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Cirque Du Soleil
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Cover Story [Issue # 8 ]
Los Lobos: The Wolves Are Back...To Take You On The Ride

By Mandana Beigi

The Ride ( CD Mammoth/Hollywood )
Listen to Los Lobos on the ONE WAY CD 8

So, it is the year 2004 and a lot has changed since 1974. The population of East Los Angeles has almost tripled over the last three decades, MTV has been created, and MP3s are ruling the music world. One century has ended and another has begun. But one thing still remains the same: Los Lobos.

It’s been 30 years since the Garfield High School boys got together and created a band that began playing at weddings, parties, and restaurants in East Los Angeles. In 1974, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, and Cesar Rosas formed Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (the Wolves of East L.A.) after a popular Tex-Mex band, Los Lobos Del Norte and Steve Berlin joined the band in1984. “We were friends before we were ever a band,” says Louie Perez. “During the day we’d get together with a couple of acoustic guitars and we’d sit in the backyard and learn these old Mexican songs from our parents’ records, which we called the soundtrack of the Barrios.” The barrio was, in fact, where it all began. The first-hand experience of growing up Mexican-American in Los Angeles was the foundation for a band that learned how to play something for everyone without “forcing it.” And anyone who hadn’t already heard of Los Lobos certainly did in 1987 when the band’s cover of Ritchie Valen’s “La Bamba” made the hit charts.

After 11 albums, numerous chart toppers, and three Grammy awards, Los Lobos are back to celebrate their 30th anniversary with a self-produced record and an all-star line-up of guests including: Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Ruben Blades, R&B legends Mavis Staples and Bobby Womack, Mexico City rockers Café Tacuba, Martha Gonzales of Quetzal, and East L.A. cultural icon Willie G., just to mention a few. “The idea began with us feeling a little nostalgic by getting closer to our 30th anniversary. We decided that we didn’t want to do like an obvious 30th anniversary album, but still wanted to celebrate that by maneuvering through a sort of memoir or autobiography kinda thing,” says Louie Perez about the album, The Ride. “So we said, ‘why don’t we just invite a bunch of friends?’ And we started to plan it and you know, planning isn’t one of our strengths,” chuckles Louie. He continues, “Then we started to make a list of everyone who we wanted to perform on this record . . . like a wish list . . . things that you know you’d never get. We started making the phone calls and, to our surprise, no one said ‘no.’” Steve Berlin adds, “The record shaped as we went along with it. I can tell you that it was a very organic process.”

The Ride begins with “La Vanganza De Los Pelados,” featuring Café Tacuba, and ends with “A Phone Call To Rita” - a 31-second one-sided phone conversation with Los Lobos tuning up in the background; “Hey, does anybody wanna make a run to Davis and pick up Rita?,” asks the man on the phone. “We were looking for something that goes back to like 1978 and then found this piece that we recorded at a friend’s house up north close to UC Davis. He passed away a couple of years ago. We also dedicated the record to him,” says Louie. “It was just a very sentimental thing about a friend and we wanted to include that on the album.” A remix of “Is This All There Is?” featuring Willie G. retells the tale of the immigrants one more time after 17 years: “searching for the promised land . . . tired souls with the empty hands, asking to themselves, is this all there is?” The promised land is perhaps far from East L.A., where the limited social and economic resources continue to restrict the quality of life for thousands of Mexican immigrants who have found a second home in the city of angels. “I remember writing that song. I grew up in East L.A. - a few blocks away from a sweatshop and my mother was a sewing machine operator. Life for the migrants must be so incredible. They endure so much hardship and work really hard, knowing that they are not welcome here,” says Louie about the song. And I wonder if “Is This All There Is?” is a subtle answer to “Matter of Time” (another remix track on The Ride,) the story of a migrant who is leaving his family to cross the border: “there’s a better world out there but it don’t seem right . . . will it be like our home? It’s just a matter of time.”

