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POP MUSIC

Proud to Be All Over the Map

Leaving the border terrain of its debut CD, Los Super Seven went on a pan-Latin musical odyssey.

March 11, 2001|OSCAR GARZA | Oscar Garza is editor of The Times' Daily Calendar section

"Mira que bonito y sabroso bailan el mambo los Mexicanos / mueven la cintura y los hombros igualito que los Cubanos . . ."

*

In a recording studio in Burbank, Raul Malo is tacking a verse from "Bonito y sabroso" by the late, great Cuban singer Beny More onto the end of "Me voy pa'l pueblo," a song made famous decades ago by Mexico's foremost interpreters of romantic boleros, the Trio Los Panchos.

Just what the babalu is going on here?

It's startling enough to hear the convincing performance by Malo, who came to fame in the early '90s as lead singer of the Nashville-based, pop/alt-country band the Mavericks. It's just as surprising to see the musicians and singers who are providing accompaniment: Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, whose forays into Latin music have mostly leaned toward the accordion-based sound of the Mexican border region; and Texan singers Ruben Ramos and Rick Trevino, whose respective tejano and country musical roots are miles from the tropical sounds being created here on this night.

But in the back of the room, an older, bespectacled, slender gentleman nods his approval at the recording. If "Nacho" Camarena is happy, then the new direction taken by Los Super Seven on its second album must be on the mark.

"I wasn't sure they could successfully perform this music," says Camarena, a prolific record collector and amateur musicologist in Guadalajara, Mexico, who served as a consultant to the project. "But they did it, and it sounds marvelous."

The refrain from More's "Bonito y sabroso" translates to: "Look how well Mexicans dance the mambo /They move and sway just like the Cubans do."

Listening to the results on the new Super Seven album, it appears Mexicans--in this case, Mexican Americans--can also play and sing mambos just like los Cubanos.

This ad hoc "supergroup," which won a Grammy in 1999 for best Mexican American music performance, is turning into a sort of Latin music travelogue.

The ensemble, whose first disc focused on music from the U.S.-Mexico border region, has taken an alternate route for its follow-up album, which is being released Tuesday on Columbia/Legacy. Titled "Canto" (which can translate to "song" or "I sing"), the album takes more of a pan-Latin approach and has a decidedly tropical feel. (See review, Page 66.)

And there's a slightly different crew of musical travel guides. Returning are the versatile Rosas and Hidalgo, who both contributed original songs to the album, and Ramos and Trevino--singers whose interest in a wide range of musical styles helped them adapt to the new approach.

But because of the change in direction, the Tex-Mex oriented musicians from the first album--Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Joe Ely--aren't on the new disc. They're replaced by Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso, Peruvian diva Susana Baca and Malo, who grew up in a Cuban household in Miami.

And, there's actually an eighth major contributor--L.A. keyboardist Alberto Salas, who arranged the album, working closely with producer Steve Berlin, the Lobos' saxophonist-keyboardist who reprises his role from the first album.

If this all seems like a recipe with a lot of odd ingredients, consider these facts: Cuban mambo king Perez Prado actually made his name in Mexico; two of the original members of the Trio Los Panchos were Mexican, but the third, Hernando Aviles, was Puerto Rican; and talented Puerto Rican musicians have been coming to the mainland since the island became a commonwealth in 1917.

While various genres of Latin music have distinct roots, the sounds have traveled far and wide throughout the hemisphere, feeding and seeding generations of musicians.

"It's funny because Latinos always want to take credit for certain little things," said Malo during a recent visit to L.A. "Take the Trio Los Panchos: I've heard Mexicans say they're Mexican; I've heard Puerto Ricans say they're Puerto Rican. And the truth is, they're probably both right. And it's music I listened to growing up."

Malo laughs when asked if his childhood memories include hearing a Los Panchos recording with Eydie Gorme--an album that was ubiquitous in Mexican American households.

"If you're Latino and grew up in this country, you have to have it, don't you?" jokes the singer. "Isn't it government-issued?

"We're so close, everybody is so related. The more I travel, the more I realize we're all the same."

*

Language and geography may provide ties, but that doesn't mean all Latino musicians can perform all styles of Latin music--the issue at hand as Dan Goodman, who manages Trevino, and Berlin prepared to record a follow-up album that would include a healthy dose of the Cuban style known as son. And there was also the issue of abandoning the format that had earned a Grammy and widespread praise for the first disc.

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