It’s Only <i> Rocanrol</i> but They Like It : Alex Lora, Founder of ‘Mexico’s Rolling Stones,’ Has Kept a Cutting Edge for 26 Years
When you remind Alex Lora, founder and leader of El Tri, that his band is often described as the Rolling Stones of Mexico, he smiles.
“Actually, they should be called the El Tri of England,” jokes Lora, who will lead the group in concert at the Grand Olympic Auditorium on Saturday.
Lora, 41, has been Mexico’s greatest rocanrol symbol for 26 years, and, as young bands have risen since the late ‘80s, he has stood his ground with a refreshing sound inspired by the Stones as much as Mexico’s own folk music. Like the Stones, Lora is beyond good and evil. His secret?
“Very simple. We’ve remained true to ourselves instead of wearing ponchos,” he says, taking a jab at the Mexican rockers who have adopted an ethnic-oriented sound and image in reaction to years of other performers copying English and American acts.
“I mean, Caifanes and Maldita (Vecindad) are cuates (friends) of mine, but I just don’t like what they do,” Lora continues. “Please, don’t give me any of that cumbia-rock and techno-mariachi.”
Lora has remained unsophisticated, vulgar and raw, sticking to his simple blues songs with a religious fervor. But it’s not just the dozens of hits that have made Lora a deity for a considerable portion of Mexico’s underground rock culture, it’s also his crude, straightforward attitude and his cutting social commentary.
While his music and recordings are conventional, Lora’s best songs dissect the complex Mexican society and government with often humorous descriptions of his homeland’s idiosyncrasies.
While he offers his support to Mexicans in the United States in “Undocumented,” he also makes fun of himself and his people (“We are the greatest race/the greatest race/the greatest race/in all the animal kingdom”). He addresses his audience as cabrones (loosely translated as bastards ), but then he moves them with “Nino sin amor” (Child Without Love). There are many who fit that description at his concerts.
Only the band’s sales--both legal and through a pirate network that can have a tape ready a day after the show--allowed him to survive in a country where, up until a few years ago, rock was so feared by authorities that it was nearly impossible to stage a concert.
“The key to our success is that I’ve been risking (everything) since day one,” says Lora, sitting in a Malibu recording studio and holding an apple he’s been eating for two hours. Wearing jeans, sandals and an El Tri flannel shirt, he jumps from frenetic, X-rated Spanish to slow-paced but fluent English.
“I haven’t changed my style and attitude in years, and people know that,” he says.
Lora’s career began when he founded the group Three Souls in My Mind in 1968. They initially sang in English, as was the style then, but for most of the ‘70s, Lora (playing bass), drummer Charlie Hauptvogel and guitarist Ernesto de Leon added more and more songs in Spanish and recorded 15 albums.
When Lora split from the trio after some disagreements with Hauptvogel, he began working under the banner of El Tri, the name that his old group was popularly called. He released “Simplemente El Tri” (Simply El Tri) in 1984. Since then, Lora and El Tri have recorded 10 more albums. Guitarist Oscar Zarate was recently added to the lineup that’s been in place for a couple of years now: Lora (on guitar and vocals), Pedro Martinez (drums), Eduardo Chico (guitar), Ruben Soriano (bass) and Rafa Salgado (harmonica).
Singing exclusively in Spanish, Lora solidified his status despite a nearly total lack of TV or radio play. The bulk of his followers are hard-core, working suburban youngsters in Mexico City’s underground scene, but even veteran yuppies are seen when El Tri is at its best--in its riotous live shows, where the crowd manages to sing along while executing what is arguably the world’s most dangerous slam-dancing.
“For me and many others, Lora is the main inspiration,” says Mario Diaz, guitarist and singer for Eclipse, a popular Los Angeles blues band that has opened for Lora in the past. “For a poor Latino and immigrant rocker, he touches a nerve like no one else.”
But there are detractors as well. Some rock critics dismiss his music and accuse him of exploiting an image that works well, but has little to do with the real Lora.
But even for a non-fan such as Rogelio Villarreal, editor of Mexico City’s acclaimed underground magazine La Pusmoderna, Lora is too important to be ignored.
“Despite his conventional style, he is a mythical figure, a key idol for a huge legion of underground followers,” Villarreal said. “It could be argued whether his attitude is real or not, but it’s always fun to see him curse the . . . gringos when opening for American bands.”
For good or bad, Lora is the most important single personality in Mexican rock, and Saturday’s concert will be a historic moment for rock en espanol-- he will be playing for the first time with Argentina’s blues master Pappo, a legend in his own right. It may very well be the seed for a much-needed link between Latin America’s two largest rock traditions.
Ultimately, Lora has succeeded because he gives a voice to the voiceless crowd--leather-wearing, longhaired youths made skeptical by a world they see improving for everyone but themselves. They still find the greatest solace and freedom when El Tri plays live.
“My surroundings are rotten and I’m rotten,” Lora says. “But when I play I feel free. I’ll keep playing for as long as I feel that.”
* El Tri plays Saturday at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, 1801 S. Grand Ave., 7 p.m. $27 . (213) 749-5171.