With its new-model takes on border-town ballads and fiesta classics, Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven — comprising Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Rick Trevino, Flaco Jimenez, Joe Ely, Ruben Ramos, Joel JosÉ Guzman, and Freddy Fender — took a rootsy American regional style to a new, national audience via its 1998 BMG Nashville debut, bagging a Grammy in the process.
A reconfigured version of Los Super Seven returns March 13 with the Columbia/Legacy album “Canto,” whose songs can be traced to far-flung corners of the Latin diaspora — incorporating Cuban and South American influences along with the group’s signature Tejano sound.
In summing up his affection for “Canto,” country singer/guitarist Trevino describes the ideal audience for his collective’s musical adventure. “The new record expands on the basic three-chord song structure with jazz and Cuban styles, so it’s a little more sophisticated-could be that’s why I like it more. Then again, I don’t think just hardcore Tejano fans bought Los Super Seven. I think people who simply love music bought it.”
Los Super Seven developed out of a series of informal gatherings held at a favored Austin, Texas, restaurant called Las Manitas, according to Steve Berlin, Los Lobos’ sax player who produced both Los Super Seven’s first album and “Canto.”
“There was Rick, Joe, Freddy, and Flaco — whoever was in town would hang out and play,” Berlin says. “Dan Goodman [who would become the collective’s executive producer and de facto representation] thought it was cool and called to see if I was interested in producing a record around those evenings, but also involving the guys in my band. The first record was East L.A.-meets-Austin in concept. It was done in a week, and everybody enjoyed the hell out of it. Then, we were lucky enough to win a Grammy.”
Articulating the fundamental distinctions between “Los Super Seven” and “Canto,” Berlin reflects, “For the first record, there weren’t huge expectations. BMG didn’t see any market outside of America for the music. They were good and gave us what we needed to get the job done, but there was no international plan. I could understand, as we’d made an eclectic record a la the Traveling Wilburys that didn’t fit in a niche.
“For ‘Canto,’ we had the backing of Sony and, more important, Sony International,” Berlin continues. “While on vacation in France, I heard Manu Chao’s ‘Clandestino,’ which wasn’t rock or pop and was kind of all over the place. Being in France and hearing a record in Spanish that was so popular had me thinking that perhaps a Los Super Seven record could be made the same way. Such an album wouldn’t necessarily be so closely allied with Tex-Mex. It could have a broader vision.”
To complement a few of the players returning from the first record (Trevino, Rosas, Hidalgo), Berlin drew up a list of about a dozen newcomers, immediately tapping Raul Malo from the Mavericks and Tejano Orqestra vocalist Ruben Ramos from Austin. The rhythm section hails from Los Angeles: pianist/arranger Alberto Salas, bassist Will Dog Abers from Ozomatli, and drummer Cougar Estrada, who toured with venturesome Los Lobos offshoot the Latin Playboys.
Berlin recalls, “It was an amazing session, getting these guys in a room to play material that none of them were really familiar with, a lot of folkloric stuff. We had engaged this musicologist from Guadalajara, Mexico — Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Orozco — who has a library of 50,000 records. Dan Goodman went down there and brought back 20 CDs full of song ideas. Nacho was invaluable — exposing us to worlds of beautiful music, hybrids from Cuba and South America that none of us had ever heard.”
Having nailed what he felt was the heart of the album, Berlin went back to his list of candidates to see who else was available. Topping that list were Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso and Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca — the latter of whom immediately had a song in mind (“Drumi Drumi Mobila”) that Berlin loved.
“Caetano was a harder sell,” Berlin says. “He came through beautifully, but it took some work to convince him that the idea of working with a set of players unknown to him and going into the studio without a prepared arrangement was valid.” Among the cuts with Veloso is an acoustic recut of his late-’60s chestnut “Baby.” In retrospect, Berlin views Veloso’s participation with awe. “The guy’s a living god,” he says.
As to the reception for the group’s more daring follow-up, Berlin waxes optimistic. “I have great faith. While being a highly experimental blend, it honors every culture that it touches upon in a very creative way,” he says. “It doesn’t fit into any Latin format that I can discern. All we can do is to manipulate whatever resources are at our disposal. The good news is that every single second of every song was filmed.”
As shot by Wayne Miller and Michael Borofsky, the ‘Canto’ session footage has been utilized for an electronic press kit accompanying the album. Plans for a complete film are being discussed.
Although the far-flung collective rarely manages to convene for live appearances, Los Super Seven will come together to play “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” (March 13), as well as shows in Los Angeles (House of Blues, March 14), Austin (La Zona Rosa, March 15), and New York (Bowery Ballroom, March 20). Other shows and broadcasts may be in the offing.