Call of the Wolf: Los Lobos Thrives By Crossing Genres and Honoring Tradition
"What kind of music do you like?"
"Oh, Randy Newman. Fairport Convention. Ry Cooder. You?"
It's not an unusual conversation for two high-school kids in the 1970s, except that these two pickers were Chicano and lived in the hotbed of traditional Mexican music that was East Los Angeles. "We’re looking at each other like, 'You like this stuff?'" drummer Louie Perez recalls. "I thought I was the only weird one.'
The two musical outcasts started playing in one another's basements, borrowed a reel-to-reel recorder, drafted two more bandmates, and worked up two different repertoires: rock and Top 40 for clubs, and old-fashioned Mexican for weddings and dances. They also picked a name: Los Lobos del Esto Los Angeles, or The Wolves of East Los Angeles.
Fast-forward a few decades and the Grammy-winning act known as Los Lobos has topped the charts with "La Bamba," swapped neighborhood weddings for stages ranging from the Fillmore to the White House--and closer to home, will headline this year's Beartrap Summer Festival on Friday night.
One critic calls Los Lobos "a precursor to today's modern jam-bands," but members say the origins are a lot more complicated.
"Just for laughs, for the fun of it," says singer-songwriter David Hidalgo, "we got together to play some acoustic music. We’d been playing in electric bands for years, and it was nice to do something different. We started going through Cesar’s mom’s record collection, learning some old Mexican music, some traditional stuff, just for a laugh, actually. We found out soon that we couldn’t play it -- it was hard, so we gained respect for it right away."
"We played acoustic stuff for about nine or ten years," says Cesar Rosas, "but before we started Los Lobos, we were rock and roll musicians. We were already playing in bands around the East L.A. area. When the 80s came, we were playing folk stuff. We decided that we would start writing some music, and we decided that we’d 'plug in' again. We became 'sort of' an electric group. We started writing more rock and roll, which was very different from everything else we'd been doing since 1973."
To say that the band has pushed boundaries along the way is an understatement. Wiki's summary of its genre-spanning includes "Chicano rock, Tex-Mex, Latin rock, roots rock, blues rock, brown-eyed soul, and Americana," and they've collaborated with artists ranging from Willie Dixon to Tom Waits.
One central force drives the choice of material--collaborations included--says Rosas: "We always say, if it’s good music, it’ll come across. People can sense the sincerity of the musicianship, and the vocal styles. With the traditional music, or folk music, you just can’t go wrong. The heart is in it. It’s the truth."
And with the hard-won magic of a 40th anniversary freshly in Los Lobos' rear view mirror, Rosas offers up some free advice for younger musicians who are just starting their journeys in the business: "It may sound corny, but it’s true -- I think they should follow their dreams. Listen to a lot of good music, and listen to a lot of cool stuff from the 50s and 60s -- rock and roll. If their heart’s into the rock and roll thing, listen to the foundation, listen to old R&B music, and it’ll teach you something. Never give up -- just keep on with your dreams and see them through.
"Look at us. We've had a few hard times, but we’ve always managed to take everything with a grain of salt. Just have fun. Have fun with the music. Play something that you love, and stick with it. Follow your dreams, man. Just keep on."