Los Lobos: Out of Mexico, by way of America

The Chicano superstars Los Lobos had a huge hit with 'La Bamba', but there's much more to the outfit than that. With a new live album out, their leader and veteran front man, David Hidalgo, gives Andy Gill a lesson in the ways of Latino popular music
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They're probably best remembered over here for their hit version of the title-song from the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, though that hardly does justice to the range and variety of their music. Nor, for that matter, the skill with which it's performed, not least by Hidalgo himself, who hefts his Telecaster like it's a ukelele as he rips out stinging lead lines, before switching to accordion, fiddle or one of the acoustic guitars with which the band play more folksy, Latino songs.

In the open courtyard of London's Somerset House on a balmy summer's evening, Los Lobos deliver a rousing set of tough blues-rock spiced here and there with charming conjunto songs and the cumbia pieces that offer many in the crowd the opportunity to show off the steps they've learned at the capital's increasingly popular Latin dance classes. The infectious cumbia rhythm, I suggest, is rather like the Latin American equivalent of reggae.

"Yes, it is," he agrees. "They do fit together, and there's a lot of bands that kinda mix the two rhythms. Cumbia comes from Colombia, but it's real popular throughout Latin America. The Cumbia Kings do a pop version of it - they were formed by the brother of Selena, the Mexican pop singer that got killed in 1995. Kinda light, but it's alright - the people love it, so what the heck?"

Hidalgo's laissez-faire attitude is characteristic both of his own easy-going nature and of his band's all-channels-open approach to music, which in Hidalgo's case leans strongly towards country and Southern soul, from Hank Williams and Merle Haggard to The Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor. And while he's over in the UK, he's keen to acquire the John Entwistle anthology, The Ox. It is a pretty diverse range of influences. And, while Los Lobos may play the more Latinate parts of their set with due fastidiousness, they're not averse to mixing genres together, or striking out in directions that have no previous musical signposts. How else would they have come up with such a strange, idiosyncratic piece as "Kiko and the Lavender Moon", a song that seems haunted by the past even as it pushes at the future? It's one of the stand-out tracks on the band's new live album, recorded live last year at the legendary Fillmore West, once the focus of the San Francisco hippy scene.

Always mindful of their cultural history, Los Lobos jumped at the chance to record there, particularly since San Francisco, like their native Los Angeles, supports a sizeable Chicano (Mexican-American) populace.

"Well, it's more of a mixed Latino community," explains Hidalgo. "There's a lot of Mexicans, but there's also people from Latin America - Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Hondurans and so on. There's an area called the Mission District, which is where they all live, that's pretty much the Latin side of town. They've always had a large Latin music scene up there, though it's more like salsa."

Is there much difference between the native Mexican culture and the immigrant Chicano culture of North America?

"Well, yes and no," he says. "We're familiar with each other's cultures, and there's a lot of pride involved between them - each country thinks they're better than the other! So there's a little bit of rivalry there, but when it comes down to it, we pull together."

Applying my own adaptation of Norman Tebbit's cricket test, I enquire whether Hidalgo follows soccer or American sports, like gridiron football and baseball. He admits to a passing interest in soccer during the World Cup, but is basically an all-American kid when it comes to games. "Mostly it's football and baseball, because I grew up in the States," he says. "I support the Dodgers, but as regards football, I don't know now."

The Dodgers, of course, were the baseball team brought from Brooklyn to LA, where their stadium was built in the former Chicano neighbourhood of Chavez Ravine - a story now made famous by Ry Cooder's latest (and best) album, with which Hidalgo was marginally involved.

"Ry called me about some Mexican musicians, such as Lalo Guerrero, who's just passed away," he explains. "Lalo was a friend of ours from LA who did the original zoot-suit music - he was the first of the Mexican-Americans to do music that reflected what was going on in LA, a kind of Latin swing." Lalo Guerrero and Willie G were two of the guiding lights of Chicano music in the post-war years, as the immigrant culture strove to establish its own sense of community in an often unwelcoming land. "I knew how to get hold of Lalo," continues Hidalgo, "and Willie G, who used to be with The Midnighters - I gave Ry the numbers, and it worked out great, because Willie ended up writing a lot of the numbers with Ry, and singing a lot of it. And I played a little rhythm guitar on it, but not much."

