Louie Pérez

Co-founder, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter for Los Lobos, 2021 National Heritage Fellows
Headshot of a man

Photo Credit: Hypothetical

Music Credits;

“El Canelo” performed by Los Lobos from the album La Pistola y El Corazón.

“La Bamba”, “Will the Wolf Survive” and “Chucos Cumbia” performed live by Los Lobos in August 2021.

 “La Guacamaya and “El Canelo” from the album La Pistola Y El Corazon, performed by Los Lobos.

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the album Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive


Louie Pérez: You might not think about it, but there’s no question about it that in the summer of 1987 there was a little band from East LA, that had a number one record of a traditional Mexican song. The name of the band was Los Lobos. That’s quite a statement.  And quite an overview of what we had been doing in so many years.  Another snapshot of Chicano culture as it moves forward.

Jo Reed: That is Louie Pérez the guitarist, percussionist jarana player and songwriter in the band Los Lobos which has been named a 2021 National Heritage Fellow and this is Art Works—the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Los Lobos is a groundbreaking band from East Los Angeles—They had been rock and rollers and then they discovered or rediscovered the musicality of traditional Mexican songs and they approached it with a rock and roll sensibility. But Los Lobos never stands still:  They move from electric instruments to acoustic, English to Spanish, traditional music to rock, with forays into r and b, zydeco, Tex-Mex, and soul, with ease and passion. They’ve been together—the same core four—for almost 50 years—Steve Berlin—the new kid—came to the band in 1984. They had been together for 15 years when they performed some of the music for the film about Richie Valens and “La Bamba” became the number 1 song. And suddenly the band was discovered. But Los Lobos being Los Lobos just kept on making music—extraordinary, unexpected music their way—always coming back to their Chicano roots and East LA.  Given the breadth and depth of their music and their commitment to bringtraditional music to the world and their continuing celebration of Chicano music and culture that the band a named a National Heritage Fellow. I spoke with band member Louie Perez recently—and since he tells such vivid stories with his songwriting, I asked him to tell me the story of Los Lobos.

Louie Pérez: We all grew up in East Los Angeles in the barrios of East Los Angeles. So we all met up at James A. Garfield High School, which is really famous for the movie "Stand and Deliver." And, oh, how can I put it? We were friends before we ever became musicians together. But we were musicians. I had a band with David. Cesar had a band, like a soul band, and Conrad had one of these bands that, like a three-piece power trio that wanted to be louder than everybody else.


And we were just friends in high school. Once we graduated. we still hung out as friends together but we didn't play music together. We had our own bands. But, you know, like the story goes, we were hanging around together and they say if you hang around at a barber shop long enough you'll eventually get a haircut.


Louie Pérez: Well, we eventually started a band. And the motivation to start this band actually came from not really a fluke but we decided we wanted to serenade one of our moms on their birthdays. You know, it's Mañanitas, which is the traditional thing to do early in the morning for the person whose birthday it is. So we said, "Let's learn an old Mexican song." At this point, Mexican music was background music. For us young kids, it was all about rock and roll. You know, as soon as we got tall enough to reach the knob on the radio, we changed the dial. Let's listen to rock and roll. So we found some old records and we put them on. By this point, we were already rock and rollers. And we attempted to learn one of the songs and we were really, wow. We were kind of dumbfounded by how complicated the music was. And we thought, like, there was five great guitar players in the entire world. You know, Jimi Hendricks, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton. But we were listening to this one guy play and we said, "Wow, this guy's blowing them <laughs> all away." So we were smitten. We dove right into the music. We wanted to learn more about it. Of course the birthday serenade went pretty good. <laughs> And we got so involved with it that we gave up our bands and we decided to just do this full-time, starting in about 1973. We're just now, we're just shy of 50 years.

(Music Up)

Jo Reed: Amazing. Let me ask you this, because this is a whole new style of music. You have to learn new instruments. What was that process like? And also wondering if it felt different to play this music.

