Continued from page 1

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, where initially the reaction wasn’t much better.

Saxophonist Steve Berlin recalls seeing the hybrid group showered with garbage one night when they opened for Public Image Ltd. Two years later, however, when they opened for Berlin’s group the Blasters, the reaction was different.

“It was quite literally an overnight success kind of thing,” the saxophonist recalls. “By the next morning, everybody I knew in Hollywood, all they were talking about was this band Los Lobos.”

A few nights later, they asked Berlin if he might jam with them. They were working up some tunes melding punk rock with Norteno, a Latin music genre that uses an accordion and a saxophone, and they needed a sax player.

For his part, Berlin says, he had never heard of Norteno music.

Something clicked, however, and soon he was producing the group’s first true rock album, 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” At the end of the sessions he was in the band.

The next 28 years would be pretty much the same kind of up-and-down ride as the first 12 were.

The group became international rock stars in 1987 with their version of the Mexican folk tune “La Bamba” for the soundtrack of the film of the same name. They melded 1950s teen idol Ritchie Valens’ rock interpretation with the original Son Jarocho style and sent the song to No. 1.

A two-year tour and a couple albums that nobody bought followed, leaving the group broke and disillusioned.

So they poured their anger and disillusionment into the lyrics and power chords of “Kiko,” the 1992 album now hailed as their masterpiece. A new version, recorded live, was released earlier this year.

The influence of Los Lobos’ cross-cultural work can be heard to this day in the music of such varied young Latino groups as the hip-hop rockers Ozomatli, the Son Jarocho-influenced alt-music band Las Cafeteras and the Latino pop-rock group La Santa Cecilia, says Josh Kun, an expert on cross-border music.

“All of these bands inherited, wittingly or not, the experimental and style crossing instincts that Los Lobos proved were possible while hanging onto and developing your roots as a Mexican-American group,” said Kun, who curated the Grammy Museum’s recent “Trouble in Paradise” exhibition that chronicled the modern history of LA music.

Story Continues →