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Chucos Suaves 

Jump blues ‘n’ hoodlum talk from the kings of Latin boogie

Wednesday, May 8 2002
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Photo courtesy Don Tosti

PACHUCO BOOGIE, THE POSTWAR MEXICAN-AMERICAN adaptation of jump blues named after the 1948 Don Tosti single that launched the subgenre, came to fruition in East L.A., but its roots are in El Paso, Texas. In the '20s and '30s, "El 'Chuco," as the city was nicknamed, probably because so many of its residents hailed from the Hidalgo, Mexico, city of Pachuca, epitomized the Wild West border town. Led by the fearsome 7-X, gangs virtually controlled Segundo Barrio downtown. So that they couldn't be understood by Anglos or other mexicanos, they spoke their own made-up language of tirili ("hoodlum talk"), a variation on the ancient Spanish Gypsy dialect calo. Their hero was Tin Tan, a Mexican DJ who in 1938 created a zoot-suited, tirili-speaking character for his XEJ radio show from across the border in Juarez. In the early '40s, El Paso police and the National Guard finally managed to break up the pachuco gangs and run them out of El Paso. Most moved to Los Angeles, where the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder and Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 helped codify pachucos as an identifiable subculture at odds with both the larger American society and the emerging Chicano middle class.

This was the crucible that forged Edmundo Martinez Tostado, who later took the stage name Don Tosti, and whose groups are responsible for nine of the 21 tracks on the new compilation Pachuco Boogie. Born out of wedlock in El Paso in 1923, he was raised by his mother and grandparents, and played violin in the local symphony at age 10. When he was 15, his family moved to L.A., where he picked up the sax and then bass, eventually playing in the jazz and dance bands of Jack Teagarden, Charlie Barnet, Les Brown and Jimmy Dorsey. Though he was writing conventional Mexican-American hits like the bolero "Vine por Ti" for balladeer Ruben Reyes, Tosti was also experimenting with the black jazz and blues sounds of Central Avenue. In 1948, when Reyes failed to show for a recording session, Tosti worked up his "Pachuco Boogie" with the other three musicians in the studio band. The song opened with brushed drums and a delightfully skewed, eight-to-the-bar Latin piano figure by Eddie Cano (who later, through his work with Cal Tjader and others, became a fixture on the West Coast Latin-jazz scene). Next came a joyously sung verse and then a jivey, spoken calo dialogue between two pachucos about the merits of dressing sharp and staying high, followed by some insouciant scatting and more singing and talking.

"Pachuco Boogie" was cool; it was atmospheric; it reportedly sold more than a million copies, mind-boggling numbers for a regional, Spanish-language record. Tosti liked it, too: He cut another version, called "Chicano Boogie," around the same time, and came back a year later with a new "Pachuco Boogie" that told a different story to the same music. "Guisa Gacha" ("Stuck-Up Girl"), the B-side to the original single, was a guaracha with distinctly Latin percussion. He duplicated the pattern with the hapless "Wine-O Boogie," a jump tune reminiscent of Amos Milburn, backed by the guaracha "El Tirili" ("The Reefer Man"). Yet the witty "Los Blues" came from deeper in the alley, while "Guisa Guaina" ("Wino Girl") satirized the Mexican standard "Borrachita" so campishly you can almost picture the nightclub choreography that should go with it.

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Lalo Guerrero, who already had an established career in East L.A., followed Tosti with such sides as this CD's great 1949 finger-popper "Chicas Patas Boogie" (which translated Louis Prima's "Oh Babe"), the booming "Muy Sabroso Blues" ("Tasty Blues") and the hypnotic "Chucos Suaves" ("Cool Chucos"). Others -- mostly but not exclusively from California -- had their own takes on the form. Jazz guitarist Jorge Cordoba's "Frijole Boogie" instrumental has the delicate yet powerful dynamics of a piece by his hero Django Reinhardt, while Dueto Taxco's "El Bracero y la Pachuca" is a mariachi love story. Conjunto meets Western swing on "Buena Vista Swing" by Conjunto Alamo, while their homies Conjunto San Antonio Alegre anchor the careening boogie "Mi Dolorcito" ("My Little Heartache") with a prickly guitar line. Another Texas group, Las Hermanas Mendoza, featuring the irrepressible Lydia Mendoza, morphs into the anti-Pachuco with "Los Pachucos"; significantly, it puts down Chicano hipsters by describing their dress, personal styles and work habits in much the same terms as the songs that praise them.

PACHUCO BOOGIE FILLS A GREATLY OVERLOOKED HOLE in American music history, especially the Southern California variety. Before the war, West Coast Mexican-American music generally offered small, subtle Americanizations of traditional Mexican forms such as the stirring close-harmony ballads. In the postwar years, Chicano music basically Mexicanized American forms. The line from Don Tosti and his disciples through Richie Valens, Thee Midniters and Cannibal and the Headhunters and on down to Los Lobos, the Plugz and today's rock en español movement couldn't be more clear.

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