El Casino Ballroom is packed. Its famous wooden dance floor, once the largest in the state of Arizona, is obscured by banquet tables and rows of folding chairs. Inside this historic Latin social club, the heartbeat of the small Mexican-American city of South Tucson that borders the downtown of its sprawling neighbor, Tucson, Arizona, the mood is equal parts festive and reverent.
The sold-out crowd of Latinos and Anglos of all ages, grandchildren to grandparents, is celebrating the memory and the music of a beloved native son, born and raised in the barrio here, and an internationally acclaimed and honored singer, performer, and prolific composer, the late Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero, “the father [and the voice] of Chicano music in America.”
The celebration concert includes roots-rock, blues, and Latin-music icon Ry Cooder. Billed as “Lalopalooza,” the concert is both a birthday party—Guerrero would have been 100 in December 2016—and a benefit for Tucson’s community radio station, KXCI-FM. Now in its 33rd year, it has a dedicated listener base appreciative of the station’s eclectic “DJ-curated” programming and shows, like “Sabor del Barrio” hosted by Bob “Pepe” Galvez, one of the event’s two primary organizers.
“I always play at least one song by Lalo,” says Galvez, a long-time Guerrero admirer. “Seeing him play live blew my mind . . . and to have Ry Cooder involved tonight, well, that was the gold seal.”
Galvez realized in late 2015 that Guerrero’s 100th birthday was coming up and he and KXCI jumped into action to organize the tribute. The show also followed a precedent set by the station over the years: affordable admission—tickets for the three hours of Lalopalooza cost $15–$20.
Around the time that Galvez noticed the milestone, fellow Lalo fan Dan Buckley did, too. “I put out a thread on Facebook and the response just exploded,” says Buckley, a former music critic for the local paper and a filmmaker now nearing completion of his documentary on Tucson’s youth-mariachi movement.
“I’d been writing about music in this city for 30 years, and Lalo and I became good friends,” says Buckley, who joined Galvez’s efforts to celebrate Guerrero. “It took me ten years before I realized the magnitude of the man,” which included a deep love of laughter—expressed famously, says Buckley, through still popular parody tunes, “There’s No Tortillas” sung to the tune of “O Sole Mio,” among them.
Guerrero was “the Forrest Gump of Mexican music,” Buckley jokes. “Everywhere he went, whatever he did, amazing things happened.”
The Cooder Connection
Guerrero inspired and gave rhythm to generations of Mexican Americans, recording an estimated 700 songs, many his own, over a 70-year career—his tribute to Mexican music, “Canción Mexicana,” is still considered the unofficial anthem of Mexico. A guitarist and pianist, Guerrero’s repertoire was immense, including every Latin genre, traditional acoustic ballads, and cha-chas, as well as blues, jazz, and comic ditties. His work spanned the decades, from the zoot-suited pachuco era of the 1940s to Chicano activism in the 1960s (at one time, his booking agent was famed union leader Cesar Chavez), and everything in-between and beyond.
‘Seeing him play live blew my mind . . . and to have Ry Cooder involved, well, that was the gold seal.’
Bob ‘Pepe’ Galvez, event organizer
Guerrero died in 2005 at age 88, a few months shy of the release of what emerged from his final studio session, Cooder’s Chavez Ravine. Guerrero contributed three songs, among them the nostalgic paean to his birthplace in Tucson, “Barrio Viejo,” an appropriate inclusion—Chavez Ravine and Barrio Viejo were both vibrant Mexican-American neighborhoods fractured in the name of urban renewal in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, the subject of Cooder’s album, became a baseball stadium; a chunk of Barrio Viejo, a convention center.
Guerrero’s musical connection to Chavez Ravine is one reason the audience at El Casino is over-the-top enthusiastic: Cooder is there, playing impeccably from the far end of the stage, without fanfare, almost to the point of anonymity—a member of the event-planning team thought the tall, black-clothed Cooder was the sound guy and missed an opportunity, he moans, “to ask him to sign my poster of the Buena Vista Social Club.” The well-dressed, well-coiffed woman in her early 60s sitting next to me is practically swooning.