Louie Pérez: That is a good question. We’d started going to local record stores and picking up records just because we saw “wow, look at this crazy instrument. We like this” so we literally when we went looking for instruments, we'd go to pawn shops and we'd hold the record up and say, "Hey, there's one." <laughs> We'd have the record in our hand and we'd be looking in the window of the pawn shop. And we were buying these instruments like vihuelas and jaranas for like $15, $20 bucks. We didn't have any idea how to tune them or how to play them. But we were fortunate enough to find some local musicians that knew how to play those instruments and one of those was Candelario Delgado who had a guitar shop in East L.A. called Candelas Guitars. And he made instruments and fixed instruments and did everything for all the local mariachis and other musicians. So he was instrumental in showing us how they're tuned and more or less how they're played. But we were pretty much on our own. And it sounded different but one thing we did do that was slightly different from the traditional was that we applied our own rock and roll sort of instincts and energy to it and we gravitated towards jarocho music because it's kind of like the rock and roll of traditional music meaning that it's really an intense music and we enjoyed playing that. But were off and running. We were listening to music because all the music is different from region to region, instrumentation and vocal approach, everything's different. So we had a lot of stuff to learn.

Jo Reed: I was just going to ask you that, because it's new musical languages and I'm just wondering when you began to really feel fluent in it.

Louie Pérez: Oh. It's endless. We'll listen to like an old record and we'll think, hey, man, we're almost there. <laughs> And this is-- this is 45 years later. It's intense, complicated music and it's always something to learn. But we got pretty good at it in a few years and of course that's all we did for 10, 11 years before we went back to rock and roll.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. And it was an interesting time, well, throughout the country but certainly in Los Angeles because there was a growing Chicano movement.

Louie Pérez: That's right.

Jo Reed: Greater sensibility of Chicano contributions to the culture I think. Certainly the Farm Workers Union finally was gaining some attention led by Cesar Chavez. Were you a part of this movement or did it affect you in some way? I know you did an album for Chavez or contributed to one.

Louie Pérez: Yeah, we did that in 1975. At the very beginning, we were attracted by the music. The Chicano movement was already on the move. So the interesting thing that happened with us was that we were concentrated on the music but at the same time people were coming to us because -- I mean, this is unusual for young musicians to be playing music of our parents to begin with. So innately, that was a big statement for us as young people. But we got more involved as the whole cultural renaissance, as you mentioned, began to bloom in East Los Angeles and surrounding areas. And so there was a politicizing of young Chicanos and Chicanas all over Los Angeles and we became part of that. Our intention was to play and  to expose Mexican music and again, it turned out to be part of this renaissance of music, dance, art, Mexican culture in general.

Jo Reed: I'm curious just because I always am. We all have to support ourselves and pay the rent. How were you guys able to support yourself through your music during this time?

Louie Pérez: We were kids right out of high school when we started the band, so we were still getting, you know, three squares a day <laughs> and living at Mom's house. But as life gets complicated, you know, I got married in 1975. Then the rest of the boys had girlfriends and eventually got married. Children showed up. And yes, life got a little complicated. But at the time there was still this burgeoning movement of Chicanos in higher education and colleges and they would have functions and they'd hire us and there was all-- You know, there was kind of money going around at that time to support culture. That all kind of disappeared you know when.  We kept the lights on. We supported each other and then when things got really tough, we'd all pitch in and help out each other. You know, there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads, so we managed to do pretty okay. We got by.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Louie Pérez: But then as your life got really complicated later, we ended up playing in a Mexican restaurant, <laughs> like what exactly what we didn't want to do: play the typical music. We wanted to expose the rich heritage of and legacy of Mexican music that is throughout all the regions. But we had to do it and we had to support that. At the same time, we were playing weddings and I always say, tell the story that if you got married between 1973 and 1980, we probably played at your wedding.


Louie Pérez: So we were busy. We were just trying to keep going and then we eventually made our move across the L.A. River into Hollywood and attracted some attention and we met a band called the Blasters and we met a band called X and the Blasters gave us the opportunity to open for them at the Whisky a Go Go. And it went over huge. People were talking. The papers were writing about where did this band come from playing this revved up Tex-Mex music and old rock and roll?

Jo Reed: And you got a record contract from that.

Louie Pérez: Yeah. Yeah. Slash Records, Bob Biggs who just recently passed away, rest his soul, came out to see the band. He liked what he heard and he decided, "Well, let's make a record." But he wasn't altogether sure. So they put up just very little money for us to do an EP and then we got a booking agent and at that point we had been playing the Hollywood clubs for about a year and doing pretty well and getting a lot of attention. So we hit the road and first time ever that this band ever went touring around the United States. That was unusual. But from that little record, we won a Grammy. And so the record company said, "Oh, okay. Yeah." You know, when does a punk rock label one of their bands win a Grammy?

Jo Reed: I have a question which is you have been, you had played acoustically with very different instruments for over a decade. And then you went back to incorporating, you know, rock sounds, R&B, blues as well as the traditional music in your work. And I'm just curious about if what you learned musically transferred when you began to play electric instruments again?

