Back in the 1950s, in Pacoima's barrio, one of my many childhood fantasies involved starting up a rock-and-roll band. My aggregation had no name, but in my imagination it had everything else needed to duplicate the hits of those days: electric and acoustic guitars, a set of drums and plenty of saxophones. Of course, my group would have the taste, and skills, eclectic enough to also play jazz, rhythm and blues, country-western music and even the romantic Latin American ballads that my mother loved.
That long-forgotten fantasy came back to me last Saturday night as I sat in the audience at the Greek Theater, listening to a group from East Los Angeles do exactly what I had once daydreamed about.
Los Lobos, as they are known, are rising stars of the national music scene who play in a wide variety of styles with remarkable ease. Their focus is rock, but they also play blues, country music and even Mexican nortenos-- those wonderfully upbeat polkas often referred to in this country as Tex-Mex music. Four of Los Lobos--guitarists David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez --have been together more than 10 years, since they came together as students to play traditional Latin American music. Since expanding into rock three years ago they have been augmented by saxophonist Steve Berlin.
The concert at the Greek was Los Lobos' hometown stop on a tour that began on the East Coast and will wind up in Japan. Not bad for a bunch of guys who billed themselves, on one of their first albums, as "just another band from East L.A."
The tunes that touched me the most on Saturday night were not only "golden oldies" from the '50s; they were also songs from my '50s, in Pacoima: "Come On, Let's Go" and the rock version of the traditional Mexican folk song, "La Bamba." Both were made famous by a young rock singer known to the world at large as Ritchie Valens. In Pacoima, his home town, he was Richard Valenzuela.
Valens was never a major star in rock music, although some students of the field argue that he might have become one had he not died prematurely in 1959, at age 17, in an airplane crash while on tour. Also killed in that accident was Buddy Holly, who at 20 had already set the rock-and-roll world on its ear. It was Holly's death that made national headlines. They even made a movie about Holly's life, while Valens' name faded into relative obscurity.
But he was not forgotten in Pacoima and other Latino barrios. He certainly helped inspire my youthful fantasy. Valens' success still fuels the more substantial dreams of the many young Chicano musicians who hope to make it big someday, but bide their time playing neighborhood parties and dance clubs--just as Los Lobos did until a couple of years ago.
Los Lobos say that they include "oldies" in their act as a tribute to the inspirational role that Valens and other Chicano rock musicians of the '50s played for them. The resounding audience response indicates that the feeling is widely shared. But there is more to Los Lobos' success than that.
Like Valens before them, Los Lobos play up their ethnic background and draw white, mainstream rock fans into it. When they sing a popular Mexican ballad like "Volver, Volver," or a norteno polka, they toss in shouts-- gritos, as Mexican music fans call them--of passionate enthusiasm. They make the fun infectious even for the non-Latinos in the audience (on Saturday night, young Anglos appeared to be the majority).
While there have been many Latino "cross-over" stars in popular music, Valens was one of the first to do what Mexican-Americans in many other fields of endeavor, well beyond music, are trying to do today. He successfully melded the traditional culture of his forebears with the American culture of his own time. Rather than moving from one into another, he tried to bridge the gap, and created some-thing new in the process.
That's what Los Lobos were doing Saturday night. The near-capacity crowd roared its approval, and danced in the aisles, on every number. And when the set was over there were, appropriately enough, two encores.
One for Los Lobos and one for Ritchie Valens.