Friday, March 12, 2010

Interview transcript: Dr. Loco (Jose Cuellar) of Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band

A conversation with Jose Cuellar, better known as Dr. Loco of Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band. Que Viva La Raza!

I see you guys are performing at The Catalyst March 20. I hadn't heard anything from you in a while. What's been going on with you and the band?
Both evolving (laughs). Developing into other stages and phases. Musically, the band, we've been performing here and there once a month or so. Mostly, festivals, campus gigs, concerts, things like that. Community events. And I haven't done a commercial club for a decade, I guess.

Did you say a decade?
I'm pretty sure. It's been a long time since I've done a commercial venue like The Catalyst. We're really excited about it. It was just, for me, a lot easier to move the band around and to do things that we wanted to do. It wasn't really on the horizon. It's not something I was seeking, but when (The Catalyst) got me this opportunity to connect with my old Santa Cruz and environmental friends... It's been a couple of years now since we've connected down there. For a while, we were doing the Watsonville (Strawberry Festival). But it's been two years since I've had a chance to be down there in that area, musically.
So, I'm really excited about bringing the band down. The band, since the last time I was there, has changed significantly. Not that I didn't have some good players before, but I'm really blessed with a good crop of musicos that I'm working with right now. It will be exciting to bring them to The Catalyst.

Tell me, in your own words, a quick history of the band. Were you always conscious of having a strong Chicano identity associate with your music?
Musically, it was two things. When I was a full-time musician on the verge of becoming a full time student in the mid-60s, I became a community college student in 1966, my music was club music. Top 40's, whatever the audience demanded, and I would play with different bands. My schoolwork was evolving into the movimiento kind of both academically and in terms of the movement and in terms of the Chicano consciousness. That was another thing.
As it evolved into the '70s, when I was finishing my masters, I started working on my Ph.D. and started teaching at Pamona College. And there at Pamona College, in my class, was a guy named Francisco Gonzalez, who eventually became one of the founders of Los Lobos. He introduced me to David and Louie and Cesar, his next door neighbor. That group, and those musicians I met in 71, who evolved into a more Chicano consciousness, and eventually evolved into Los Lobos.
Bobby Navarrette, who eventually went to work with Tierra, and I, we were playing in another group called Two-Thirds Minority. It also involved (Los Angeles musician) Mike Archuleta.
So in LA, the Chicano consciousness in music was kind of where it was evolving, and I was getting ahead because I was interacting with these guys. All or part of different groups, guys like Ruben Guevara (of Ruben and the Jets)...
So all these cats were evolving or interacting with one another in LA. By 1977, I moved to Colorodo, and I dropped out of the music scene. I stopped playing. I became a professor, so the conscienca, the Chicano consciousnesses, that part continued. But musically, I put my horn away in 1977, and it wasn't until like 1984, 1985, that academic year at Stanford when I began to pick it up again. So I went into hiatu with the thinking that I used to be a musician, now I'm a professor.
Then, at Stanford, the context and environment of being multi-disciplinarian, and having a lot of students around me who were talented (musicians) kind of sparked the interest in playing my horn again. Fortunately I still had it. I didn't sell it and buy a computer like I was planning. I decided to keep it and play it.
Pretty soon, one thing led to another. Tony Burciaga wanted to do a Zoot Suit Night at Stanford. I had already started playing around with some of the folks in the community, and I put together a group of students there we called Dr. Loco's Original Corrido Boogie Band. We played around under that title for a while. Then in '89, we decided we should change the name to something that people can say (laughs), not just something that descriptive.
And I was thinking, what was my repertoire? What are we doing on the west coast? And in some ways it was evident to me that a lot of the music I was doing really represented the repertoire of one of my hometown radio station in San Antonio, KEDA, Radio Tierra, aka Radio Jalapeño. So I thought, my repertoire, what we play, this whole Chicano thing, is really reflected in the Jalapeño music of KEDA, So I thougt, that's cool, you know. Jalapeno, hot and picante, tasty, and then rockin'. So we changed the name to the Rockin' Jalapeño Band in 89, and began playing with the new name.
And that's been the musical thrust, you know, kind of taking away from my roots and my biography. There's this Tejano base, San Antonio specific, both in terms of R&B and the Chicano, Tejano style. And there's some Southern California, heavy influence from the '60s, when I moved to So-Cal to play here and those influences. Specifically, you could hear, I think, influences of Los Lobos and music that influences Los Lobos, like (music from) New Orleans. Because my music had a real distinct New Orleans influence. One because it was a mecca for me. When I was in middle school, that was a place I wanted go to.
So-Cal, New Orleans, and obviously the Bay Area, because that's when I re-emerged as a musician. I started playing again and you know, it's like learning to ride a bike again. I was a different saxophonist than I was before I quit. And more Bay Area influences, you could still hear the Tejano in my sax, the Texas tenor stuff. But musically, it was more Bay Area.
And the influences of the guys in the band, over the years, of different musicians who came through and played with me. The repertoire, the way the repertoire is interpreted, it has this base that I provide, but then the players come in and take it in different directions. Expand on it, improvise it, and in a way, it constantly keeps it fresh, even though I'm playing classics from experience and my personal favorites. I play what I want and I just hope the audience likes it.

