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The American Dream Lives In Los Lobos

January 25, 1987|VICTOR VALLE

After starting as a party band during the late '60s, the group took what must've seemed a step backwards by setting out to master Mexico's regional music and its instruments.

But this seeming retreat into the challenging huasteca and jarocho traditions, for example, allowed them to cultivate a versatility and sense of ensemble that would later serve them well.

"I think we were lucky to be immersed in such a definitive style," said Perez, who at that time played guitar. "Mexican music is so heavy on musicianship. It was almost like a theory course. Most American traditional music (which for Perez implicitly includes the music of all the Americas) is really complex. Not everybody can pick up a vihuela (an unfretted precursor of the modern guitar), a banjo or a fiddle."

The traditional music also trained their ears to appreciate other strains of American music. "In a sense we've become musicologists in our appreciation for all kinds of music," Rosas said.

The comfortable, countrified side of their music is, in a sense, a reflection of their love of Mexican ranchera and Norteno music. Cajun music, Rosas explains, shares the same joyful "intensity" of Mexican music. "It's happy music."

Their are other parallels with Mexican and country music, he adds. "There's nothing like a true song with a verse and bridge. We are really conscious about writing songs. With this whole commercial bull--the techno-pop--the song has sort of been lost. That's why country music is one of the last holdouts."

Beyond refining their technical skills, their relative obscurity gave them the kind of space to mature as a group and as individuals, said Lozano. "Personally, for me, I learned much more about myself. It did something to our personalities because of the brotherhood," he added, "it drew us together."

But this roots period would not have been possible if not for two factors: the increasing commercialization of the rock-pop scene with bands designed in corporate board rooms and the emergence of the Chicano political and cultural movement.

In the early '70s, Rosas said, a once vital East L.A. rock scene had turned sour. "It was really an ugly time," he said. "We were subjected to learning (the group) America's hits. I had to learn 'Tin Man.' Musically, our ears were burnt out on the Top 40 tunes."

Filling the void was the Chicano political activism of the late '60s and early '70s, which provided Los Lobos with an audience hungry for their roots and a steady source of income.

"The weddings were really a cool thing to do," Rosas said. "You got paid and fed well. It was laid back, you got to be intimate with people." And most important, Perez said, they were pleasing themselves by gradually re-injecting rock into their performing menu.

But as cultural nationalism began to wane in the '80s, the group was faced with some hard choices: they could drift off into the obscurity of the cantinas and restaurants or try to find a place for themselves in the L.A. rock scene.

"It was hard to give up the community jobs for the Hollywood scene," Perez said, about giving up gigs paying as much as $2,000 a weekend. But in the Hollywood rock clubs, he said they'd only get paid $10 for a night or $50 and some beer. "Sometimes," he continued, "we'd have to chase the guy with our check down the street. We did that for a year."

And then Los Lobos opened for the Blasters at the Whisky--and they were on their way.

Los Lobos' climb hasn't been universally applauded. Some members of the Latino community have complained that the band has turned its back on them by refusing to perform at private affairs or fund raisers.

"They're not accessible," said an individual who has followed the band but who asked not to be identified. "We are having a fund raiser. Can you sort of drop what you are doing? They say, 'No, talk to my manager.' Success has gone to their heads, some people say."

Perez seemed a bit defensive when the point was raised.

"I feel very poorly about that because it's not true," he said. "Maybe they think we're giving them some form-type of reply," he said, but the group still performs for community events, including their Cinco de Mayo appearances at Lincoln Park.

Still, he said, the group will never be able to match their former levels of community participation because more of their time is now consumed in balancing their concert, recording and family obligations.

And as for playing weddings or baptisms again, that's out of the question.

"It's kind of silly," Perez said. "We worked real hard so we wouldn't have to do that anymore." Looking out the window at the passing scene, he added: "That paletero (Popsicle vendor) is working hard now so he won't to do that the rest of his life."

Others, such as Cal State L.A.'s Sandoval, say there is also some lingering resentment among those who used to criticize the band for not being political enough.

But Luis Torres, a reporter for KNX radio and co-producer with Sandoval of the band's first album, dismissed the criticism as simplistic and unfair.

"They were never political in an overt sense," Torres concedes. "But they never had to completely define" their politics because their music did this for them. "The pride in their music reflects the obligation we should have to one another. Those threads are still there. It is subtlely a statement about pride and identity."

Los Lobos agree.

Even now, when Rosas sings "Prenda del Alma" with a wide, sentimental vibrato, he is making a statement about a tradition exemplified by Los Alegres de Tehran, a Norteno group they have long admired.

"When they die, it's going to be the last of the Norteno singers that still carry on the old tradition," Rosas said. "That was my thinking on that."

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