began taking trumpet lessons when he was 8. He was playing trumpet regularly at dances when he was just a teenager, and a bit later on when his acting skills didn't catch on, he went flat out to make it as a musician. He set up a recording studio in his garage and began recording songs.

But that isn't his secret.

While in Mexico on holiday, Alpert went to a bullfight and listened while the trumpeters announced every event. He liked the sound of it. So he decided to replicate it back home in his L.A. garage. He called his "band" the Tijuana Brass and dubbed in crowd noises such as he had heard in Mexico.

His single "The Lonely Bull" sounded like a symphony of trumpets. In fact, all were overdubs by Alpert. He would play trumpet on the different tracks, taking care to always be a split second behind or in front of the other tracks. This was fine on a record, but then he hit pay dirt. Uh oh. People wanted to meet "the band."

A Tijuana taxi. "Libre Taxi" means "Free Taxi," but it will still cost some pesos - the "free" means it's not restricted by route.
Photo: Paul Sullivan, via Flickr, CC 2.0

That's the trouble with keeping a secret when you demand attention. Since he was his own brass section, he had to scramble for auditions to assemble an actual physical one - quickly. And that is how the flesh and blood Tijuana Brass was born.

The year was 1960, and with great choreography and pizzazz, the band became a huge hit. They gave rise to other Latin sounding groups and artists. The really crazy thing is that none of the Tijuana Brass' original lineup was Hispanic. Alpert himself is Jewish. His running joke was that his band was made up of "four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese."

The Tijuana Brass band version #1 only lasted from 1965-1969, but was reformed twice in the next few years. Alpert enjoyed a successful solo career, but realized even better success as a producer. He was the A [Alpert] in A & M Records which he and his partner later sold for some $500 million. Not bad for trumpeter recording multi-tracks in his garage.

This upbeat song could serve as background music for the taxis in Tijuana zipping around town. The original tune was an instrumental, but Hans Zimmer took care of that in later years, penning a lyric that is now included in cover tunes of the song.

The city of Tijuana is known as the gateway to Mexico. It is large in population and growing every day. Situated just south of California, it is the border town that welcomes some 300,000 people across its line every day. Add that up and you'll find that only New York City commands more visitors on a per-year basis. The San Diego/Tijuana border crossing is the busiest in the world, and on holiday weekends the wait to cross back into the United States is sometimes several hours long. Mix that with the sweltering heat in the summer months and you'd better hope your car's air conditioner unit is in top shape.

To enter Tijuana from the U.S. can be a bit of a culture shock. The area is one of the poorest in the world, with many people living in cardboard lean-tos. There are no dividing lines on the roadways so it's a free-for-all on the wider streets with the locals buzzing around the astonished tourists, who are used to a bit more discipline. The buildings in the business section of town would give a U.S. building inspector a coronary. They give the appearance that to enter one, you would be taking your very life in your own hands. The sewage system is poor, as well, so noxious smells often permeate the air.

The Tijuana taxis that Alpert made famous in this song are everywhere. They take the shape of cars, vans, and sometimes horses pulling buggies. If you are one of the tourists who crosses the border on foot, a taxi is a great way to get where you're going, and the majority of the drivers are knowledgeable and nice. There may be a language barrier, but that is true of any country where you are the visitor. Rumor has it that the white taxis are usually cheaper than the yellow taxis, but the drivers of the white taxis have less English. So if you don't speak Spanish, you should have a map with your destination clearly marked. And always remember to leave a good tip - the U.S. dollar goes a much longer way in Tijuana than it does in the U.S., and with your small donation, you could be feeding someone's child for a week.

Cenarth Fox
October 7, 2014


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