Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Wolf Packs

Cesar Rosas, Houndog, Latin Playboys

By Josh Kun

MARCH 29, 1999:  When Los Lobos asked it back in the post-Chicano-movement mid-'80s midst of LA's new-wave/roots-rock mire, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" was a rhetorical question. In the decade-plus since then, the four Chicanos from the Eastside, originally Los Lobos de Este Los Angeles, have hinted at all sorts of ways for coming up with real answers to Mexican-American cultural transformation: return to the folclórico (La Pistola y el Corazón); embrace Pacific Rim surrealism (Kiko); reincarnate a buried Pacoima legend (the soundtrack to La Bamba).

The string of Lobos spinoffs that are out this month -- Cesar Rosas's Soul Disguise (Rykodisc), the Latin Playboys' Dose (Atlantic), and the Houndog debut on Sony Legacy -- suggests yet another: force the wolf to shape-shift, travel with new packs, shed different skins, roam from Montebello to Hermosillo to the Delta, go solo, and put out two albums at once. In the age of anti-immigrant legislation like Prop 187, maquiladoras, and sci-fi border surveillance, the wolf may still be struggling to survive in the American wilderness, but at least now he has more chances of being heard.

Dose, the second stylized experiment from the Latin Playboys (along with Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louis Pérez it features producers and sound gurus Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake), starts its textured, sonic swim in Los Lobos' aesthetic deep end. Artfully cobbled together out of effects bubbles, field recordings, processed string sweeps, found sounds, layered guitar fuzz, slapping underwater beats, and fiddle stomps (not to mention the single-channel roadhouse shuffle of "Tormenta Blvd" and the Pac-Man jazz fusion of "Nubian Priestess"), Dose hums like an unhinged collection of bilingual short stories of everyday East Los magical realism. We meet the silent, tearful Cuca cruising Spring Street, Locoman wrapping the world in chicken wire, and the sagacious La Lola preaching "Don't matter who you are, this side or that side of the fence . . . you end up looking brown." There's also a desperate palatero (i.e., shaved-ice vendor), a murderous love triangle involving Paula, Fred, and Lucy, and an old pick-up the kids don't want to ride in to see "the movie show starring Ricardo Montalban and some güeras [blondes]!" (they prefer "Lily's Celica").

Dose's darker, more cryptic moments flicker through the spare parts, emotional wreckage, and warped blues howls of Houndog, the uncluttered result of Hidalgo's partnership with tortured border-town-meets-West-Covina moaner Mike Halby. Hidalgo lays down lap steel, accordion, and electric violin while Halby repeatedly hits the bottom of a melting bottle, singing lines like "Somebody got to stop the bleedin' " in slow-motion, garbled tones.

But in typical Los Lobos fashion, while Hidalgo and Pérez have been off noodling with genre-twisting abstraction and electro-psychedelic Latin trips, perennially Ray-Banned guitar daddy and soul spouter Cesar Rosas has been keeping the oldies school in retro check. The Sonora-to-Boyle-Heights scope of his Soul Disguise is perfectly charted by its two covers: Los Alegres de Terán's norteño staple "Adios Mi Vida" and Ike Turner's "You've Got To Lose." The rest is like spinning an East LA radio dial from the '50s into the '60s and daydreaming of Central Avenue-spawned California soul, barroom horn-soaked blues, accordion-bounced norteños, and, with the magnificence of "E. Los Ballad #13," a tuxedo-and-taffeta ballroom slow dance that takes you back even if you were never there.

Rosas, who plays the House of Blues this Sunday, is just about to head out the door of his LA home to work on the new Los Lobos project when I call, but he takes time to speak with me about his solo album, the Latin Playboys (who come to the Paradise on April 16), and the benefits of still being, as Los Lobos' 1987 debut put it, Just Another Band from East LA.

Q: Having been born in Sonora, Mexico, and immigrated to Boyle Heights in LA, do you think the immigrant experience has shaped the way you think about your music?

A: Well, how can I put this? As far as my first musical influence from when I was a kid, there's gotta be something to it because the first music I was exposed to was Mexican, music in Spanish. It's something I feel very comfortable with. It's natural to me. I can pick up a guitar and play a Mexican song and feel like I never left Sonora.

