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The starmaker

Times Staff Writer

Los ANGELES had never seen an event like this before, an awards show honoring the colorful, raunchy, outrageous array of performers arising from the region’s blue-collar Latino neighborhoods. This was the Grammys for the immigrant underground, artists who had built grass-roots followings in barrio nightclubs with swaggering, foul-mouthed songs about drug smugglers, fugitives, coyotes and killers, often spiced with sex and social defiance.

At the debut four years ago of Los Premios Que Buena, sponsored by upstart Mexican radio station KBUE-FM (105.5), program director Pepe Garza, the man who had unleashed this boisterous musical movement on the world, nearly passed out from stress and a piercing migraine. High-strung and twitchy by nature, Garza was rushed to the hospital in midshow, leaving security at the Universal Amphitheatre to worry about his abandoned Jaguar, still parked backstage two days later.

Given the carnival-like chaos at the recent awards show, it’s a wonder organizers don’t have an ambulance standing by permanently. He’s not only host, writer and celebrity hand-holder at the December event but also co-creator of songs to be performed as skits, dramatizing with a hip-hop twist the generational conflicts afflicting Mexican families.

He’s not jittery this time around, though. He weaves serenely through the colorfully costumed crowd backstage at the Amphitheatre, squeezing past the oompah bands and their tubas, reassuring presenters wearing celebrity attitudes as thick as their fur coats, offering shy smiles to bosomy vedettes busting out of their bustiers.

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Crowding the corridors is a stream of stars he helped create. Los Razos, a band of paunchy, middle-aged men from Oxnard with a mean accordion and a crude vocabulary, who sparked a melee including flying bottles during a 2002 appearance in Pico Rivera. Adan Sanchez, the son of Chalino Sanchez, L.A.'s narcocorrido legend who was murdered in 1992 after a show in Sinaloa. And Akwid, the duo of brothers who became a grass-roots rage with their cholo look and blend of banda and hip-hop.

Garza, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, has emerged as one of the most influential figures in the Latin music industry by giving L.A.'s immigrant population something it never had before -- the chance to be on the radio and become stars. Until he moved here in 1998, the music of these working-class artists was dismissed as low-brow, crude or simply awful.

Garza’s ambition, to celebrate the sound of the streets, has propelled KBUE -- known as La Que Buena -- from obscurity to tastemaker status. Lately, as it struggles to keep pace with new trends and fend off stiff competition, KBUE has been knocked off its perch as a leader among stations specializing in Mexican regional music, the catch-all genre that encompasses a wide variety of country styles. But if his track record is any indication, Garza’s not far from tapping another sound to bring listeners back.

Garza, who worked his way up in the Mexican radio scene, was the first in L.A. to capitalize on the craze for narcocorridos, especially the so-called corridos perrones, or bad-dog style, that can be shockingly explicit. He was the first to play Lupillo Rivera, the Long Beach kid who went from selling records at swap meets to buying a fleet of luxury cars and a home on the marina. And most recently, Garza was the first to champion groups like Akwid. He hopes to step into the spotlight soon himself, with an album of his own music.

“Pepe Garza is totally original, and he’s not afraid of criticism,” says Pedro Rivera, Lupillo’s father and owner of Cintas Acuario, the small Long Beach label that jump-started the local narcocorrido phenomenon. “Whether other stations like it or not, Que Buena is the pilot light for [Mexican format] radio in the U.S. Wherever I go to promote my records, other program directors always ask, ‘Is Que Buena playing it yet?’ ”

Garza, 38, explains his success modestly. “This is not a matter of creating culture or imposing it on people,” he says in his host’s black tuxedo and ruffled shirt. “I put the music on the radio, but the movement was already there.”

A need to stand out

When Garza was named program director of KBUE in 1998, the then- 4-year-old station barely registered a blip in the ratings. Few listeners even knew it existed in L.A.'s increasingly crowded Latin radio market.