Louie Pérez: Well, there's this, a very particular sensibility from playing traditional Mexican music and playing from all these different acoustic instruments. But what really brought us back into rock and roll was that we had explored all these regions throughout Mexico. Again, all of these have different instruments and different styles, rhythms. The one that we hadn't got to yet was the border music that had developed around the Texas-Mexico border and that was Tex-Mex Norteño music to Mexicanos that stuff was having on Northern Mexico. And so we decided to explore that. Now when you think about a Tex-Mex band or a Norteño band, it's an electric bajo sexton, which plays kind of bass and rhythm at the same time, an accordion, a bass and percussion. That kind of sounds like a rock and roll band, doesn't it, Jo?

Jo Reed: It sure does, yeah.

Louie Pérez: So that kind of made us, you know, pave the way for us to get back into rock and roll. As a matter of fact, we started to incorporate rock and roll in our shows even before we made it to Hollywood. We were doing a kind of electric-acoustic thing and it was pretty good because, you know, we could play traditional music for the reception at a wedding and then for the dance afterward, we could be the rock and roll band.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Yeah.

Louie Pérez: So we had the market cornered. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yeah, you sure did.

Louie Pérez: So that's what brought us back into that and that's what we brought over to across the river to the Los Angeles and Hollywood clubs is this stew of old rock and roll and revved up Tex-Mex with an accordion.

Jo Reed: You know, when I think about Los Lobos, I always feel as though you guys are just immersed in this wide swathe of music, you're so opened musically. You don't close musical doors. And I wonder if you could talk about the importance of that openness in music or in any creative enterprise.

Louie Pérez: Absolutely, we brought in rock and roll along with the Tex-Mex music. Our background was originally rock and roll. We left that to explore traditional Mexican music. For us it didn't seem like a difference between all this. This is of course during the time in the seventies and early eighties and the punk movement was rebelling against putting things in compartments. So that kind of was a rebellion. We were kind of rebelling before that by mixing everything up and listening to music from all over. We didn't just spend 10 years just listening to Mexican music. There was all this very cool music that was happening. That's when Marvin Gaye had revolutionized soul music with "What's Going On." That was an incredible record. And a lot of things were going on at the moment. But it was important for us to bring this music. And when we started playing traditional Mexican music because we'd show up at a tardeada at a park and they would see us with our long hair and beat up jeans and flannel shirts and we'd start playing Mexican music. And it kind of confused them a little bit. When we played East L.A. College for the first time playing traditional Mexican music, the kids didn't know what to make of it. They weren't sure if they were supposed to clap or not, because isn't this the music we're supposed to leave behind and move forward and like this whole process of homogenization and that this country does so well? <laughs> But no, we dug in and people and we opened up these doors, as you mentioned.  We didn't close any, we just kept it opened. And to this day, we still play music that is a mix of traditions. No matter where we do, we never censor ourselves whether it be Helsinki, Minneapolis or Osaka. This is what we are.

Jo Reed:  When you were playing electric music in Hollywood, you always had songs that you sung in Spanish as well as in English.

Louie Pérez: That's right. And as well as we played, we had Ritchie Valens songs. We played "La Bamba." We played, "Come On, Let's Go." And that was a tribute to Ritchie Valens who was the first one to become the Chicano rock star.

Jo Reed: Well in 1987, you had been together for 15 years and you provided a lot of the music for the film La Bamba the biopic about Ritchie Valens. And how did this come to be, Louie?

Louie Pérez: Can I preface this with just with something real short?

Jo Reed: Please.

Louie Pérez: We made our first full-length record, How Will the Wolf Survive? and at that point, we could have easily gone to this taken the road to just being a good time party band. Or we can take another road. And that's the one we chose to do. We took some responsibility of the attention we were getting. We wanted to write songs that expressed the things that we saw and the things that we learned and the stories that we were told. And that's where that started. And we had done really well with that first record. The next record was 1986 we went to the studio. That was By the Light of the Moon. And at that point, we were touring and we were up in Northern California when we got a note from someone in the audience saying, "Ritchie Valens's mom is here. She'd like to meet you after the show." And we were just like, "What? Okay." <laughs> And so we were, you know, rubber legs up on the stage. And afterwards, we met her. We went to her house the next day. Had the typical, you had a Chicano meal. We had Col. Sanders southern fried chicken with rice and beans.


