The Power of Tri

Mexico City's El Tri gives its fans the goods.

If El Tri's Alex Lora gets his way, after the nuclear holocaust, his band will be kicking out the jams for the cockroaches and Keith Richards and continuing to be a voice for the Mexican people. It's hardly an inconceivable proposition, given Lora's unnatural career longevity, which can be attributed only to Faustian bargains or fierce determination.

Considered a key artist in the rock-en-español movement, the charismatic lead singer and lone songwriter for the "Mexican Rolling Stones" has been leading the rocanrol charge for 35 years without a break. Lora and the rotating cast of characters who populate El Tri seem bent on fashioning a parallel existence with that of their big-lipped, allegedly blood-recycling British counterparts. So far, the chronology actually matches up pretty well.

In 1967, El Tri, then known as Three Souls in My Mind, came to life in Mexico City. A year later, the band performed its first gig in a football stadium. Citing the same blues-heavy influences as Mick and Keith -- namely, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters -- Three Souls initially sang and recorded in English but found that it had an alienating effect on their fans, mostly working-class, monolingual folks.

Alex Lora's El Tri became one of Mexico's most popular rocanrol bands, with a mullet.
Alex Lora's El Tri became one of Mexico's most popular rocanrol bands, with a mullet.

"Our fans couldn't sing along," explains Lora, who became a prolific songwriter in his native tongue. (The band currently boasts more than 350 songs in its arsenal.) His creative output drew the attention of music fans of every stripe, mostly within Mexico and Latin America. Lora cites the flexibility and chameleon-like qualities of El Tri's music when discussing the group's broad popularity.

"An El Tri album has all of the styles of rock and roll," he says. "All of the albums are completely different, unlike the bands that, once they have a hit, all of their songs sound exactly the same." Because of this, Mexican music lovers who are drawn more toward traditional blues-influenced rock-and-roll sounds have somewhere to turn when they need asylum from the accordion-heavy ranchera style that defines the quintessential "Mexican" sound.

In splitting from traditional music, Lora and El Tri actually helped forge a Mexican national identity, serving as a voice for the working class with fist-pumping anthems of solidarity and national pride. In "We the Latinos," Lora exclaims, "We are the ones who work their land/We are the ones who fatten their cattle/And the same way we want to learn English/They should try to learn Spanish." In 1984, to further the group's identification with its fans, Lora officially shortened the name of the group to El Tri, fans' pet name for the group, and one that refers to the tri-colored Mexican flag. This identification with the people has led to an almost universal appeal in Mexico -- even among those who shudder at the musicians' lifestyle.

"We occupy all the spaces, because there's people that hate rocanrol. They can't listen to a rocanrol song and they hate rocanrolers," he explains. "They say [rock musicians] are guys that never have a bath and they smell bad and such, but they love one or two El Tri songs."

Indeed, there is something for everyone in El Tri's repertoire, from down-and-dirty sexy tunes to homages to the Virgin of Guadalupe ("Virgen Morena," which features Carlos Santana on guitar). "Carlos Santana played guitar on the song because he is a true believer and a devotee to the Virgin of Guadalupe," Lora states proudly. He goes on to explain that "El Tri has that duality that goes everywhere. I have a T-shirt that has the Virgin on it, and at the same time, I have a guitar that has the shape of a dick, and I shake it and it throws milk to the fans."

Yuck factor aside, the raunchy rock attitude paired with the reverence for spirituality and mysticism has made El Tri a pioneer of rock en español. While the band's comparisons to the Stones may look like a desperate grab at brand recognition, they function more as an attempt to identify common ground and open the gates for rocanrol's exposure in the States.

So far, El Tri has succeeded on that point. What's more, if Lora and company hadn't forged inroads on the Mexican rock scene, the Latin-music landscape in the States might look a little different. Young bands such as Ozomatli (the Los Angeles-based Mexican hip-hop act with whom El Tri shares the bill on its current tour), Café Tacuba, Plastilina Mosh and Colombia's Aterciopelados might never have felt the influence of earlier rock artists if El Tri had not created a market for them in Mexico. Lora and El Tri serve as a reminder that all bands came from somewhere -- and that artists owe a debt to those who cleared the way.

"Rock en español has a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different blends of music and a lot of bands having birth every day," says Lora. "But the main thing is that every day, there's more audience for it. That's what makes it stronger every day."

Despite the fact that there is such a huge audience for rock en español, Lora and the various members of El Tri (including Lora's wife, Celia) haven't gotten rich, even after long years in the business. It's estimated that El Tri has sold more than 100 million records in Mexico in the past three decades; unfortunately, 99 percent of those copies were bootlegs. Compact discs are expensive, and the economic realities that face the common Mexican citizen make it difficult to support a favorite artist with pesos. People also record El Tri's live gigs -- because no set is ever the same -- and sell those copies on the streets.

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