Where are you teaching at right now?
I just retired (from teaching) full-time at San Francisco State University. I'm teaching part-time a couple of classes at (San Francisco) City College. I'm teaching a Chicano history class and a Latino history class.

What has the connection been with your students knowing that you're Dr. Loco? Are there any funny stories about seeing students at shows, or anything where your music career has spilled over to your teaching career?
It's happened, in a funny way, that I interject music more into my teaching now than ever. As time goes by, I use more music examples in the history class. I use more music in the Latino diaspora class, to look at the impact of different cultures. So using music more and more, whereas before, I didn't use it at all. And then when I began to use it, I taught a class that I started teaching at SF State 20 years ago, my music folklore class. So, it was there that my academic and musical life came together in that class.
Now that I'm not teaching at SF State anymore, I'm teaching at City College, I'm finding ways to introduce music (into the lesson plan)and I find myself saying ‘Oh wow, this is another way of teaching, another way of underscoring a point.’ I'm finding that I wish I had done this earlier.

I can tell you from my personal experience, whenever your name was mentioned in reference to the band, it was always said with that added caveat "Oh he really is a doctor" Talk about that aspect of your identity and how you've carried it with yourself and used it to spread a message that education is important in the Chicano community.
It's pretty interesting how, I have to admit, it wasn't my intent to do that. It wasn't my intent like ‘Sabes que, this is going to be my message.’ That wasn't my intent. When we first started (talking about the band's academic background), the first time it happened when we began to notice this, it was a specific event when I miscalculated a set. We were playing at the SF Fourth of July and I miscalculated the timing of my set. And so I said to myself ‘Oh, I have some time. I don't want to keep playing La Bamba, I'll introduce the band.’
I said, Ok, I'm going to talk about where they're from. And at the time, it was early '90s,the band, most of them had just graduated from Stanford or Berkeley and were in graduate programs. So I began to introduce them. ‘He just graduated from Stanford with a degree in biology. He's going to medical school. And Chuey just graduated from Berkeley with a BA in Chicano studies and music.‘ And I took up my time and I got to myself, and I still had a lot of time, so I gave them my whole biography.
So I did that long introduction of all the players and at the end, the audience just reacted in a way that it was obvious to me that they liked the music, but this last punchline was really resonating.
Afterwards, people came up to me, Latinos and non-Latinos, and talked about how impressed they were with the band. It was clear on two levels — on a musical level, people never think that musicians have degrees. They just don't think about it. A lot of musicians have degrees. They have degrees in music or in other areas and they're also musicians. But people don't think about it because they get introduced just as the bass player or so and so, but they never talk about the academic background.
So after this San Francisco show, people came up to me saying ‘Oh, we're so impressed. Thank you so much for promoting education.’ And I didn't realize that just by introducing these guys, people would be so impressed. So I just made a point of emphasizing that.
It's really interesting how the audience, when I do the introduction, this becomes something that people take away from our presentation. Now I do it consciously knowing that when I introduce these guys, people are going to be impressed and hear the promotion of education.
At first, I was so impressed by how quickly the audience interpreted it that way. But then musicians began to come up to me and say ‘Hey, do I have to have a degree to play with you? Because you know, I have one. I just want you to know that I do have a masters.’
That was the other thing, to realize there's a lot of cats with degrees who play music, but you just don't realize it. But that's how it started, and later on I realized it does have an impact, so I just kept it up.
I've had women come up to me, and I'm speaking specifically of some mujeres who come up to me and said ‘You know, I went and got my GED and now I'm going to community college.‘ And then I'd come back for another show and the same girls would come up and say ‘I finished my AA degree and now I'm going to (State college), and I'm all ‘Like that?’ I have people come up and report to me how they get motivated (by us) and it's a trip. But it does have that effect.