In the early 70s, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement was bursting out of the streets of East L.A. and by the time Los Lobos began their journey, the images and memories of the 1970 rally through the Belvedere Park and Salazar (Laguna) Park were becoming a historical phenomena in the history of Mexican-Americans. The influence of the Chicano Power and the Brown Berets was inevitable in the creation of the music, art, literature, and even fashion of that time. The political and cultural ferment of the mid-70s opened up a whole new chapter for the East L.A. rockers who became interested in listening to and studying the traditional Mexican music that their parents played in their homes. “[The Chicano movement] started mid-to late-60s in a more militant sort of manifestation, but by the time we were out of high school (mid-70s), it was more about cultural awareness; so we approached that as a bunch of kids out of high school and discovered Mexican music on a purely musical level,” says Louie. But what set Los Lobos above the rest of the bands in East L.A. was their creative ability to mix the traditional Mexican sound with rock, folk, salsa, blues, R&B, gospel, country, and pretty much anything else that sounded good to them. Yes, they are of Latin descent and yes, they do have norteno beats and bajo sexto; but, above all, Los Lobos are just a great rock band and very few rock bands have managed to stay untied to the rock genre. Los Lobos’ ever-changing sound is the perfect symbol of musical freedom and the conglomeration of identities; it’s being everything and nothing at the same time.

The album swings back and forth in time from straight-ahead salsa “Ya Se Va” and Bobby Womach’s Soul “Wicked Rain/Across 110th Street” to the groovy gospel/blues “Someday” and the country-blues ballad “Matter of Time.” The Ride has also taken the new generation of Latin acts on board. Café Tacuba and Quetzal’s Martha Gonzalez were among the “wish list” of Los Lobos in the making of this album. “I love what’s going on now with the Latin bands like Kinky and Café Tacuba,” says Steve, who also believes that the music industry’s capitalization on Latin music is only making it more difficult for the newer bands to survive. “I think the business has changed so much. When we started, it was very different. It wasn’t as expensive to tour and we could just go out and play music. We really never needed the label’s or anyone else’s money to make and sell music. That’s not doable anymore,” he adds. “Also, the radio was friendlier to our generation and that made a big difference in our career as a band. I don’t know, maybe the Internet could make up for these things!”

The industry does, in fact, drive the new bands on their journey, thus controlling a considerable portion of their creative freedom in the writing, producing, recording, and selling of their music. However, that doesn’t completely stop artists from reflecting their social-political views in their music. If anything, the new generation of rockers show more interest in participating in social, political, and cultural movements and projects. Many artists work closely with organizations to raise social awareness among their audience and this is something that was rarely seen as an active mission in the past. “We had to resist a lot of pressure especially from the Chicanos that were really into the movement to make our music more political but we always tried to stay more focused on the music knowing that innately it was political. Now I think what’s happening with bands like Quetzal and Ozomatli, is that they are more keen on the message than we were back then,” explains Louie.

With the emergence of Latin pop as a major genre in the late 90s, the perception and position of Latin music has changed drastically since the 60s and the 70s. The new Latin wave has given the genre recognition and mainstream popularity for the pop acts; but, at the same time, it has created a segregation between the commercial Latin music and the alternative (or rock) sound that doesn’t identify with the movement. “Everyone asks me about the Latin wave and what it’s doing to our career and I would say nothing. Absolutely nothing. If anything, I see it as a little bit of a threat because it’s creating a standard, which makes people define Latin music based on that. Most of the Mexicans were left out of the Latin Grammies because it was all organized by the Florida-based Latin pop artists,” points out Louie Perez.

But, regardless of where this Latin wave takes us, I can guarantee that Los Lobos will continue to surprise us in the years to come. In 1984, Los Lobos asked How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash Records) and I think they’ve answered their own question in the best possible way in The Ride. “We’ve always tried to stay free. We survived by maintaining our dignity and not selling out for anything or anybody,” says Steve. Thirty years is a long time for a band and “the best of it all,” says Louie, “is that if we took music away, we’d still be friends.”

The Ride

Listen to (Los Lobos) on the ONE WAY CD

The Wolves Are Back...To Take You On The Ride Los Lobos The Ride

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