THE WOLF STILL SURVIVES Los Lobos

 

America’s greatest
rock band bridges the cultural chasm while confronting the Arizona immigration
imbroglio.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

It’s been nearly 36 years since just another band from East
L.A., otherwise known as Los Lobos, played their first gig on Thanksgiving
night, 1974, and in the years since, they’ve championed a style that’s merged
the folk music traditions derived from their Mexican heritage with the forward
thrust of modern rock. The band that originally consisted of David Hidalgo
(singer, guitarist, accordion player and occasional violin), Louie Perez
(guitar, drums, vocals) Cesar Rojas (guitar, vocals) and Conrad Lozano (bass,
vocals) was later joined by its only non-Hispanic member, Steve Berlin
(saxophone, keyboards), in 1984 after he made the transition from another
seminal L.A. outfit, the Blasters. Although the line-up hasn’t wavered since,
they have managed to broaden their palette, incorporating covers, country,
blues, experimental music, soundtracks, and even a children’s album along the
way.

 

Not surprisingly then, Los Lobos’ superb new album, Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory) finds
them fusing a number of disparate elements, from the riveting opening track
“Burn It Down” and the bluesy sway of “On Main Street” to another revisit to
the Grateful Dead canon via “West L.A. Fadeaway.” It also offers a pair of
traditional sounding songs sung in Spanish (“Yo Canto” and “Mujer Ingrata”), a
tactic they’ve employed since the very beginning.

 

Berlin acknowledges the band’s reverence for its roots, but
also dismisses any suggestion that Los Lobos choose to trumpet the fact that
they’ve helped advance Latino music into the American mainstream. “It’s not one
of those things we think about, ever,” he insists. “We know we’re here and what
we’ve done. I guess on some level we feel like we’re making a statement every
time we make a record, but we don’t think of what we do in terms of that. This
sounds silly, but by humbly going about our business, I think that’s as much a
statement as if we were out there waving a flag and saying, ‘Hey, isn’t it cool
we’re doing this.’ We’re just not that kind of people. We’re not flashy or
showy on any level, so it’s us just keeping our heads down and trying to make
good music and carry on.”

 

Regardless, the choice to sometimes sing in Spanish does
show Los Lobos has never been reticent to imbue authenticity in their sound, a
fact Berlin is quick to affirm. “Those elements are in there. Obviously they’re
built in. Obviously we are playing Latin music and we are a Latin band, so it’s
not like that’s going to change or that that’s not as important to us ongoing
as it is. It’s just that in terms of our place in the bigger picture, we’re
simply happy to be in there somewhere.”

 

Nevertheless, this past June, the Grammy-winning group was
compelled to take a stand when they opted to protest to Arizona’s controversial
immigration bill SB1070 by canceling a scheduled stop in the state. They
subsequently issued a statement that read, “We support the boycott of Arizona.
The new law will inevitably lead to unfair racial profiling and possible abuse
of people who just happen to look Latino. As a result, in good conscience, we
could not see ourselves performing in Arizona. We regret the inconvenience this
may have caused… but we feel strongly that it is the right thing to do.”

 

“Clearly we had to say something,” Berlin reflects. “This
notion that somehow immigrants are the cause of all our problems is just beyond
belief. A nation of immigrants acting that way? I just think there’s a virus
loose in America and hopefully somebody’s going to find the cure pretty soon,
because there’s some really incredibly stupid things being said, particularly
by the Republican party these days.”

 

For Berlin, whose relatives endured the Holocaust, the issue
takes on a special resonance. “There’s an utter moral corruption of that point
of view,” he continues. This is a very time honored tradition. Look at Germany
in the ‘30s, and when the Irish came to New York in the teens. We blame all
these economic problems on whoever looks and acts and talks different. Not too
many politicians have lost money by pushing that agenda. But to take it as far
as Arizona did is clearly a step beyond, and we’re clearly not going to stand
idly by. The state needs to come to its senses and the whole country needs to
come to its senses about it. It’s clearly not a black and white issue. It’s not
something that’s going to go away by that basic concentration camp type
mentality.

 

For a band that usually goes about its business and avoids
making headlines, Los Lobos suddenly found themselves thrust into the
spotlight. Not surprisingly then, Berlin is especially adamant when discussing
the polarizing political climate that surrounds debate on the immigration
issue. “We got a lot of pro and con as you might imagine,” he says. “The most
con, unfortunately, was [when] some idiot got our road manager’s telephone
number and posted it on some right wing website, so he had to endure this
insane stupidity these people came up with. I’d say it’s hard to believe, but
then turn on Fox News any night, every night and you’ll see the same stupidity.
What the right wing calls discourse is pretty scary to people like us, and to
me, whose family lived through another kind of holocaust. Where they’re going
with this is beyond belief.”

 

Los Lobos’ North
American tour starts this week – tour dates at their official website.

 

[Photo Credit: Drew Reynolds]

 

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