As befits a band whose cartoon-wolf logo bears the legend "Musica Es Cultura", Los Lobos have a deep interest in their antecedents. Though Hidalgo acknowledges that those regional differences have, effectively, been destroyed by the spread of MTV - "things are more alike than they used to be" - Hidalgo remembers the local stars of his youth with great fondness.

"In the neighbourhood, Willie G and The Midnighters, they were the biggest thing to come out of East LA," he recalls. "They had regional hits, and we'd see them on TV, the dance shows and stuff like that. And Cannibal and The Headhunters, they actually opened for The Beatles when they came over on their US tour. And there were other bands that we listened to when we were growing up: The Premiers, who did 'Farmer John', another regional hit, and R&B and doo-wop bands like The Flirtations, The Exotics, and The Jaguars. It was mostly R&B based. The same thing was happening in Texas, and across the country - Detroit had ? and The Mysterians; and though Doug Sahm was German, the rest of his band, besides Augie Meyer, were Mexican guys from San Antonio. So there was a good mixture of things."

Not that the young Chicanos ignored the mainstream Anglo-American pop of the era. "We were American kids," he explains. "Of Mexican descent, but we grew up in the States, so we were affected by everything in the media, like everyone else. I was nine years old when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show - I fought with my brother over it! His band had practice at the house, and they wanted to watch the roller derby, which was on at the same time as The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, so we were fighting over the TV - 'No, man, we don't wanna see that shit, we want the roller derby!' 'No, man, it's The Beatles!'.

"And James Brown was really big. He was the cat! James Brown was everything in those days. That's all my brother's band played, James Brown - but they made a good job of it. They learned a lot from James Brown - the whole presentation was really slick, they'd wear the uniforms, do the steps and all that. James Brown, and Jackie Wilson too, had a big influence on all the bands from East LA, in the style, the way they carried themselves. It was a pride thing: let's show the world that we're not just a bunch of hooligans and crazy people, let's prove that we have class and can present ourselves in a proper way. We could relate to the R&B - it was a passionate music, about love, and sung with a lot of soul, which is why so many Chicano kids adopted R&B. The sentiment was the same."

Alongside Anglo-American and Chicano pop, the future Los Lobos musicians were also getting a grounding in the more traditional Mexican music forms, like conjunto and norteno, which Hidalgo explains are effectively the same thing.

"If it's from south of the Texas border, they call it norteno, because it's from northern Mexico," he says. "If it's from north of the Mexican border, they call it conjunto. Then there's Texano, which means 'from Texas', that's more of a modern, pop version of conjunto music, with keyboards and horns. That stuff has been around from the Sixties too - there was Little Joe & La Familia, Ruben Ramos, and the Tortilla Factory, who played mostly blues; and back in the late Sixties, early Seventies, there was another movement, kinda like a Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago version of conjunto music, with all the horns and the fancy arrangements, mixed up with rock and funk and stuff - but it always ended up a polka! So there's different variations, but it all comes down to the same thing, the polka that comes from Texas, that was brought over by the Czechs, Poles and German immigrants."

Unsurprisingly, there's strong support for Los Lobos in the Chicano heartlands of Texas and South California, although Hidalgo says that their most fervent following is in Chicago. "There's a big Chicano population in Chicago," he explains. "We Mexicans follow the railroads and the crops, so there's a lot of us spread throughout the Midwest. I didn't realise that until we started touring those areas. Mexicans and Latinos just follow the work, and settle where it takes them, and a lot of families ended up in Chicago."

But even immigrant settlers move on eventually, not least the members of Los Lobos. Despite having once written an emotional paean to the "peace and serenity" of "the neighborhood", Hidalgo no longer lives in the same district of Los Angeles where he spent his childhood. It's a familiar story of rising crime, declining infrastructure and predatory gang culture forcing a move to more salubrious environs.

"It's changed, you know," he concedes. "Families move out, and it's getting rougher. We're still on the east side of town; but back where we used to live, the people there wouldn't even know us any more."

'Live at the Fillmore' is out on Warner

Comments