Pachuco Boogie 

A new collection celebrates bandleader Don Tosti and the birth of Chicano R&B.

When Los Angeles bandleader Don Tosti cut loose on the microphone in the historic 1948 session that would make him a star, popular music everywhere was going through radical changes. As the Second World War ended, so did the recording ban that had funneled vinyl into the war effort. Suddenly, all the pent-up creative growth of the early '40s exploded onto the postwar landscape. The hard-core jazz of the beboppers burned its legacy onto wax, along with newly electrified urban blues, the rustic rhythms of honky-tonk country, and the rowdy new R&B combos that took over where the big bands left off. But while hillbilly bands and African-American groups broke into the mainstream, the innovative efforts of Mexican Americans during the postwar era stayed well off the cultural radar. A new CD collection released on El Cerrito's Arhoolie label, Pachuco Boogie: The Original Historic Recordings, aims to correct all that, gathering together prime examples of the unique style that Latin hipsters like Tosti created -- the pachuco boogie.

A Mexican-American swing player originally from Texas, Tosti added his own distinctive touch to pop music's postwar crazy quilt with a dynamic R&B tune that melded raw, rocking jazz with the Chicano youth culture that had surfaced earlier in the decade. "Pachuco Boogie" was a novelty jive tune -- a bluesy number like those of Slim Gaillard or Louis Jordan -- which featured plenty of slang and a driving melodic beat. But unlike his African-American counterparts, Tosti sang in a rapid-fire, nearly impenetrable Spanish dialect known as calo, a streetwise slanguage he learned as a child in the barrios of El Paso, where he grew up.

"That was the first rap song sung in Spanish," says the 79-year-old Tosti, speaking from his home in Palm Springs. As he recalls the session from five decades back, the jazzman can still sing out all the lyrics. "It's about a guy from the country coming to LA to hang out and be cool: 'Vengo del paciente vez/Un lugar que le dicen El Paso ... I'm coming from El Paso/where pachucos like me come from/I came to LA, man, to show off my new clothes/because it's very cool.' "

Tosti, who counts himself as one of only a handful of Mexican Americans to succeed in the big band jazz scene, had tapped into the powerful new culture of the pachucos, or so-called "zoot-suiters." They were the first wave of young Latinos to assert themselves in American popular culture, adopting the hepcat style and flashy clothing of swing musicians such as Cab Calloway. They cruised into nightclubs and dance halls throughout the Southwest to take part in America's new youth culture. Many pachucos were also in tough, violent gangs, some of which moved into the Chicano neighborhoods of 1940s LA. The zoot-suiters gained notoriety in a series of wartime brawls fought against enlisted soldiers and sailors on leave in the big port city. Although the pachuco subculture met with harsh repression from the city's Anglo establishment, it persisted throughout WWII. By the time Tosti recorded his tune in '48, the scene was still going strong, waiting for something positive to rally around.

With "Pachuco Boogie," Don Tosti delivered the goods. The song is a wild mix of styles, with Tosti thumping the bass while singing in the sly, lusty style of the blues shouters. A second vocalist, Raul Diaz, takes a scat solo, joined by the honking saxophone of Bob Hernandez. Finally, pianist Eddie Cano -- later a pivotal figure in LA's Latin jazz scene -- provides an inventive melodic line based on interlocking chord patterns of Cuban son. Although the small combo hailed from Southern California, they were attuned to the changes in jazz that were brewing back East, like Dizzy Gillespie's collaborations with Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, and the explosive popularity of the mambo beat championed by Perez Prado and Tito Rodriguez. The ensemble playfully worked hints of Latin jazz into their choppy blues style, creating a new sound that was uniquely American and utterly hip.

The song was a surprise hit, selling nearly a million copies and spawning numerous imitations as well as follow-up records by Tosti and a host of like-minded Latino hipsters. Now, over fifty years later, Tosti's handful of pachuco singles have been collected together into Pachuco Boogie as part of an ongoing series exploring the Mexican-American musical heritage. Although Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz was reportedly resistant to including a set of the rowdy, chaotic pachuco swing into a series dominated by acoustic mariachi and ranchera songs, he was eventually won over by the album's compiler Chuy Varela, an East Bay radio DJ and cultural historian, and occasional Express contributor. After years of nagging the label head, the insistent jazz aficionado persuaded Strachwitz that the pachuco style was a vital part of the Mexican-American music legacy.

Varela has been a fan of Don Tosti's work since he first heard the song in the 1980s, when he worked on "La Onda Bajita," KPFA's long-lived low-rider show, which concentrates on the doo-wop, soul, and rock oldies favored by California's Latino cruisers. Speaking by telephone from his office at San Mateo jazz station KCSM, where he now works as the music director, Varela recalls the thrill he felt when he first laid eyes on the Tosti singles. A friend had taken him to prowl through the dusty bins of Jack's Record Cellar, a tiny San Francisco music shop famous for its huge collection of rare 78 rpm singles.

"We were just digging, and all of a sudden I find this thing that says 'Pachuco Boogie,' and also one called 'El Tirili' and 'Guisa Gacha.' I thought, 'Wow!' because this was the language I had grown up hearing when I was a kid. We went over to my friend's house where he had a 78 set up, and we went crazy."

Soon after that, Varela heard Strachwitz, another KPFA DJ, playing other pachuco hits by Lalo Guerrero, an East Coast hipster whose novelty drug song "Marijuana Boogie" is perhaps the most infamous of the pachuco swing tunes (due in no small part to a revival on hippie-era underground radio). For Varela, hearing this music was an epiphany, revealing a bridge between the jazz age and the rock and doo-wop classics that he and his friends were playing on the radio. "All of a sudden I found this connection, this missing link, between Richie Valens and the groups in the '30s that were putting the acoustic corridos into a modern context," he says. "I began tracing how Mexican Americans in particular got enamored with African-American popular music, and how the oldies fed into low-rider culture."


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