What They Sing for Love


Los Tornados? The Texas Lobos?

What to call an ad hoc all-star band that includes two members each from Los Lobos and the Texas Tornados? Then, for good measure, throw in three disparate musicians from the Lone Star State: a country crooner, a tejano veteran and a noted country-rocker.

Los Traveling Wilburys?

They finally settled on Los Super Seven: Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos; Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez from the Texas Tornados; and Rick Trevino, Ruben Ramos and Joe Ely.

What brought them together was their love for traditional Mexican music and the result is a recording of simple, timeless beauty, produced by yet another member of Los Lobos, Steve Berlin.

On Monday, the group delighted an audience at the House of Blues--one of only two shows scheduled in support of the album. (The other is Thursday in New York, where they are also slated to perform on Friday's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien.") While so much attention is being given to world music, the freewheeling show was a soulful reminder of our immediate world and the sounds that have traveled across the border for generations.

Titled "Los Super Seven," the album (released this week by RCA Nashville) grew out of a showcase in 1997 at South by Southwest, the annual music conference held in Austin. Dan Goodman, who manages Trevino, had organized a program that featured his client, along with Ely, Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers (the other two Tornados) and Rosie Flores. Trevino had recorded Spanish-language versions of his country albums and the other artists had all been influenced by border culture.

"The show inspired me to look into Mexican music," said Goodman from his Nashville office. "It started with the Los Lobos guys. I always felt they'd be the backbone of the project. I already had a relationship with Steve Berlin, so he was my first phone call. I knew Rick would be involved and then we got David and Cesar on board."

Los Lobos, of course, started out 25 years ago performing Mexican folk and traditional music. And throughout their careers they've incorporated Spanish-language songs into their rootsy mix of rock, blues, R&B; and country.

Ten years ago they released "La Pistola y El Corazon," an album of all-Spanish music. "Los Super Seven" in many ways seems like the Lobos' long-awaited sequel to "Pistola" (albeit without drummer Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano).

Berlin and Goodman assembled the group, along with some key backup musicians, and recorded the album in Austin following this year's edition of South by Southwest.

Everyone brought ideas to the sessions and they ended up with 13 songs of vintage Mexican music, with the exception of Rosas' "Un Beso al Viento" and "Rio de Tenampa," the full version of the Hidalgo-Perez composition that appeared only as a snippet on Los Lobos' 1992 album, "Kiko."

Fender, whose career dates back to the 1950s and who had several country hits in the '70s, contributed "Piensa En Mi," a bolero by one of Mexico's foremost composers of popular music, Agustin Lara. Fender also unearthed "Un Lunes Por La Manana," a song he heard once in the 1950s in a small cantina in Matamoros, Mexico.

Ely recorded the album's only English-language song, "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," the Martin Hoffman-Woody Guthrie protest ballad about the treatment of migrant farm workers.

All of a Sudden, Music Everywhere

"Mexican music was right in the center of my life in Lubbock," said Ely before the group's House of Blues show. "My daddy had a clothing store where I worked in the summer and all the migrant workers would come through town to work the cotton crop. The whole town would change. All of a sudden there was music everywhere, coming from cars and clubs."

The "Super Seven" project has presented some fascinating contrasts and parallels. Ruben Ramos, the 60ish singer who is considered one of the kings of tejano music, comes from a family of farm workers who followed the migrant trail throughout Texas. Ramos spoke Monday of picking fruit, vegetables and cotton, and it is not inconceivable that his family passed through Lubbock and frequented the Ely store.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 27-year-old Trevino, who came to the project with some reservation.

"It sacred me to death," said the singer Monday night. "I kept telling Dan [Goodman] I couldn't do these songs."

Loose, Friendly in Recording Studio

Trevino speaks Spanish but he was intimidated by the thought of being measured against such tejano legends as Ramos. And he was also haunted by some unpleasant memories from his youth.

"My father was a tejano musician and when I was a child he would have a few beers and start playing this music really loud," Trevino recalled. "It embarrassed me because we had moved to a mostly Anglo neighborhood in Austin and I was trying to fit in. I couldn't stand the music until I was exposed to it as a musician."

The loose and friendly atmosphere in the studio helped Trevino get over his fears, however.

"It was about as fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as a session can get," Goodman recalls. "Everyone just picked up instruments and filled in where needed, trying to catch the spirit of the songs."

That same spirit infused the proceedings on Monday. The group spent the afternoon rehearsing because they had never all played together. The album had been recorded by various combinations of musicians so here they were, some of them learning songs, all of them learning one another's stage habits.

The performance didn't reflect the precision of a well-rehearsed band, but there was enough sheer musical talent on stage to overcome the unfamiliarity.

Hidalgo, a virtuoso on numerous string instruments, played drums most of the night, but lent his plaintive voice to "La Sirena." Rosas contributed his usual distinctive vocals and guitar playing throughout the evening.

Ely performed "Deportee" and then followed it with a Latin-tinged song from his "Letter to Laredo" album. While Flaco Jimenez was absent from the evening, Austin accordionist Joel Guzman--who also played on the album--was the evening's surprise, providing vibrant solos and accompaniment.

But the standouts were the songs performed by Ramos, Trevino and Fender. Ramos' gravelly voice on "El Canoero" and "La Morena" was a contrast to Trevino, whose light, sweet tenor on "El Ausente" and "Mi Ranchito" proved that it's possible to drawl in Spanish.

Before his songs, Fender told the audience, "I hope you appreciate this music as much as our grandparents did."

Before the show, Trevino held out hope that the music, and this project, will act as a generational bridge: "I just want my son to have more of an appreciation for his culture at a younger age than I did."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World