Garza knew his station didn’t have a chance if it stuck to playing established stars, such as mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez and norteno accordion ace Ramon Ayala. With its limited signal and promotional resources, it needed a way of standing out. (Que Buena compensates for its lack of coverage by broadcasting simultaneously on another frequency, 94.3 FM.)

Garza and his new boss, Eddie Leon, decided Que Buena had to be totally different from its direct competitors in Mexican radio, La Nueva and La Raza. Garza noticed that he didn’t recognize any of the artists who were advertised at local nightclubs frequented by Mexican immigrants. So the radio executives decided to do an informal audience survey.

They walked along Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, the heart of L.A.'s burgeoning immigrant community, and asked people what they listened to. They talked to motorists with tape decks blaring, to clerks in record stores, to people waiting at bus stops with portable CD players.

“We came to realize that the music being heard on the street was not the same as the music heard on the radio,” Garza says. “When we started playing all these unknown artists, nobody was expecting it.”

Garza says he didn’t wait for anybody to bring him CDs, often released by the artists themselves. He bought them at local record stores and just put them on the air. The first song he programmed was called “Se Les Pelo Baltazar” (Baltazar Got Away) by Las Voces del Rancho, a local duo on Pedro Rivera’s independent label. “The next day,” Garza recalls, “it was the most requested song and I said, ‘Eureka!’ ”

Garza was also struck by the bold male voice that offered a brief spoken introduction on the “Baltazar” record. He asked the label to send the kid over to record a similar promo for the station. It turned out the voice belonged to Lupillo Rivera, who took the opportunity to tell Garza, “I’m a singer too.”

Even though Garza had no faith in the wannabe, he took a chance with a tune by Lupillo called “El Moreno,” a comical corrido about a town drunk. The song became a smash, Lupillo became an international celebrity, and Que Buena was on its way to becoming the fifth-ranked station in Los Angeles.

“I owe him a lot,” Lupillo says of Garza. “They [La Que Buena] were the first ones to play me, and they’ll always be in my heart no matter what happens.”

A young singer’s bravado

Nobody symbolizes Que Buena’s grass-roots success -- and the challenges facing it -- more than Lupillo, the biggest star to emerge from L.A.'s immigrant underground.

Garza can’t forget the day he first witnessed the charismatic young singer’s energy, bravado -- and power to connect with the masses. It was at a station-sponsored Cinco de Mayo festival at MacArthur Park in 1999, when Lupillo was still a relative unknown.

“He gets up on stage and lets out a big belly laugh, like he really loves being there,” Garza recalls. “The people start to scream and I don’t know what happened, some sort of magic ... as if they had known him all their lives. It was craziness. And I said, “Ay! Where did this come from?’ ”

The radio programmer and the singer, both with shaved heads, rode that wave of popularity together. Lupillo’s yearly arrival on Que Buena’s red carpet, with his white Stetson, his fashionable dark suits and his lusty Mexican yells, always created a sensation. But this year, for the first time since the station’s awards were launched, Lupillo was not scheduled to appear, the result of a touchy behind-the-scenes dispute.

Garza says the artist agreed to perform -- but only if he could be guaranteed at least two awards. Lupillo denies that and says his beef with Garza started because the station wasn’t playing his latest single, ironically titled “Dame por Muerto” (Give Me Up for Dead), from his new live album, his first for the big Univision label.

Whatever the truth, Lupillo told Garza he’d be skipping the Que Buena awards. The singer turned instead to La Raza (KLAX, 97.9 FM), offering a sensational promotional idea to Garza’s archrival. Lupillo donated his 1998 Ferrari sports car to be awarded to a lucky listener, one of the most spectacular station giveaways in local Latin radio history. Just days before Que Buena’s awards ceremony, Lupillo himself appeared before an estimated 10,000 fans at Plaza Mexico, a Latino shopping center in Lynwood, to give away the car and perform for over an hour, all broadcast live on La Raza.

