Cartel Land

Musical Score By: H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg

Distributed by: Lakeshore Records

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                The documentary Cartel Land focuses on two vigilante groups and their war on the drug cartels in Mexico.  In Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles is a small-town physician who leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the Knights Templar drug cartel that has been a violent menace to the region for years.  Meanwhile, Tim Foley, an American veteran, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a group whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug war from crossing the border in Altar Valley, a desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley.  Where the governmental institutions have failed, these vigilante groups enact their own brand of justice to save their communities in the war on drugs, but how far will they go to do what they think is right?

                The musical score of Cartel Land was created by the scoring team of H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg.  American composer H. Scott Salinas became the youngest composer to earn the Grand Prize at the 2002 Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition and hasn’t looked back since.  He has created songs and musical score for feature films, video games, commercials and television series such as Zipper, Just Friends, The Square, The Newsroom, Spider-Man 3: The Video Game and more.  Philadelphia native Jackson Greenberg received his graduate degree in composition from The Thornton School of Music at the University of California and studied with composer Kenneth Hesketh at the Royal College of Music in London.  He has worked with legendary artist Randy Newman, has written songs for others, created musical score for short films and commercials and performs his own music at multiple venues.  His String Quarter No. 1 premiered at Princeton University in 2012 and was performed by the Julliard String Quartet.

                In an effort to tell the tale properly, the two composers used the ethnic instruments of the various locales blended with orchestral instruments, and synths and mixed with sounds recorded from the area.  According to Jackson Greenberg, “Matt [Heineman, director] came to us with the idea of using a lot of the natural sounds he had recorded during his time in Mexico to create a musical soundscape that was grounded in the locations that the film took place.”  H. Scott Salinas adds, “We worked very closely to shape the exact sound of the film, incorporating not only instruments of the regions but actual field recordings of the natural environment that Matt captured while shooting. Cicadas became violins. Gunshots became drums…To tell the tale of the two worlds colliding, the human condition vs. the gritty, cutthroat meth production, we juxtaposed organic acoustic instruments like vibraphone, charango, mandolin, against synthetic edgy instruments like synthesizers and drum machines.  In a neat twist we also featured the more Mexican instruments in the Arizona scenes, and the more American instruments when we were in Mexico, subtly uniting the two stories while reversing the expected.”

                Thus, we hear acoustic guitars, mandolins and charangos combined with vibraphones, electric guitars and synths cued with sounds from the area.  The score features a somber tone cut with elements of danger signified by edgy electronic sound.  There are no moments of happiness or rejoicing – the stakes are too high here.  In one particular track, Lucky Ones, that sense of danger and a need for quick action are signified by the tapping of drumsticks together which sounds like the ticking of a clock.  The album ends with a catchy rap song called En La Calles which ties up everything, reminding us of the danger and necessity of these vigilante groups in the war against drugs in the streets of their home towns, but also reminding us of the thin line between good and evil these groups walk.

                I really enjoyed the Cartel Land Soundtrack, as much for the exotic sound as for the story the music tells.  Sure, the music is somber, but the drama of the documentary is perfectly represented here.  This is one soundtrack definitely worth the listen.


For feedback, visit our message board or e-mail the author at