You guys kind of carry the vanguard of the Chicano Movimiento musico legacy through the generations, from the 80s to the 90s and now we're here in 2010. Do you see yourselves as the torch bearers for musicians who are associated with the movimiento?
There's still (others). The Danny Valdez's and Chunky Sanchez's up and down California. Up here, Danny Valdez continues to do it.
But you know, the way I see us is playing this particular, this southwestern borderlands Chicano (music), because it's a Mexican, Anglo-cized, Mexican-ized, Afro-cized kind of everything. As new groups come up with their new grooves, you get groups specialized out of the southland. Like Los Pochos or The Fabulocos. They're California Tex-Mex groups, and then you have Los Lonely Boys, who are also a part of that. And then you have the next generation that is coming, and the next one after that is already here, the 15 and 16 years olds. Who know s what they're going to come up with. They're the ones that are next, the post hip-hop generation, right?
We've already had like two hip hop generations that were after me, twice after me. The funk (generation) after the 70s, and then the the hip hop's the 80s and '90s. Now we're into this whole new, who knows what is going to emerge in the next couple of years. It will be something radically different.
But until then, we have the Ozomatli's and bands like that. And when they bring it, they bring the energy of youth, right? And the fun and excitement. And what we're trying to do, and I'm doing it, we're keeping this old school transition. So there's a musical transition that's still contextualizing itself. And what I see is the transition between the Lalo Guerreros, who just passed, and that generation. The Cesar Loez's and that generation right before me. My generation was like Little Joe, those of us who are in our 60's. And then theres the guys in their 50's, 40's, 30's and 20's, and now their teens. It's this whole new musical layer, with all of us evolving, musically within our own context and as individual musicians.
I think what we're all trying to do, regardless of our age or generation, is trying to be as creative as possible and kind of involving ourselves as best we can in our circumstances as musicians.
We play the repertoire we like and hope that people like it and have a groove with it and enjoy it. So what we play tends to have people go ‘Oh wow, that's cool. You took a soul tune and gave it this vibe, that was fun.’ Or they say ‘God I haven't heard that song in a long time,’ or ‘That was my dad's favorite tune.’ You know what I mean? Like that. And that's what we bring. We're not a true cover group, but a group that plays the classics with kind of the sabor musicians that I have played with. That's what I bring to the table. That's what we do.
To me, it's fun, because these cats are always evolving and I'm trying hard to stay on top of my game.

How old are you now?
I'm going to be 69 next month, two weeks after I play The Catalyst. I'm gonna give a lecture at Harvard, then I'm going to turn 69.

What are you lecturing On?
Chicano borderland music.

What else, right?
Yeah, what else. That's what they wanted. I told them ‘What do you want me to do?’ And that's what they wanted me to do.

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