Louie Pérez: And we sat there and she, just a wonderful woman. And she told us “they're making a movie on Ritchie's life. We would like you to do the music." We were just like, we were honored by that. As a matter of fact, you know, she was bringing out things like memorabilia and things that, Ritchie's stuff, and it was just incredible. It was unbelievable what was happening. So we said, "Yes, yes and yes. Yeah, of course we will." It was an incredible opportunity.  We're paying tribute to Ritchie Valens. We'd had no clue, really no clue at all that that record would do what it did.

Jo Reed: Which was extraordinary. So after 15 years, Los Lobos became the overnight success.

Louie Pérez: Yes. Yes. Yeah. We were touring in Europe, and we came back to the United States, and this was right at the beginning of summer of 1987. And we are jet-lagged and tired. And everybody was patting us on the back and congratulating us. I said, what's going on? They said, “You’ve got the number one record in the country.” And we said, wow, that's great. Can we take a nap first? Yeah. It was amazing that that record just went through the roof. The movie did well. And suddenly Los Lobos were on the map.

Jo Reed:  And the song, “La Bamba”, was one, of course, that you knew well because it's a very traditional song. And if I have my facts, right, it's a wedding song. I mean, I've heard at weddings.

Louie Pérez: Yeah. Yeah. It's a traditional song that goes back for 200 years.  They play it at weddings. We had played it in the traditional way for a long time. We played it the rock and roll way when we started electrifying again after 10 years. But what we did for the single, the one that became the huge hit. And so we did something really interesting.  At the very end of the song we did a coda that was us playing it in the traditional way. So as you hear the song fade, the rock and roll version, you hear the traditional son jarocho version of “La Bamba”. So we had to do that. We had to kind of make sure that we gave a nod to the traditional music.

Jo Reed: Which is so beautiful. I love “La Bamba” in all its iterations. It's one of those songs. It's a great song. It makes you smile.

Louie Pérez: Yeah, it does.  It does. And there's a lot of smiles all over the world. And it was incredible. It went I think double-platinum, triple-platinum, I don't know, whatever, it is. But it was huge. And then we started touring on a larger scale. That was the first tour we did was opening for U2 on the Joshua Tree which was a gigantic record for them.

Jo Reed: Well, you following the success of “La Bamba” chose to do an acoustic album of Mexican folk music. It was a very bold move.

Louie Pérez: It was.

Jo Reed: And I would love to know you're thinking.  It's a great album and very unexpected.

Louie Pérez: That's right.  I don't know if I want to go as far as to say that we were experiencing a little bit of identity crisis. Maybe. I think so, a little bit. After this huge, huge hit eclipsed everything we had done prior to that. Notice there had been no hard feelings, but it was something we were aware of. And we just felt that we'd wanted to get back on track again. The obvious thing for us to do is La Bamba number two, but we weren’t going to do that. So instead, we decided, let's take the attention we’re getting and focus it on traditional music, on the culture, on exposing that. This was our mission to begin with. We went over to Warner Brothers Records and we had an appointment with Lenny Waronker president of the company. And we sat there, and we gave him a cassette. Check this out. It was us playing traditional music which no one had heard at that point. He put it on, and he says, “Wow. This is incredible music. This is you?  We said, yeah. That's us. We'd like for this to be our next record.  And he looked at us, eye got kind of wide.  And this is back when record people were record people. They were the people that are involved in music, considered artist-driven back then, and he was one of those. He was an artist guy. So he looked at us and he said, “You really want to make this record?” I said we do. And he said, “Okay. Go and make your record. Let me figure out the rest.” What he meant, Jo, by figuring out the rest that he was going to walk over to the connecting door that his office with the chairman of the board, Mo Ostin, walk in there and explain to him that Los Lobos were going to commit commercial suicide.  And I’ll tell you, I have to give him so much credit for allowing us to do that, because it was a bold move. People wrote about, everyone wondering what's going on here? No one had heard this music.  But it did well. People were-- loved the record. To this day it's still one of the favorites. It tickled us because it was people going to be listening to son jarocho, huapango, in Kyoto and Europe and Helsinki, Finland. It was just incredible that we were able to expose the music that way. And we won a Grammy for that one.

Jo Reed: There you go. There’s a lesson.

Louie Pérez: Yes!

Jo Reed: You and David have been writing music together for over 40 years. And I'm curious how the process of songwriting has changed over the years.

