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Los Lobos: How the Wolves Survived : For 20 years, they've kept their back-yard charm while developing into something far greater than 'just another band from East L.A.'

August 29, 1993|LUIS TORRES | Luis Torres is a Los Angeles journalist with KNX-AM

This week, Slash Records releases a boxed CD set commemorating the 20th anniversary of Los Lobos. This recollection of their early days is by the co-producer of their first recording, "Just Another Band From East L.A.," selections from which appear on the CD collection.

Today, Los Lobos are internationally acclaimed--and with good reason. They are uniquely talented and widely popular with audiences and critics.

Their talent and perseverance have made them among the most highly regarded pop-music groups in the United States and beyond. In a subtle, understated way, they are "stars." But it wasn't like that 20 years ago . . .

In the beginning, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano played for a case of beer and a few bucks to put gas in the van. And they played anywhere: barrio barbecues complete with a goat roasting in a mesquite-fired pit, back-yard birthday parties, weddings and quinceaneras-- those coming-out celebrations for young Latinas entering adulthood.

Very soon, these young East L.A. musicians were demanding to be paid two cases. And it escalated quickly.

Today, Los Lobos pack large venues. But something of the back-yard performance ambiance persists in their concerts and personas. Among other things, they are links between one generation and the next. Continuity. Raices. But they are about discovery and innovation, too. They've traveled a long way from East L.A. garage bands to traditional Mexican folk music to the sophistication of their last studio effort, "Kiko." Among Chicanos (especially if you're from anywhere near East L.A.), they are a national treasure.

And the remarkable thing is, to those who wouldn't know a chicharron from a chavala, the guys and their transcendent talent strike a chord deep inside anyway. Audiences in all places, from all places, somehow relate. Good music is good music.

Thinking back on it 20 years after Los Lobos began, there are lots of special moments. We hung out, shared beers. But beyond that, I found myself a fly on the wall at certain pivotal events--big and small--of their journey.

The 'Mexican Radio'

On the East Side of L.A., where there were sometimes little signs in the windows of restaurants that read "English Spoken Here," we all knew "those songs."

Our parents, or maybe our grandparents, were from Mexico, but we were born here. Certainly we didn't think of it in these terms some 30 years ago, but we were the living embodiment of the distillation of two worlds and cultures.

Some of us knew those songs because our mothers listened to Elenita Salinas every early morning in bright yellow kitchens while it was still dark outside, as black as Bustelo coffee. On KWKW, Elenita dispensed chatty advice--a bit like a mexicana Dear Abby. And she flooded the day with music--the songs we grew up with, just as our antepasados did. The sounds of the "Mexican radio" wafted through the warm room while our mothers made sandwiches for lunch and we sat at the table eating avena and drinking either Chocolate Ibarra or Nestle's Quik.

And the guys who would become Los Lobos were among those who heard the songs in that way. Or in the evenings, listening to hefty Admiral phonographs. Mostly on 33 1/3 LPs, but some 78s too. The music washed over us without our knowing it, and yet it filtered down into us, distilled and settled in deep recesses of our beings.

Only these particular four young Chicanos somehow had a certain gift that allowed them eventually to mine those experiences in order to make some pretty damn memorable music themselves one day.

Birth of 'The Wolves'

Even most dyed-in-the-wool fans don't know this, but when the band first formed in the early 1970s, they called themselves Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, which means "The Wolves From East Los Angeles."

There used to be a raw norteno band called Los Lobos del Norte. Norteno music, as the name suggests, is from Northern Mexico--along the U.S. border. It is polka-based, gritty, working-class dance music--sort of the C&W of Mexico. It's the less risque parent of today's banda music.

Since those norteno guys were the wolves of the north, then these disheveled, long-haired Chicanos would be the wolves of the East--L.A., that is.

They had all played in garage bands while attending Garfield High School and had been working on "trying to sound just like the record"--stuff they heard on 93 KHJ and then-Top 40 "color radio" KFWB.

Then, around 1975, they put down their electric guitars, picked up acoustic instruments and started fiddling with Mexican folk music. At first gradually, then with more earnestness.

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