40 years of Los Lobos

They are seen as the progenitors of Chicano rock 'n' roll, the first band that had the boldness to fuse punk rock with Mexican folk tunes.

It was a group called Los Lobos that had the unusual idea of putting an accordion, a saxophone and something called a bajo sexto alongside drums and Fender Stratocaster guitars and then blasting a ranchera-flavoured folk tune or a Conjunto inspired melody through double reverb amps at about twice the volume you'd normally expect to hear.

"They were Latinos who weren't afraid to break the mould of what's expected and what's traditionally played. That made them legendary, even to people who at first weren't that familiar with their catalogue," said Greg Gonzalez of the young, Grammy-winning Latino-funk fusion band Grupo Fantasma.

To the guys in Los Lobos, however, the band that began to take shape some 40-odd years ago in the hallways of a barrio high school is still "just another band from East LA," the words the group has used in the title of not one but two of its more than two dozen albums.

As a yearlong celebration of Los Lobos' 40th anniversary gets under way, having officially begun on Thanksgiving, much is likely to be made of how the band began as a humble mariachi group, toiling anonymously for nearly a decade at East LA weddings and backyard parties before the unlikely arrival of rock stardom.

That's, well, sort of true.

For long before there was mariachi in Los Lobos' life, there was power-chord rock 'n' roll. Before the Latin trio Las Panchos had an impact, there was Jimi Hendrix.

"I actually went to go see him when I was 14 or 15," says drummer-guitarist and principal lyricist Louie Perez, recalling how he had badgered his widowed mother to spend some of the hard-earned money she made sewing clothes in a sweatshop on a ticket to a Hendrix show.

"I sat right down front," he recalls, his voice rising in excitement. "That experience just sort of rearranged my brain cells."

About the same time, he had met a guitarist named David Hidalgo in an art class at James A. Garfield High, the school made famous in the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver" that profiled Jaime Escalante's success in teaching college-level calculus to poor barrio kids. Soon the two had recruited fellow students Conrad Lozano and Cesar Rosas, both experienced musicians.

"Cesar had played in a power trio," Perez recalls, while Lozano had been playing electric bass guitar for years.

It was sometime in November 1973 (no one remembers the exact day so they picked Thanksgiving) when the band is believed to have been born.

And the group might have stayed just another garage band from East LA, had it not been for a Mexican tradition called Las Mananitas.

"It's a serenade to someone on their birthday," Perez explains, and the group members' mothers had birthdays coming up.

"So we learned about four or five Mexican songs and we went to our parents' homes and did a little serenade," Hidalgo recalled separately.

They were such a hit that they began scouring pawn shops for genuine Mexican instruments and really learning to play them.

Because they were at heart a rock 'n' roll band, however, they always played the music a little too loud and a little too fast. That was acceptable at the Mexican restaurants that employed them, until they decided to break out the Stratocaster guitars they had so coveted as kids.

"They said, 'Well, that's not what we hired you for,'" Perez says, chuckling.

So they headed west down the freeway to Hollywood and the rest is history.

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