Louie Pérez: Well, when we first got together and we were kids, you know, we started writing songs when we were just out of high school. And it was just a frivolous kind of songs, you know, just fun songs, but whatever. And we left that to explore Mexican music for many years. And when we made our way back to rock and roll we felt, well, obviously, it was time to write songs again. So that's when about that same time like you said we kind of went a different direction and we wrote a song called Matter of Time which is a song about a Mexican immigrant crossing the border leaving his family behind. It’s a conversation he has with his wife as he's leaving. And that sort of thing that became really important for us as songwriters to experience and write it in a way that was more universal, that people could anywhere in the United States could find something they could relate to in it. And the hardships and next, the joys, the disillusionments, the triumphs. All of that stuff it's all mixed up in to the music. The song is very, very hopeful but we wanted to play and write songs that were about the things that we knew about. Again, like I mentioned to you before about who we are, and the stories that were told to us. And the things that we saw growing up. We're the sons of Mexican immigrants. So we knew that we had to pay tribute to the legacy of our fathers and mothers.

Jo Reed: You know, you're a painter as well as a musician. And I'm wondering, do you see your songs as you write them? Is it a visual thing for you?

Louie Pérez: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I see the characters walking across the room. I see their faces. I see what they're doing. It's-- the visual thing is very strong. I don't think I'm alone really just because I have an art background. It informs what I do. The way I put it is that David Hidalgo, you know, he’s my songwriting partner, he thinks like a painter and I'm a painter who thinks he's a musician.

Jo Reed: And that's why it works so well.

Louie Pérez: It works good.

Jo Reed: It does work good. East LA, it's a part of you. You're a part of it. And how do you see that manifesting itself in the music itself?

Louie Pérez: Well, we’re carrying on-- and as far as rock and roll goes it’s a tradition that started in the late 50s and early 60s with what eventually became known as the East LA sound. We're talking about bands from the early 60s like The Midniters and Cannibal & the Headhunters, and The Premiers. All these bands what they were doing is that they were taking black R&B and through their own filters, Chicano filters, creating without even knowing-- I think it’s a natural progression to create a new sound of R&B that was very identifiably Chicano. And so us, we took Mexican music. And then we took rock and roll. And then we started writing original songs. And all of this really started to really reflect, you know, where we came from. You might not think about it, but there’s no question about it that in the summer of 1987 there was a little band from East LA, that had a number one record of a traditional Mexican song. The name of the band was Los Lobos. That’s quite a statement.  And quite an overview of what we had been doing in so many years.  Another snapshot of Chicano culture as it moves forward.

Jo Reed: Well, I have to, you know, just give a shout out to Kiko which is such a masterpiece that really just tells the story. And you did it again in The Town and The City that album just takes you through a story that's astounding.

Louie Pérez: Those are my favorite records. Kiko is absolutely my favorite record.  We have done La Bamba. We La Pistola y El Corazon collection of traditional Mexican music. After that we did a big rock and roll record with The Neighborhood.  And we all found ourselves, well, we've had all the success. Now, what do we do with it? And we went to the studio, and we threw care to the wind. We just said let's just make a record. Let's just make some art. And this record at that point took a life of its.  It started to make itself. We gave it a name.  We named it Kiko like it was a living thing which it was. And it was a record, like, again I just sat back and watched it kind of make itself. It’s a wonderful thing when that happens when you're a writer. It confused the heck out of everybody, I'll tell you. People hadn't heard anything like that, and coming from us.  I think part of what we do is we've been doing things that people don't expect to hear. This is a record nobody would expect from a Chicano band from East LA. So we're always doing something that was a little bit different and not for the sake of it. It was just something that we just-- we got the call. And when we just had responded to that calling.

Jo Reed: And your latest album Native Sons all covers but the title song. And it's all covers of California musicians.

Louie Pérez: That's right. We had this idea of doing a covers record.  So we said let's talk about Southern California. Let’s talk about LA. And it was great because it was a tribute to where we're from The Beach, Boys and Jackson Browne from Highland Park. And, of course, War. The Midniters, of course, some of the wonderful black R&B.  And at one point, we just said, wow, we’ve got to quit.  We’ve got like 15 songs here.  And then I had this idea and I talked to David about it. I said why don't we write an original song.  And Dave, of course, in his classic humor looks at me and he says, “You want to write a cover?”  I said, no, let’s write a song that puts a bow on it, holds it all together. A song that's a tribute to LA. He goes, “Yeah, it sounds good.” So I sat down and figured, okay, wow, What do I do? And then I just decided to this could be like the returning son, like the prodigal son coming back after leaving and coming back to LA and asking for Los Angeles to open its arms and welcome him back. That’s what it was about. And in a way it tells about us, you know, that we've been everywhere in the world. But still, you know, East Los Angeles will always be our home.

