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Los Lobos: Livin’ La Vida NAFTA

What product has been freely swapped across the U.S.-Mexico border for decades before NAFTA?

September 7, 2002

What product has been freely swapped across the U.S.-Mexico border for decades before NAFTA?

The most direct musical trade route between Mexico and Texas can be found in the “conjunto” (“group”) sound that originated in Texas at the end of the 19th century. The folk music tradition of Mexico (or “son”) had been established since the early 1800s.

This tradition is best known outside the region, perhaps, by one of its most overly dramatic offshoots — the bold trumpet accents, melancholic violins and guitars and exotic costumes of the “mariachi” tradition.

Immigrants from Germany and other countries (including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) who came to Texas in the 19th century heard these native sounds.

These newcomers brought with them not only their waltzes and polkas, but also an instrument that became crucial to the emergence of a new sound — the accordion.

As the new Texans from Central Europe adapted to their new climate, the musical traditions and accordions that they carried across the Atlantic helped to shape a new sound across the Rio Grande.

Mexican folk music commandeered the Old World rhythms of the polka and waltz, without losing its hot spice and arid tempo. Thus, the distinctive “conjunto” style was born.

As the 20th century reached its midway point, conjunto grew so popular that some of its proponents branched out into the more elaborate “Tejano” sound. This style mixed the intimacy of conjunto music with more elaborate orchestration.

In fact, it is much as “Western swing” music, which mixed elements of American country-western music with the brassy feel of swing jazz during the same era.

Enter rock 'n’ roll — and yet another trade wind blowing across the U.S.-Mexican border. As rock music’s popularity grew from the late 1950’s into the 1960’s, its Texas practitioners mingled it with the conjuntos sound — and came up with a pop music that spawned a few hits in the 1960s. Eventually, the music became known as “Tex-Mex.”

The two earliest “Tex-Mex” artists were the Sir Douglas Quintet (led by Doug Sahm) and Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. On Tex-Mex records such as “She’s About a Mover” (by Sam’s Sir Douglas Quintet) and “Woolly Bully,” American rhythm and blues and country music collided with the native Texas sound.

The sound was ragged and raw, and electric organs replaced the accordions. But the music’s reliance on the infectious rhythms smuggled across the border was clear. (Later in his career, Sahm played with the legendary Texas Tornadoes — a group that brought the rock sound of his Sir Douglas Quintet days back to its conjunto music.)

Like all good students of music, Los Lobos know their roots and influences inside out. In their 25-year career, they have been first-rate sonic free traders — freely swapping rock and conjunto as well as salsa and blues.

Some of their records emphasize the rock side of their cultural inheritance (including 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive?). Others rely mainly on the acoustic conjunto and Latin sound (such as 1998’s La Pistola y El Corazon).

Interestingly enough, Los Lobos had their biggest hit in 1987 by reviving the legend of another Latin-influenced artist from rock and roll’s initial explosion. The band’s remake of “La Bamba” — Richie Valens’ 1958 Spanish-language rock hit — was the highlight of the soundtrack to the film of the same name.

Los Lobos’ latest album, Good Morning Aztlan, is an album that revels in the mixing and collision of various musical forms from the United States and Mexico. Many of the songs on the album (“Done Gone Blue”) are straightforward rock tunes with a strong rhythmic shuffle that sounds like the best Tex-Mex.

Other songs on the record (“Luz de Mi Vida” and “Malaque”) update and renew a more traditional Mexican folk sound. There are even hints of American soul music that reminds the listener of legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye (who also lived in Los Angeles) on songs such as “The Word” and “Hearts of Stone.”

Bands such as Los Lobos are thoroughly comfortable with the steady commerce of the border that NAFTA opened up almost a decade. The band has lived on that border since 1977, renewing the traditions of conjunto and Tex-Mex music as they blaze new musical trails.