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The Musique Man

In Paris, Lalo Guerrero, the Father of Chicano Music, Has Crowds Dancing in the Aisles and Shouting for More

March 11, 1998|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Lalo Guerrero has gone four days without Mexican food, and he can't take it anymore. Tonight, he's passing on p^ate, vetoing les medaillons de veau and deep-sixing fromage, unless it's on nachos.

The 81-year-old father of Chicano music--who hours earlier wowed 800 Parisians with songs of Mexican American pride at the prestigious la Cite de la Musique--is in Europe for the first time, and he's desperate for tortillas.

So on this celebratory evening in the City of Light, the lovable, legendary crooner from the City of Angels satisfies his chops at Ay Caramba, a cantina-cabaret.

Lalo--as he prefers to be called--gets the works, including Tio Nachos, described in French as chips de ble, and beaucoup guacamole, enchiladas, chile con carne, a pitcher of margaritas. And, oui, plenty of soft, warm flour tortillas, just like the ones his mother, Concepcion, used to pat into shape. When he bites into them, the butter drip-drip-drips off the ends.

With every bite, Lalo forgets he is far from his desert home in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.

"Can you dig this? It feels like East L.A. in here," he marvels, mesmerized by the trappings of an Olvera Street eatery: sombreros, serapes, neon Dos Equis signs on the walls. He is flanked by his sons, Dan, 57, a television executive producer, and Mark, 47, a composer, guitarist and singer.

Both accompanied their dad, who earlier brought the house down at la Cite--a government-funded arts complex--belting out songs about his beloved Chicano culture.

It seems as if all of Paris knows Lalo is in town. Here, the diners--Latinos living in Paris, Spaniards, the French--are buzzing around him. They want photos, autographs, a handshake, a hug. And then comes: "How about a song, Lalo?"

He joins fellow musician Lorenzo Martinez of East Los Angeles on the restaurant's small stage, framed with chili pepper lights. For 30 minutes, Lalo romances women with ballads, befriends men with Chicano blues, the appreciative audience digging his joie de vivre.

"I love all of Paris for acknowledging my Chicano music," Lalo tells the crowd, toasting the city that has welcomed him.

Indeed, everywhere he goes--the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, a guest spot on Radio Nova's weekly Latino show, a cab ride, a stroll along the Seine--Lalo becomes the toast of Paris. On metro station billboards, storefront windows, walls of buildings are posters publicizing his appearance.

And his performance with Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez, which capped la Cite's three-day American music fest, is, well, just another plume in his chapeau.

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For six decades, Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero has entertained and endeared lovers of Chicano music.

In films, he sang and played guitar beside Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum, George Raft and Gilbert Roland. On Spanish-language talk TV, he was Paul Rodriguez's sidekick. In music, he had five songs in the top 10 in the 1950s and '60s on the Latin and American music charts in the U.S., Mexico and South America. His 1955 crossover hit "Pancho Lopez," a parody of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," launched him as a bicultural musician.

Among his best-selling recordings are 50 children's Spanish-language albums recorded under the group name Las Ardillitas, or the Squirrels, in which Lalo performs the high-pitched voices of Panfilo, Demetrio and Anacleto, encouraging kids to obey their parents and stay in school.

Mexican music legend Lucha Reyes recorded Lalo's "Cancion Mexicana" in 1941; the tribute to the beauty of Mexican music has become Mexico's unofficial national anthem.

Three years ago, Lalo's work with Los Lobos got him a Grammy nod for "Papa's Dream," on which Lalo, who wrote lyrics for several of the folk songs, was the joyful, bilingual singing storyteller.

Well known for his ability to change with the times, Lalo has adapted the musical styles of boleros and corridos, rancheras and salsa, tropical and tejano, comic parodies and children's songs, and everything in between: rock, mariachi, swing.

But it's his songs about the Chicano experience--songs that have chronicled history as well as his advocacy for farm workers, zoot-suiters, immigrants, children and multiculturalism--that get crowds on their feet.

Amalia DeAztlan, a Coachella Valley political activist and community leader, says Lalo's songs "are an inspiration, a powerful voice for our community. He is an old-timer who is not afraid to voice his opinion."

Steven Loza, a UCLA ethnomusicologist who featured Lalo in his book "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican-American Music in Los Angeles" (University of Illinois Press, 1993), says Lalo, by far, is the most important contributor of Chicano music. "He speaks, thinks and composes in both English and Spanish, which represents the bicultural experience of the Mexican American, and he does it with profundity, dignity and humor."

Simply put, says movie producer and friend Nancy Alicia de Los Santos: "He is our First Chicano."

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