Inspired by a trip to Havana last year, taken to challenge the U.S. embargo against Cuba, a heavy Afro-Cuban vibe emits from Puro Party, the Jalapeos' latest CD on Flying Fish.
"[Cuba] is depressing and inspiring," Loco says. "We stayed at a luxury hotel in Havana. They didn't have any toilet paper, and when I cut my foot they couldn't find a Band-Aid. On the other hand, musicians get respect as cultural workers. Music sustains the people, even when they have nothing else."
"They're talking about Havana as the next Cancun," Loco continues, in reference to the American, Canadian, and European businessmen he spotted wheeling and dealing across the city. "They'll move in the minute Castro falters."
As capitalist sharks circled the island, the Jalapeos played for Cuban audiences, exchanging licks with Los Van Van and Mezcla, the country's most progressive bands. "They were into the Chicano R&B and blues we did," Loco says. "We picked up the songo [a rhythm created by Los Van Van] and the traditional rumba of Los Munequitos [de Mantanzas]."
Produced by Wayne Wallace, the Jala-peos, and Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas, Puro Party is slick and raunchy, and includes a grinding, East L.A. remake of the Chicano classic "Wooly Bully," "Esperanza," a mas autentico songo inspired by the Cuban trip, as well as the cumbias and Tex-Mex rock the band has always favored. One of the best tracks is "Vamos a Bailar," a suite that combines cha-chas and mambos with African-American swing, which was originally written for Luis Valdez's film Zoot Suit.
"Cesar brought in the raw, garagy edge," Loco says. "Wayne's arrangements brought the best out of the Latin stuff, and Pat Coughlin's engineering brought out the full spectrum of the band's sound."
The Jalapeos were born at Stanford University in the early '80s, when Cullar taught a course called "The History of Chicano Music." "I played records by Benny Mor -- the biggest Cuban star of the '50s and the first Latino to have his own TV show -- Freddy Fender's Mexican doo-wop, everything," Cullar says.
The demand for the class was so high that Cullar organized a band to play the music live, providing a cultural interchange that moved things beyond the classroom. Dr. Loco's Original Corrido Boogie Band, composed of Stanford students and teachers, played tejano classics, Santana's psychedelic hits, and its own freshly minted tunes. When Cullar, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, moved to his post at S.F. State, his bandmates followed him north, eventually evolving into today's Jalapeos.
Cullar's melodic moonlighting arose out of a lifelong passion for music. "I grew up at the end of the swing era and the beginning of rock 'n' roll," he says. "The sounds coming out of the radio were amazing." Benny Goodman got Cullar interested in clarinet, but things changed after he heard Stan Getz: "I memorized every sax record I found," he says. Cullar's other big influence was Clifford Scott, a local San Antonio cat who played sax on Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," one of the biggest instrumentals of early rock.
Raised in Texas in a family full of musicians, Cullar never got any flack about finding a "good job." He put together an R&B band that ruled the local scene, but a stint in the Army temporarily ended his career. Later, Cullar moved to L.A. and played in the Shindig and Hullabaloo house bands. He made decent money but grew disillusioned with the hustle once he started a family. Cullar went back to school at UCLA, began doing social work with Latino gangs, and discovered a natural ability to put people at ease. His gang kids affectionately dubbed him Dr. Loco.
It's been a long, strange trip, and for over a decade now Loco and his rockin' compadres have balanced their day jobs with the demand for the Jalapeos' bicultural boogie. "We've created a unique, ongoing celebration of our bilingual, bicultural experience as Mexican-Americans," Cullar says, flashing an impish smile. "Growing up in San Antonio, I saw how having two languages gave you an edge. You can make bilingual puns, create new meanings for words. That's what we're still doing -- mixing politics, culture, and dance music.
"There aren't many people who can make a living and maintain a band this big, but like David Hildago [of Los Lobos] once told me: 'I don't do this 'cause I want to, I do it 'cause I have to.' "
Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeo Band plays Sat, June 10, at La Pea Cultural Center in Berkeley to celebrate La Pea's 20th anniversary; call (510) 849-2568.