Gone Loco

The members of Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band certainly know their stuff. Not only do they play distinctive mœsica that celebrates the Mexican-American heritage; they're also as well-educated as the employees at many colleges. In fact, Jose B. Cuellar, aka Dr. Loco, actually teaches at one: This proud recipient of a doctorate in cultural anthropology from UCLA serves as a professor of ethnic studies and as chairman of La Raza studies and director of the Cesar E. Chavez Institute for Public Policy at San Francisco State University. In addition, he likes to think he's doing his part to destroy the stereotype that all musicians are dolts.

"That's really a fallacy," he insists, adding that he started including information about his degree in the group's publicity "because so many people would come up and ask me if I was really a doctor and if I could write prescriptions and things like that. Then I would have to explain that I wasn't a medical doctor but a Ph.D.--a philosopher. Then I decided if we were listing my degree, we should list everybody else's as well. I mean, they earned them, so why shouldn't they be acknowledged?"

Keeping track of these credentials isn't easy; there are a lot of them. Guitarist/vocalist Chris Gonzales Clarke obtained his sheepskin at Stanford, where he majored in human biology. Today he works at his alma mater as a full-time administrator. Additional Stanford grads include bassist/accordionist Charlie Montoya, trombonist David Stephens and pianist Cherie Choolijan, who's also received a master's degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from the University of San Francisco. As for the rest of the band, percussionist Mario Barrera holds a diploma from Mexico's University of Michoac‡n; percussionist Mark Rendon, a music teacher at an Oakland middle school, completed the bachelor's program at the Manhattan School of Music and postgraduate coursework at Berkeley; trumpeter Glenn Appell specialized in music performance at New York's Hunter College; and drummer Joey Brigandi has a degree in industrial management from the University of Akron.

In short, there's not a dunce in the bunch--a situation that Cuellar claims isn't that out of the ordinary. "Since we started this practice, man, I can't even begin to tell you how many Bay Area musicians have come up to me and said stuff like, 'Hey, I have a master's degree in such and such. Can I be in the band?'" he says, laughing. "This leads you to the conclusion that musicians generally tend to be better-educated than the general public."

Most men with as much education as Cuellar wouldn't leap to such an assumption; after all, if it were true, you'd hear a lot more complaining from parents wondering where they went wrong. In the case of his band, however, Cuellar believes that non-musical training has made the musicians better.

"In essence, music requires discipline," he notes. "To survive to the point where we actually become professional with it, have a career in it, our education in other fields has allowed us to develop the discipline necessary to become musicians. It's a continual study--music is a never-ending process. If you stop, you stop growing. You even move backward. You begin to lose it. I know. I quit playing for almost ten years."

Cuellar's musical dormancy was self-imposed. In 1977 he took a position teaching anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After being asked to direct the Chicano-studies program at the school, he decided to concentrate his energies on aca-demia. He subsequently moved on to teaching posts at other institutions; as time passed, he realized that it was possible to pursue his musical passions without jeopardizing his position as a man of letters.

By 1990, the Jalapeno Band had gained enough of a reputation in San Francisco to win a slot opening for Steve Jordan and Flaco Jimenez at the city's Great American Music Hall. A year later the act signed with Bruce Kaplan's Flying Fish label. Because of company-wide confusion spurred by Kaplan's 1992 death, the combo's two strong Flying Fish releases (Movimiento Music and APuro Party!) have been tough to find; until Rounder Records reissues the Flying Fish catalogue later this year, they're available only at Dr. Loco's live performances. "In the interim," Cuellar says, "most of our airplay comes from public-radio stations--programs that focus on world music, Latin music, Tex-Mex, that sort of thing. It's tripping. We get airplay in some of the most diverse places. We were even listed as one of the top ten pop releases in September of 1995 in the Tokyo Daily. But the real thing is to see us live. The band is a groove. We have a good time. Man, we party."

Indeed they do. The nine Jalapenos exhibit the same level of energy as funk kings like Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, but their repertoire is much more varied; they play boogies, shuffles, vintage rock, folk, merengue, corridos, cumbias, polkas and just about anything else that sounds good to them. The band has been criticized for its eclecticism, but Cuellar defends the broad range of material. "It's the music, man," he declares. "We just love the music we play. We are really committed to communicating the joy that is in the music, the joy intended by the composer, the joy of having the opportunity to make music in front of an audience. I tell you, we will definitely communicate with you."

WAR, with Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band. 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, April 10 and 11, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $25, 322-2308.

 
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