A Hundred-Year Milestone
“I was just sitting in with the band like I like to do,” says Cooder, 69, after the show. Invited by a Tucson acquaintance, Cooder was more than happy to accept—and participate (doing so for free). “It was going to be fun for me. I get to do this. I get to play. No one calls me to do Lalo tunes.”
For Cooder, Guerrero was one of the linchpins of the 2006 Grammy-nominated Chavez Ravine. “If I hadn’t been able to get Lalo or [the father of pachuco music Don] Tosti, I wouldn’t have done it,” he says of the album that portrays LA’s Latin culture and music within the backdrop of midcentury racial politics. “It wouldn’t have been real without either of them. They had lived through that whole era.”
Cooder not only flew in and back again that evening from his home in Santa Monica, California, he offered to help put together the Guerrero tribute, calling on such friends as jazz bassist and Tucson native Rene Camacho and the soulful Latin vocalist Ersi Arvizu, who also appears on Chavez Ravine. Arvizu came with a fitting Guerrero connection, beyond the work they did together on the album: He and her father grew up in the same besieged Tucson barrio.
Cooder joined Camacho and Arvizu in a set that included both “Canción Mexicana” and “Barrio Viejo.”
“I like the old-time Chicanos, the group feeling,” says Cooder of the audience. “So the musicians are just part of it, not freaks like in pop. You don’t get the nagging sensation that you have to surpass yourself with every note.
“I actually had fun.”
Also performing was Los Nawdy Dawgs, a Guerrero tribute band made up of local musicians gathered by Camacho and providing backup for Adalberto Gallegos, a Tejano Music Hall of Fame singer; Tucson folk musicians Ted Ramirez and Bobby Benton; and Tucson’s famed youth-mariachi group, Los Changuitos Feos. Guerrero’s sons were there: Dan, one of the emcees, and Mark, a songwriter and singer, who performed.
Chavez Ravine Revisited
“You have to have a collective awareness or a memory of things or it’s just a bunch of tunes,” says Cooder of projects like Chavez Ravine: Authenticity counts, legacy matters. He saw the latter in action at Lalopalooza, from the children in the audience to the teenaged mariachi players in Los Changuitos Feos—a community-based ensemble that has nurtured young musicians for more than 50 years.
They not only know of Guerrero, they play his songs regularly.
As for authenticity, that’s why Cooder sought out Guerrero in the first place as he began putting together the pieces that would become Chavez Ravine. “I got Guerrero’s phone number, I can’t remember how, maybe from Linda [Ronstadt],” Cooder recalls. “He was living in Palm Springs. I called and he knew me from Buena Vista Social Club. That was good. He had an understanding of who I was.
“I told him I was trying to do a record, and that I’d like to come down to see him.” Not only was he “very hospitable, very friendly,” says Cooder of the initial visit, Guerrero came up with the metaphor Cooder was seeking for the Chavez Ravine narrative. “You couldn’t do a literal sad song about Chavez Ravine. It’s no fun, and it’s no good in Spanish anyway. Spanish doesn’t work that way.”
“We got to talking,” Cooder continues, “and I asked if he knew anyone in the Ravine. He mentioned two fighters, both named Chavez, and both were friends of his because he was a boxing fan.
“I said, that’s perfect, that’s the metaphor: the fighter fights a clean fight, an honest fight, no hitting below the belt, but he comes up against dark forces, he can’t win. There’s no way to succeed, he’s down for the count.”
When Cooder left that day, he asked Guerrero to work on the song and “to give me a call when you have something.” Halfway back to Santa Monica, his mobile phone rang. “It was Lalo. ‘I think I’ve got it,’ he said. I said, ‘Wow, really,’ and pulled off the freeway. He sang it to me over the phone. It was absolutely perfect, signed, sealed, and delivered. It spelled the whole thing out in perfect corrido 3/4 time.”
The result was “Corrido de Boxeo,” sung by Guerrero with Cooder on bajo sexto.
With the exception of Compay Segundo of Cuba, whose artistry was captured in Buena Vista Social Club and catapulted globally, Cooder says of Guerrero, “I don’t think I know anyone who was so adept at that kind of word imagery.
“Most musicians can’t see the image. They live in it. Lalo was the expert. He understood,” Cooder says. “He created this tremendous musical life out of being versatile, but also by being so gifted with the paint and the colors. He was so unique.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.