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Malo-contents

The Latino group seemed to fade away after its 1972 hit, 'Suavecito.' But vocalist Arcelio Garcia assures all's well with the band.

November 07, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the annals of Latino rock, Malo is a curious footnote.

The lilting, 1972 hit "Suavecito," which reached No. 18 on the pop chart, started the Bay Area group off with a bang. But Malo (Spanish for "bad") was never able to parlay that initial rush out of the gate into anything more than one-hit wonder status.

The group was fronted by guitarist Jorge Santana, a younger look-alike of his more famous brother, Carlos. Other members included alumni of Janis Joplin's Kozmic Blues Band, Mongo Santamaria Santamaria's and Count Basie's band, but those regal ties didn't manage to rescue Malo from obscurity. Even such Latino bands as Thee Premiers, Thee Midnighters, and Cannibal & the Headhunters--groups with only regional success initially--are more fondly recalled by rock historians these days.

Check the rock 'n' roll reference books, and you'll read that Malo crashed and burned in 1974 after three albums. But don't tell that to Malo vocalist Arcelio Garcia.

Garcia says that Malo, which is alive and well with a new product on the market, never did break up--although he is the sole original member of the Malo that will perform Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, in a Latino music concert that also features El Chicano and the Blazers.

Garcia says that the current lineup--which includes vocalist Martin Cantu; guitarist Gabriel Manzo; percussionists Tony Menjavar, Gibby Ross and Victor Pantoja; drummer David George; bassist Ramiro Quezada; keyboardist Gary Fisher; trombonist Steve Rocha; trumpeter Carlton Smith and saxophonist Andy Najera--has been together for 13 years. Jorge Santana, who now serves as road manager for his brother's namesake band, is a frequent Malo guest in concert as well as in the studio.

Los Angeles-based indie Crescendo Records released a "Best of Malo" collection in 1991, and "Senorita," the group's first album of original material in more than two decades, hit the shelves last year. Malo's sound--a complex brew of salsa, pop and soul--is much the same as it ever was, with an edge of contemporary R&B now spicing up the mixture.

"I call it the California sound," said Garcia in a recent phone interview from his San Francisco home. "When I was young, my mother used to play salsa and everything with the horns, and I used to love that. Then Carlos and [the members of Malo] would go see each other play. He had the Carlos Santana Blues Band at the time. We developed that sound together, but the difference was that [in Malo], I added the horns and a lot more Latin sound than Carlos actually did."

Malo is "different from any other band out there playing," Garcia added. "We've got a great dance show; the performers are a high-energy act. So it's basically the same sound with an up-to-date twist."

Garcia, 50, was born in Manati, Puerto Rico, and moved to San Francisco at age 3. He grew up in a Mexican American community, where his friends included the Santana brothers, so his musical heritage is a mixture of many Latino elements.

"They used to call me a Chicano-Rican because I was raised with Mexican culture," said Garcia, chuckling.

Malo was also a product of the Bay Area in the early '70s, where groups such as Santana, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were the kingpins of a very important musical scene and progenitors of the so-called San Francisco sound. The guitar work of Jorge Santana and current Malo guitarist Manzo lift more than a few licks off Carlos' template, creating an odd but compelling contrast as the searing, psychedelic guitar lines cross swords with popping horns and elaborate, merengue rhythms.

"We were plugged in to that San Francisco scene, but we were so different we blew everybody out of the water," said Garcia. "Nobody had ever seen a band like Malo. Today, my fans are, like, 14 to 60."

One young Malo fan grew up to become a prominent performer in the annals of Latino rock herself.

"Gloria Estefan loves this band," said Garcia. "And when she came out, she really set me on fire, God bless her. At the Grammy Awards, they asked her what her musical influences were, and she said, 'Malo.' She even plays 'Suavecito' in her set. Can you believe that?"

Influence and nostalgia aside, Garcia sees Malo as more than a '70s memory and looks forward to taking the group into the next century.

"The next album is going to be our 25th-anniversary album, and it'll be out in February," he said. "I'm going to get some guest stars and some of our old guys back together and put them together with my group [for live shows], and we're going to kill!"

* Who: Malo.

* When: 8 p.m. Friday with El Chicano and the Blazers.

* Where: Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd. (at Lake Center Drive), Santa Ana.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Harbor Boulevard; go north, and take the third right, Lake Center Drive. The theater is on the left.

* Wherewithal: $21.50.

* Where to call: (714) 957-0600.

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