Los Angeles – They are seen as the progenitors of Chicano rock ‘n’ roll, the first band that had the boldness, and some might even say the naiveté, to fuse punk rock with Mexican folk tunes.
It was a group called Los Lobos that had the unusual idea of putting an accordion, a saxophone and something called a bajo sexto alongside drums and Fender Stratocaster guitars and then blasting a ranchera-flavored folk tune or a Conjunto inspired melody through double reverb amps at about twice the volume you’d normally expect to hear.
“They were Latinos who weren’t afraid to break the mold of what’s expected and what’s traditionally played. That made them legendary, even to people who at first weren’t that familiar with their catalog,” said Greg Gonzalez of the young, Grammy-winning Latino-funk fusion band Grupo Fantasma.
To the guys in Los Lobos, however, the band that began to take shape some 40-odd years ago in the hallways of a barrio high school is still “just another band from East LA,” the words the group has used in the title of not one but two of its more than two dozen albums.
As a yearlong celebration of Los Lobos’ 40th anniversary gets under way, having officially begun on Thanksgiving, much is likely to be made of how the band began as a humble mariachi group, toiling anonymously for nearly a decade at East LA weddings and backyard parties before the unlikely arrival of rock stardom.
That’s, well, sort of true.
For long before there was mariachi in Los Lobos’ life, there was power-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Before the Latin trio Las Panchos had an impact, there was Jimi Hendrix.
They were Latinos who weren’t afraid to break the mold of what’s expected and what’s traditionally played. That made them legendary, even to people who at first weren’t that familiar with their catalog.
“I actually went to go see him when I was 14 or 15,” says drummer-guitarist and principal lyricist Louie Perez, recalling how he had badgered his widowed mother to spend some of the hard-earned money she made sewing clothes in a sweatshop on a ticket to a Hendrix show.
“I sat right down front,” he recalls, his voice rising in excitement. “That experience just sort of rearranged my brain cells.”
About the same time, he had met a guitarist named David Hidalgo in an art class at James A. Garfield High, the school made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver that profiled Jaime Escalante’s success in teaching college-level calculus to poor barrio kids. Soon the two had recruited fellow students Conrad Lozano and Cesar Rosas, both experienced musicians.
“Cesar had played in a power trio,” Perez recalls, while Lozano had been playing electric bass guitar for years.
It was sometime in November 1973 (no one remembers the exact day so they picked Thanksgiving) when the band is believed to have been born.
And the group might have stayed just another garage band from East LA, had it not been for a Mexican tradition called Las Mananitas.
“It’s a serenade to someone on their birthday,” Perez explains, and the group members’ mothers had birthdays coming up.
“So we learned about four or five Mexican songs and we went to our parents’ homes and did a little serenade,” Hidalgo recalled separately.
They were such a hit that they began scouring pawn shops for genuine Mexican instruments and really learning to play them.
Because they were at heart a rock ‘n’ roll band, however, they always played the music a little too loud and a little too fast. That was acceptable at the Mexican restaurants that employed them, until they decided to break out the Stratocaster guitars they had so coveted as kids.
“They said, ‘Well, that’s not what we hired you for,'” Perez says, chuckling.
So they headed west down the freeway to Hollywood, where initially the reaction wasn’t much better.
Saxophonist Steve Berlin recalls seeing the hybrid group showered with garbage one night when they opened for Public Image Ltd. Two years later, however, when they opened for Berlin’s group the Blasters, the reaction was different.
“It was quite literally an overnight success kind of thing,” the saxophonist recalls. “By the next morning, everybody I knew in Hollywood, all they were talking about was this band Los Lobos.”
A few nights later, they asked Berlin if he might jam with them. They were working up some tunes melding punk rock with Norteno, a Latin music genre that uses an accordion and a saxophone, and they needed a sax player.
For his part, Berlin says, he had never heard of Norteno music.
Something clicked, however, and soon he was producing the group’s first true rock album, 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” At the end of the sessions he was in the band.
The next 28 years would be pretty much the same kind of up-and-down ride as the first 12 were.
The group became international rock stars in 1987 with their version of the Mexican folk tune La Bamba for the soundtrack of the film of the same name. They melded 1950s teen idol Ritchie Valens’ rock interpretation with the original Son Jarocho style and sent the song to No. 1.
A two-year tour and a couple albums that nobody bought followed, leaving the group broke and disillusioned.
So they poured their anger and disillusionment into the lyrics and power chords of “Kiko,” the 1992 album now hailed as their masterpiece. A new version, recorded live, was released earlier this year.
The influence of Los Lobos’ cross-cultural work can be heard to this day in the music of such varied young Latino groups as the hip-hop rockers Ozomatli, the Son Jarocho-influenced alt-music band Las Cafeteras and the Latino pop-rock group La Santa Cecilia, says Josh Kun, an expert on cross-border music.
“All of these bands inherited, wittingly or not, the experimental and style crossing instincts that Los Lobos proved were possible while hanging onto and developing your roots as a Mexican-American group,” said Kun, who curated the Grammy Museum’s recent “Trouble in Paradise” exhibition that chronicled the modern history of LA music.
For Los Lobos, winner of three Grammys, that was just the natural way of doing things for guys, Perez says, who learned early on that they didn’t fit in completely on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“As Mexican-Americans in the U.S. we’re not completely accepted on this side of the border. And then on the other side of the border it’s like, ‘Well, what are you?'” he mused.
“So if that’s the case,” he added brightly, “then, hey, we belong everywhere.”