Q: When did you leave?

A: I was about eight years old. I lived in a little ranch outside of the capital. My dad had a business there, in agriculture, and he was a mechanic, so, man I grew up with Indians in the desert. I remember my folks and everybody were talking about how "Oh, they're gonna have a social and they're gonna have a dance for the adults." And they'd have it outside and they'd bring in generators to create lights and stuff like that and then they'd bring in musicians. So the first time I ever heard musicians play were norteños, guys who were playing accordion-based music, bajo sexto and accordion. I remember standing there, right in front of this man who was playing guitar and I remember seeing his fingers and they were all callused. It was the very first guitar I ever witnessed as a boy. Later, I found out it was a bajo sexto.

Q: There's some bajo sexto on Soul Disguise and a couple norteños, but otherwise it feels like an homage to black music. I know that in high school your first band out of Garfield was primarily an R&B band. Why has this particular era of black music been so influential on you?

A: I'm a product of the '50s and American radio -- that's the other side of who I am. I'd say that Soul Disguise is kind of like '60s radio, the way it used to be where you'd be listening to KRLA or something and you'd hear Shuggie Otis and then next you'd hear a James Brown tune and then a Jimi Hendrix song or something -- just completely different styles of music coming over the radio. But the music that always hit my heart was soul music and a lot of the '50s soul music has always been with me all my life. Especially growing up around East LA. For some reason, Chicanos, we favored a lot of soul music. We took to that. I grew up in the classic period of East LA, the best period, the period when East LA was a big, big happening and there was [radio DJ] Huggy Boy and there was Art Laboe and all these guys that were promoters, Eddie Torres who used to do a lot of sock hops. The music that was being played at these places was R&B. So I grew up with that. Montebello Ballroom, El Monte Legion Stadium, all these places where you could actually go and dance. That's already a bygone era, man.

Q: "East Los Ballad #13" is such a throwback to the R&B oldies thing. So many people in LA grew up thinking oldies were Chicano music, pure and simple . . .

A: Isn't that weird? We kinda just took them under our wing. I grew up thinking that oldies belonged to the community, not knowing it was a ballad that came from Columbus, Ohio, or the casinos. We thought they were all black guys but they were really white guys from Cleveland.

Q: You formed Los Lobos in the '70s in the midst of the Chicano civil-rights movement. Did it affect the kind of music you made?

A: Musically, we were the ones doing the movement! We were the first guys playing this kind of music when there were no other bands playing it. We felt that Mexican music was our roots. We looked at it and thought this music is very important and we want to keep the music alive. And that's how if we're gonna contribute anything to the movement, we're gonna contribute maybe the musical part of it, the heritage, the arts part of it, and preserve it and show it and then maybe our peers will see us playing this music and it will turn them on to it.

Q: How did you choose the two norteño cuts on the album?

A: "Adios Mi Vida" is a song that I've always loved and it comes from Los Alegres de Terán. They've always been one of my biggest influences in the norteño vein. I remember when some of those songs were hits on the radio when I lived in Hermosillo. I didn't know who they were back then, but later on in the early '70s, when Los Lobos started getting together, we were starting to research music and I'd go and buy Mexican records. And I'd go, wait a minute, "Ojos de Pancha"? I remember this song when it was a hit on the damn radio! Like in 1958, I was just a little kid. And I felt right at home with it. The imagery went back to when I was standing in front of that man playing the bajo sexto, and then I started buying more of their records and I started to realize that these guys were like the fathers of this kind of music.

Q: Your record was released only weeks before the second Latin Playboys' album, Dose. Their stuff always gets written about as being avant-garde or abstract . . .

A: Well it is! I got to tell you, it's not danceable music, it's not ballroom music. But it's cool.

Q: Would you ever hop on board?

A: It's just not my thing for some reason. Dave's mind -- that's what he hears in his head, that's music to him. That's very cool. That's part of who he is. And this is what I hear in my head, for right now. But you never know.

Q: Would you still consider Los Lobos "just another band from East LA"?

A: I think we just did that out of frustration. We got tired of having to explain what kind of race we were, so I just put it short. "Leave me alone, I'm a fuckin' [stops himself and laughs] -- you know, how many times do I have to tell you? My last name is Rosas. Figure it out.

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