Life after "La Bamba'

Published April 29, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

Something strange has been happening lately at Los Lobos concerts around the country. Make that something hasn't been happening.

The song that earned the band its greatest commercial following _ a 1987 cover of the Ritchie Valens hit La Bamba _ isn't being played too much anymore.

"We used to get complaints" for not playing it, said David Hidalgo, the band's singer-guitarist, in a phone interview from from a tour stop in Fort Worth. "We wouldn't play it unless we had to."

"Lately, no one's been shouting for it. I think the people who were listening to us before La Bamba are the only ones left, and that's cool."

After 20 years of turning out their own brand of Mexican folk music, roots-rock and rhythm & blues, Los Lobos wants to escape from the shadow of another man's song.

After all, band members won their own Grammy. They've been named "Best Band" by the Rolling Stone Critics' Poll. They've played their share of sweaty dance halls and Cinco de Mayo parties in between recording a catalog of highly acclaimed music.

More than La Bamba, it may have been 1992's Kiko that really put Los Lobos on the map. Hailed as the definitive outing for a band that has made a career of stretching the limits of self-definition, Kiko also provided an emotional release for the band.

"The record came together quickly," said Hidalgo, whose band will open several dates for the Eagles' reunion tour this summer. "We didn't rehearse. Everybody just played. We tried to capture everyone's first impressions. Everything had that freshness to it."

The aftermath was a pleasant surprise.

"After Kiko, we were feeling kind of free. We had that feeling that we could do anything," Hidalgo said.

The first direction it took them was unexpected, though. When the song-writing juices kept flowing after the record was completed, Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez channeled them into an experimental side project, The Latin Playboys.

They wrote and recorded by improvisation at home on a four-track machine. After bringing in the producer and engineer from Kiko, they had The Latin Playboys, an unlikely new band and its self-titled debut, full of loopy, disjointed melodies and lyrics.

At the same time, Kiko steered the band toward a mode of reflection. The result: Just Another Band From East L.A.: A Collection, the two-disc Los Lobos compilation set spanning the group's rich 20-year history.

Beginning with the Mexican folk songs that lured the musicians together in their high school years, the set is a virtual co-pilot's guide to their musical travels.

"When we started out, no one our age was playing Mexican folk music," Hidalgo recalls. "It was pretty much going out the window. We felt it was important to keep it alive, to expose it."

Over the years, they injected it with electric guitars, rockabilly attitude and the blues. These days, Hidalgo said, they're just as likely to be influenced by West African or Caribbean rhythms as they are traditional Mexican sounds.

"We've always wanted to stretch it, to keep moving and not paint ourselves into a corner," he said.

"We figure this is pretty wide open. I mean, we're not going to start playing reggae. We're going to do things that still make sense."