Nobody at Que Buena pretends that didn’t hurt, coming from a singer who owes his initial success to the station. But then came a twist as dramatic as one of Lupillo’s songs.

On Dec. 2, two days after the Ferrari giveaway, the singer was involved in a serious car crash driving through northern Mexico with two bodyguards. Lupillo was not gravely injured, but the widely publicized accident gave him a chance to reconsider his snub of his old benefactor. From his hospital room in Ciudad Juarez, Garza recalls, Lupillo called and asked, “Can I come on your show, compa?”

Midway through the awards ceremony, Garza stepped out on stage to announce a surprise guest. From the wings, Lupillo appeared on crutches, his shorts displaying his injured leg in a cast.

The crowd went wild with cheers of affection and sympathy, an electrifying moment that highlights the power of the movement Garza has created as well as his shrewdness in managing it. The artists know they need Que Buena’s unique platform to reach their most loyal fan base. And Garza knows that his station depends on the continued popularity -- and credibility -- of the artists he picks to promote.

“What I try to put on the radio is authenticity,” he says. “Songs are simply stories that are sung, in different ways, with different rhythms and different language. But a well-sung story, no matter what the style, will work. The important thing, basically, is for people to believe your story.”

Listening with the family

GARZA’S story starts in his hometown of Monterrey, an important industrial center and music capital in northern Mexico. He discovered the joys of radio when, as youths, he and his sister, Margarita, contracted hepatitis. He received a small radio as a gift that made music the siblings’ companion during their six-week recovery.

The Garzas were not wealthy, but they were comfortable and tightknit. On hot summer nights, the family would relax around a radio to hear a nightly show called “Musica y Poesia” (Music and Poetry), which featured the most literate singer-songwriters in the Spanish language.

Garza says he inherited his appreciation of great songwriters from his mother, Alicia, who always identified the authors of songs they heard on the radio. His father, Jose Alejandro, helped him get his first radio job, at a hometown station that played romantic music. The novice had a one-hour slot, from midnight to 1 a.m., and only one task -- to give the hour occasionally. But Garza was so enthusiastic about being on the air he would repeat the time after every song.

“Radio became my passion,” Garza says. “From the first moment I stepped inside a station, I was hooked.”

Garza, a fan of rock and disco groups such as Iron Maiden and Earth, Wind and Fire, stumbled into Mexican regional music. In 1989, he was recruited as a DJ for a station in Guadalajara that played rock en espanol. Within six months, he had jumped to a new sister station -- the first to use the name La Que Buena -- that was taking off with regional groups from his hometown.

After a successful stint as a DJ in Mexico City, Garza returned to Guadalajara in 1993, this time as assistant program director at La Que Buena. It was the start of a five-year streak at the top of the ratings heap.

Garza’s radio reputation spread when he and radio colleague Tomas Rubio created a street-smart children’s character named El Morro, which became a national hit on record. Garza drew more attention by becoming the first programmer in Mexico, he says, to play the controversial drug songs of the late Chalino Sanchez, still an obscure figure in his home base of Los Angeles. At the time, shortly after Chalino’s murder, Garza didn’t know his destiny would bring him to Southern California, where he would play a pivotal role in promoting the career of Chalino’s then-unknown protege, Lupillo Rivera, who had been selling the slain singer’s records on his father’s label at the Paramount Swap Meet.

Soon Garza will be seeking the same opportunity he afforded struggling, unknown artists -- a little air time for his own music. In January, he entered a recording studio in Huntington Park to record an album of his own songs.

The style is as different from Que Buena’s playlist as James Taylor is from Puff Daddy. Though Garza has written several hits recorded by Mexican country artists, his solo album promises to be a reflective pop work with witty, well-crafted and very personal lyrics.

At his hillside home in Studio City, Garza previews his tunes for a visitor. Dwarfed by the living room’s 20-foot ceilings, Garza sits on an ottoman, hugging his guitar as he chats, often rising to share a cigarette with his wife, former record promoter Elisa Beristain.

