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For Tosti, the Zoot Suit Still Fits

The bandleader who helped spark a craze in the '40s still loves fusion. The pachuco era's sounds are on a CD for the first time.

June 29, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Old pachucos never die. They just move to Palm Springs and keep the memories alive.

Bandleader Don Tosti, the man who helped spark a Mexican American musical craze with his 1948 tune "Pachuco Boogie," lives in a tidy home off Palm Canyon Drive with his pet Chihuahua, named Cacahuate (Peanut). Widowed for many years, the musician dotes on the dog, which he keeps in a comfy baby pen surrounded by stuffed animals.

Tosti no longer wears a zoot suit, the baggy garb that symbolized the rebelliousness and vitality of a generation of Mexican American youth in the '40s and early '50s. But that doesn't mean he can't cut a colorful figure still.

During a recent hot afternoon, he emerged from his home wearing a guayabera, red shorts, matching red socks pulled up to his knees and white patent-leather loafers. He started swearing almost from the first sentence.

"You know," he says, listening to his famous song in a visitor's car on the way to lunch, "I wrote this [junk] 54 years ago. That's me doing the rap. Orale! I'm a pachuco."

It sounds like he still gets a kick from his work.

"Oh, yeah," says Tosti, 79. "I'm way ahead of my time."

For the first time, the music that defined the pachuco era is available on CD in a compilation that borrows the title of Tosti's trend-setting hit, "Pachuco Boogie." The collection of 21 historic tracks, released on Arhoolie Records, was recorded mostly in Los Angeles between 1948 and 1954, several restored from the original 78 rpm discs.

Many will recall the exciting, finger-popping spirit of the music from the soundtrack to "Zoot Suit," the 1978 play by Luis Valdez that explored the persecution of pachucos and their emerging culture during World War II. Treated as traitors and undesirables, the Mexican American youth were assaulted by sailors during race riots fanned by the sensationalist Hearst press.

The play featured one track included in the compilation, "Los Chucos Suaves," a tropical tune done Mexican-style by Chicano singer-songwriter Lalo Guerrero, who coincidentally also lives in the Palm Springs area.

This is fusion music before the term was invented. It's a blend of the popular styles of the day--swing, boogie-woogie and jump blues--with mambo rhythms and a Mexican touch. Because the lyrics are in Spanish, spiced with the lively, hep-cat brand of pachuco slang called calo, some consider Pachuco music a precursor of today's rock en espanol.

Although caught in a cultural war, pachucos were the first wave of Mexican Americans to embrace American pop culture and make it their own. They eschewed old-fashioned Mexican music and absorbed the sounds reverberating in their urban barrios.

"They were rappers, in a way," says Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie's president who produced the pachuco compilation. "Half of it is talking, and all in this low-life lingo. It was street music, you know. It's the first time that the low-lifers really rose to popularity, and people frowned on them: 'Oh, those loafers!' "

Strachwitz's unique collection of Mexican music, including 14,000 78s dating to before the country's revolution began in 1910, has served as a basis for other historic Arhoolie compilations, such as the series on Tex-Mex border music. For the pachuco retrospective, he teamed with Bay Area DJ Chuy Varela, who wrote the liner notes and contributed some of the selections from his own shellac collection.

"The music swings with a raw sense of improvisation," Varela wrote. "The sound of the Pachuco Boogie Boys--Raul Diaz scatting like a jazz singer, [Bob] Hernandez blowing [sax] like a Chicano Lester Young, Tosti walking the bass like his hero, Jimmy Blanton--demonstrated the affection they had developed for swing and jazz music."

The Boogie Boys also included the "stellar" piano of Eddie Cano, a standout Latin jazz pianist from East L.A.

But not all Latinos were impressed at the time. Like their Anglo counterparts, conservatives in the Mexican American community expressed contempt for the pachuco lifestyle.

Their distaste is documented in the compilation through tunes like "Los Pachucos," a corrido by Las Hermanas Mendoza. The song condemns the young zoot-suiters for their alleged laziness, comparing them to crows, "so elegant in suspenders and slacks, who don't know how to work, but they know how to dance."

Lazy is the last thing you could call Don Tosti, whose real name is Edmundo Martinez Tostado. He was born in a tough barrio of El Paso, where the pachuco craze started. He never knew his father and was raised primarily by his grandparents and aunts. (Although, his hits were recorded under his father's name, Don Ramon Sr., because a musician unions strike prevented the Boogie Boys from working under their real names.)

Tosti was always getting into fights as a kid, so he was forced to study music to stay out of trouble.

By the time he was 10, he was playing violin with the El Paso Symphony.

"I admire knowledge, intelligence, ability," he says. "You only acquire them from studying and practicing."

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