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Dr. Loco brings rhythm & blues to the barrio

By Nicky Baxter

DR. LOCO'S ROCKIN' Jalepeño Band is a dance band that whips up a sumptuous feast of beats, everything from salsa to Tex-Mex to R&B oldies. But what separates this band from others is its tenacious allegiance to churning out music that provokes audiences to think. In a phone conversation, founder/bandleader and saxophonist Dr. Jose Cuellar (a.k.a. Dr. Loco) explains, "The idea was to put together a band that played Chicano music. From the very beginning, my emphasis was to create and rearrange music that captured the range of the Mexican-American cultural aesthetic."

Chicano music is not monolithic; the music varies according to geographic and generational variables. Hence, Jalapeño's music encompasses Tejano, rancheras and polkas, as well as black R&B and blues. It incorporates grooves emanating from divergent sources: the East Bay grease of Tower of Power; the brown soul of Tierra; the Texas-flavored sound of Freddie Fender and Little Joe Y La Familia. Underpinning most of the Bay Area band's sound is rhythm and the blues.

Indeed, on the band's most recent studio project, Barrio Ritmos & Blues (Dr. Loco Productions), Dr. Loco and his compadres dive knee-deep into rhythm and blues. Produced by respected world music veteran Greg Landau, the album boasts a bevy of R&B-inspired sonics, from the slinky bilingual soul of "Feeling Azul" to the War-ish blues-funk of "Me Siento So Bad" (another Spanglish number, this time based on the Chuck Willis classic). The sound of the Big Easy is also featured on "Look-Ka-Py-Py," the album's closing track--written, not so coincidentally, by New Orleans' first family of swamp-funk, the Meters. For some, the connection between New Orleans and the barrio may seem tenuous. But, as Cuellar points out, Freddie Fender resided in New Orleans for a time, soaking up the culture and the music. Offers Cuellar, "Blues, and rhythm and blues have always been part of the Mexican-American experience. [The music of] Little Joe, Santana and Los Lobos is tinged with blues and that's where we wanted to go."

Conceptually, the new album is steeped in the urban Chicano/Latino experience, specifically the barrio. The ambitious "Barrio Trilogy," the album's centerpiece, tackles the theme head on. " 'Barrio Trilogy,' " Cuellar explains, "was an effort to combine West Coast barrios in Northern California and Southern California and tell a little history." The first segment, "Barrio East Los," offers a spoken-word chronicle of the period in the 1970s when cruising was gradually being banned. Scratchy wah-wah guitar and a bracing Dr. Loco sax solo supply the musical backdrop. Next up is "I'm in Heaven," another spoken word piece rapped by the performance troupe Culture Clash and embellished by special guests Omar Sosa's impressionistic piano and trumpeter Bill Ortiz's terse Miles Davis-like interpolations. "Barrio Mision," an ode to Culture Clash's storied stomping ground, concludes the trilogy.

Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeño Band appears at Fuel 44 for a CD release party on Saturday (Oct. 17) at 9:45pm.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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