Jo Reed: And if you had to think of a through line for Los Lobos as its approaching its half century mark, what do you think that through line would be?

Louie Pérez: I can hear the music of Jeopardy playing in the background. Wow, the through line.

Louie Pérez:  I would say-- not in a complete sentence-- I think there's community. There's family. There's love. There’s tradition. There's culture. And suddenly I'm listing to everything that this country stands for. And the thing that we need to preserve, you know, everything that we believe in. And I think that's the through line. This band has always sung what they believed in and nothing less. It's funny, Jo because, you know, so much of what we do is tradition and that is all history. And that's all about looking where we've been, but just keeping moving forward. The purest definition of tradition is to do something that maintains the tradition but moving forward, making something new.  That's what we've done.

Jo Reed: Right. Not like an ethnomusicologist, but as an artist looking at something that's traditional and bringing it into the present.

Louie Pérez: Yeah. We’ve done that our every move we made from the very beginning. It was slightly against the grain, but we were better for it. And I hope that people will be inspired. Hopefully, that they're better for it too.  We're at a point now where before we thought of ourselves as the accidental rock stars because we never really planned on any of this. We did it because we believed in the music. And the music itself was enough for us to sustain us.  Every time we get an accolade like this one or a Grammy or anything else, and this is not through mock humility. I mean, in a way we're still looking over our shoulders wondering who they're talking about. But I think it's time now for us to feel comfortable with saying that we are artists. And we have done this for a long time. And that our story has validity. And that people now I think need to hear our story because if there's anything we can leave behind is what we've done. Just when you think of anybody from Patsy Cline to Miguel Aceves Mejía They left behind this musical legacy that everybody can enrich our lives. And I hope that we can do that, too.

Jo Reed: I think it's a safe bet to say you have. Louie, thank you. I mean thank you for your time today. But thank you for music that has filled my life.

Louie Pérez: Jo, thank you very much. And thank you for all the really insightful questions. And I appreciate it. And, of course, thank you to everybody at the committee and everybody who has bestowed this honor on us as being NEA Fellows. And, of course, we didn't do it alone. We did it because we did it along with everybody who inspired us from our mothers and fathers to the musicians, to East LA which still is a rich community and has wonderful incredible music coming out of it. I’d like to thank everybody and yourself, Jo, too for spending time with me today.

Jo Reed: My pleasure—thank you Louie.  That was songwriter, guitarist, percussionist and jarana player in Los Lobos Louie Perez.  Los Lobos is one of the nine 2021 National Heritage Fellows. All the fellows are being celebrated in a film called The Culture of America. Actor Jimmy Smits hosts the virtual event which takes viewers on a virtual trip across the country where this year’s National Heritage Fellows live and work. The film streams on November 17 at 8 pm eastern at arts.gov.  It’s a joyous moment you won’t want to miss. That’s November 17 at 8 pm eastern at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.


Co-founder, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter for the band Los Lobos, named 2021 National Heritage Fellows, Louie Pérez is one of the great storytellers. For more than 40 years, he’s written songs from the Chicano experience that speak to the joys, struggles, challenges, and hopes of everyday life.  Los Lobos is an East LA band who came together almost 50 years ago, and, miraculously, it still consists of the same four founding members; Pérez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano (Steve Berlin—the new kid—came on board in 1984).

Los Lobos began as rockers who came to appreciate the traditional Mexican music of their parents—so much so that they devoted themselves to it for ten years. They played (and play) authentic music, but they approached it with the energy of rockers. Their big breakthrough came when they contributed music to the soundtrack of La Bamba, including the title song which became a mega-hit. As Pérez says, “a little band from East LA, that had a number one record of a traditional Mexican song. The name of the band was Los Lobos. That’s quite a statement.  Another snapshot of Chicano culture as it moves forward.” 

Their entire discography can be seen as snapshots of Chicano culture as they moved through and with different musics from rock to traditional to zydeco to R&B but always referring back to their Chicano roots. In this musical podcast, Pérez takes us through the formation of Los Lobos, their love of traditional Mexican music, their lifelong commitment to bring that music and culture to the world, the extraordinary journey of “La Bamba,” their roots in East Los Angeles, and the brotherhood the band shares.

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