Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles

Sat, 12/20/2008 - 4:00pm
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Ritchie Valens

Gil Rocha

Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles, narrated by Edward James Olmos, tells the inspiring story of generations of young artists and audiences who proudly expressed their cross-cultural identity with a unique style of rock ‘n’ roll, born and nurtured in America’s largest Mexican-American community. Fifty years after the untimely death of Chicano rock’s first breakout star, Ritchie Valens, Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles, a film by Jon Wilkman, airs Saturday, December 20 at 4 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Chicano Rock! is filled with intimate first-person storytelling, rare film and photos, and exuberant music from artists such as Lalo Guerrero, the Father of Chicano Music, and the legendary Valens, as well as classic bands such as Cannibal and the Headhunters, who toured with the Beatles, Thee Midniters of “Whittier Blvd.” fame, El Chicano, Tierra and perhaps the greatest of them all, Los Lobos.

A celebration of community as well as music, Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles adds an overlooked chapter to the history of American popular music. “This was an eight-year-long labor of love,” says Wilkman, an award-winning documentarian whose career began at CBS with Walter Cronkite. “The stories I’m especially attracted to are often ignored or untold, with unexpected depth and significance. The subject of Chicano rock is that and even more.”

Wilkman’s lively and engaging film begins during the Zoot Suit era of World War II, when young Mexican Americans, known as Pachucos, began a musical dialogue with Anglos and African Americans. Faced with prejudice and injustice, in both the United States and Mexico, pioneering musicians such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti defined themselves with hipster fashion, unique slang and, most of all, music, adding a Spanish-language twist to swing, boogie-woogie, and jazz — providing the roots for a musical blend that is the essence of Chicano rock.

With the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, a young Chicano from the San Fernando Valley, Ritchie Valens, brought Latin rhythms to rock with his hit La Bamba. Valens’ untimely death in 1959, in the same plane crash that killed the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly, inspired an astonishing musical and artistic renaissance in East Los Angeles during the 1960s. Bands such as the Premieres, and especially Cannibal and the Headhunters, had national hits. With Land of a Thousand Dances, Cannibal attracted the admiration of the Beatles and, as viewers will see in rare footage, the band toured with the British superstars in 1965.

The late 60s and early 70s brought a bold new generation to L.A.’s Chicano community, proclaiming pride in their Mexican heritage as they openly protested against prejudice and injustice during the Vietnam War. The music of eastside bands such as El Chicano and Tierra gave a Mexican-American voice to an activist era.

From the beginning, caught between cultures, Chicano rockers defined their dual identities with music. The emergence of Los Lobos during the 1980s and 90s combined Mexican roots and American diversity into a powerful new amalgam of melody and rhythm. It was a preview of Latin influences that would sweep across America in the decades to come, with East L.A. bands such as Ozomatli and Quetzal leading the way.

Entertaining and moving, Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles is the soundtrack for a new multicultural America in the making.

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