Beristain sits cross-legged across the room, next to an oversized chess set. Wearing a casual running suit and puffy tiger-skin slippers, she asks for her favorite songs like a fan calling in to a radio request line.

Even at home, Garza is in constant motion, squirming, cocking his head to the side, stroking his arm, fixing his belt. He says he can’t stay still for more than 40 minutes when he tries to write.

“He’s living on a different channel,” Beristain says. “Last night I was talking to him a mile a minute, but he didn’t seem to listen. I turned off the TV and he didn’t notice. Then he turned to me and said, ‘I’ve got a song now.’ ”

Garza has wanted to be an artist since he was 18, and he’s been collecting songs for this album for a decade. But about a year ago, he suffered writer’s block and considered quitting his job.

He also considered quitting his marriage. The crisis led to a brief separation, with Beristain spending six weeks in Cancun. When she returned, she discovered her husband had experienced a creative breakthrough, with songs like “La Casita” and “Perdon” reflecting his torn state of mind.

“In that space of time, he started creating a lot,” says Beristain, who designed the home in a tasteful hacienda style. “I realized that he was un hijo de la mala vida (a child of hard knocks). (He likes to suffer.”

Awaiting the next big trend

As in marriage, long-term success in radio requires riding out the tough times. For Garza, that means keeping his listeners interested -- and loyal.

La Que Buena, the little radio station that could, has been sputtering in the ratings recently. In the most recent Arbitron report, for fall, KBUE’s audience share fell by a third from the year before, from 4.0 to 2.7. It now ranks fourth of the Top 5 Spanish stations in Los Angeles and 13th overall.

Today, there are new stations to compete with, but no new hot trends. Narcocorridos are passe. Lupillo’s popularity has cooled off. And banda/rap has failed to spark the pop phenomenon anticipated by Akwid’s success.

Garza seems unfazed, noting the station scored ratings gains in December and January. Still, he’s aware that something’s missing.

“There needs to be another musical movement that grabs people,” Garza says, nervously chewing the front of his T-shirt and squirming in his seat at the station’s Burbank headquarters.

His office decor, such as it is, features his extensive collection of Homer Simpson dolls and miniature barrio characters called Homies. A Santa Homer sits atop a mini-stereo that’s on the blink.

He apologizes for the sound as he plays the recent CD featuring a young and sensual 20-year-old singer named Yolanda Perez, who Garza is betting will be the next big thing.

The L.A.-born Perez performed at the Que Buena awards along with Don Cheto, the radio character played by Garza’s colleague, Juan Razo. The tune, “Estoy Enamorada” (I’m in Love), co-written by Garza and Razo, is a dramatic dialogue between a traditional, macho Mexican father and his pretty, rebellious, Americanized daughter.

Onstage, the angry father wears a poncho, emblem of his rural roots. Yolanda wears a sleek, short skirt, emblem of her liberated ways. Speaking in his uneducated, improper Spanish, Don Cheto tries to keep his daughter from seeing her boyfriend. Speaking in her sassy Spanglish, Yolanda says nothing can stop her because she’s in love.

The girl defies her father’s claim that she’s too young to date, reminding the old man that some men in rural Mexico virtually kidnapped young women to make them their wives.

“Don’t you remember, Dad?” Yolanda sings in Spanish. “You stole away my mother when she was my age.”

Onstage, Yolanda departs with her boyfriend with a cheery “I love you, Dad.” The helpless father falls to the floor, choking and writhing with a heart attack, powerless to control the consequences of his migration to the U.S.

The song has hit such a nerve with Latino families that it’s shooting up the charts from Los Angeles to Chicago. But Garza stops short of proclaiming it the next new trend in immigrant music.

“You can’t try too hard to make things happen, because you run the risk of getting ahead of the game, of trying to invent rather than discover,” he says. “But you can’t stop what the people want.”

Agustin Gurza can be reached at agustin.gurza@latimes.com.


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