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Los Lobos in Aspen: Una aventura musical

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Contributed photoLos Lobos perform an acoustic, Latin-music-oriented show Sunday, March 22 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” Back before Los Lobos made Latin-tinged rock ‘n’ roll with an edgy, experimental approach, they were just another band of kids from L.A. ” a bunch of normal American youngsters wanting to play loud, electric guitar music, and looking to such role models as Jimi Hendrix and Cream. The fact that they came out of the Hispanic-leaning barrio of East Los Angeles, and had names like Perez, Rosas and Hidalgo had no bearing on their musical aspirations.

“There was no Latin influence on us. We were like any kids in the U.S.,” said Louie Perez, who as a teenager played in a garage band with his buddy David Hidalgo, while Cesar Rosas, their future Los Lobos mate, was singing in a 16-piece soul group.

But on the way to becoming mainstream rockers, Los Lobos got tripped up by their own roots. While hanging out together, and playing music as an extension of their friendship, the original foursome of Perez, Hidalgo, Rosas and Conrad Lozano got a sudden interest in something they had previously ignored: the record collections of their parents, mostly first-generation American immigrants by way of Mexico. To their shock, the music ” Spanish-language, played not on electric guitar but accordions and saxophones and the four-string jarocho, written not by Hendrix or Clapton but by Fernando Maldonado and Jesus Monge ” captivated them ” mind, body and fingers.

“We dragged out the records our parents had, the stuff we had overlooked,” said Perez, who was originally appointed the band’s drummer, but has since become a guitarist, singer and the lyricist in a songwriting partnership with Hidalgo. “We saw it wasn’t easy; it was complicated. And we got totally hooked. Enthralled, fascinated. Obsessed. That’s all we did. We set aside rock ‘n’ roll. It was a long time before we went back to rock ‘n’ roll.”

The next step was to get the proper instruments to play the music: the bajo sexto, the jarana, the requinto. The easy part was buying them. In the Los Angeles of 1973, Mexican-Americans looking to assimilate were shedding such possessions, and pawn shops were selling the instruments for $15 or so. The harder part, said Perez, was figuring out how to tune them.

Within a few years, however, they had mastered the instruments well enough to record “Just Another Band From East L.A.” The 1978 album, featuring such South of the Border tunes as “La Iguana” and “El Pescador Nadador,” was credited to Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles. The album made the band a bit of a sensation ” but an extremely localized one, playing backyard quinceaneras and the like around the neighborhood. In 1980, the band found its way back to rock, but not until 1983 would Los Lobos emerge as a plugged-in band, playing its own English-language songs, with the EP “… And a Time to Dance.”

– – – –

For the past 25 years, Los Lobos ” who were joined in the mid-’80s by saxophonist Steve Berlin, a Philadelphia Jew with no Mexican blood to speak of ” have made a habit of not looking back. Starting with the 1984 album “How Will the Wolf Survive?” ” and really cranking it up with 1992’s “Kiko” ” the band announced itself as envelope-pushers. They mixed Latin and rock sounds, English and Spanish, but with their frequent collaborators, the production duo of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, they also experimented with production techniques, song structures, instrumentation and soloing style.

And Los Lobos made sure never to get stuck in one experimental mode. Each album seemed to start almost from scratch; each completed project had a different edge to it.

“We rarely repeat ourselves. We’re always looking for different things to do, always challenging ourselves and our audience with this adventure we’re on,” said Perez.

Los Lobos have stretched out by playing songs by the Grateful Dead, Marvin Gaye and Cream; they had a monster hit with their cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” recorded for the 1987 film of the same name. Further experimentation has come in a variety of side projects. The Latin Playboys, a group that Perez and Hidalgo formed with Froom and Blake that put out two albums in the ’90s, went the most outside in terms of sound and structure. Hidalgo also made a wonderfully modernist blues album, “Houndog,” with Canned Heat’s Mike Halby, and has been a member of the Latino supergroup Los Super Seven. Rosas has recorded with Los Super Seven, and recorded the 1999 solo album “Soul Disguise.”

Los Lobos’ most recent CD, 2006’s “The Town and the City,” offered their latest turn in the road. The critically acclaimed album generally found the band at its quietest, with a folkish feel, and at its most thematically consistent, singing about the immigrant experience.

Two years ago, the band began taking a backward glance. They picked up their old Mexican instruments ” actually, newly purchased, better versions of those instruments ” and began playing acoustic shows featuring the South of the Border material they played through the ’70s. Their current tour, which stops at Belly Up on Sunday, March 22, finds Perez on the eight-string jarana, Hidalgo on the requinto and jarocho, Lozano on the guitaron, and Rosas on the bajo sexto. Berlin gets to stay with his usual saxophone: “It’s one of the primary instruments in Tex-Mex,” said Perez.

Playing the material ” including songs from Colombia and Cuba, as well as various regions of Mexico ” 35 years after first learning it is like exploring new ground. The band recently listened to some of their recordings from the mid-’70s, and were struck by how they sounded on the Latin tunes back then.

“You hear these young kids applying the rock sensibility, really playing it hard,” said the 56-year-old Perez, from his home in Orange County. Now, “the energy is still there. But it’s a mature energy.

“It’s quite a work-out. You’re using very different muscles ” almost literally ” to play these instruments. It gives us a sense of our history.”

– – – –

The next corner is perhaps the oddest of all for Los Lobos. They are set to release, probably in the fall, a collection of reinterpreted songs from the Disney films catalogue. (Los Lobos had been signed until recently to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records label.) Perez says the album is not intended exclusively for children, though the songs ” “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio,” “Bella Notte” from “Lady and the Tramp,” “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” from “Toy Story” ” all originated in kids-oriented movies. The album also features a Spanish-language take on “Heigh-Ho” from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Also completed, and still to be released, is another backward-looking project: a CD/DVD package of the entire “Kiko” album, performed live.

Most in line with Los Lobos’ standard mode of operation, however, is the album they intend to record this spring. The songs have not been written; there is no plan for how it will sound, what the mix between English and Spanish will be. If the next album follows like past recordings, the quintet will assemble in a studio with perhaps three songs, and will see what happens next.

Perez says he has no idea about the next album. “Which is always kind of exciting,” he said. “The last record, ‘The Town and the City’ ” I had no idea that was the record that was going to come out. I think about the kind of record I’d like to make ” but that’s probably not how it will come out. We write as we record and it just starts to unfold.”

Chances are the album will sound fresh ” not just when it comes out, but 20 years later, too. Like a longer-lasting, touring, Latin-accented version of the Beatles (but without the quibbling), Los Lobos reinvent themselves from record to record, with rewarding results.

“We still maintain that sense of discovery,” said Perez. “It’s like we’ve been together 36 days, not 36 years. And we’re not going anywhere.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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