The Power of Tri

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. 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 front man for "the Mexican Rolling Stones" has been leading the rocanrol charge for 35 years. Lora and the rotating cast of characters that populates El Tri seem bent on fashioning a parallel existence with that of their big-lipped, allegedly blood-recycling British counterparts. So far, the chronology matches up pretty well.

In 1967, El Tri, then known as Three Souls in My Mind, came to life in Mexico City. 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 folks who weren't bilingual.

"Our fans couldn't sing along," explains Lora, who later became a prolific songwriter in his native tongue. His creative output drew the attention of music fans of every stripe within Mexico and Latin America. Lora cites the flexibility and chameleonlike qualities of El Tri's music when discussing the band's broad appeal.

"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 toward traditional blues-influenced rock sounds have somewhere to turn when they need asylum from the ranchera style that defines the quintessential "Mexican" sound.

In splitting from traditional Mexican music, Lora and El Tri 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, the fans' pet name for the group, which also refers to the three colors of the Mexican flag. This identification with the people has led the band 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," Lora 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, "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, this raunchy rock attitude (another commonality with the Stones), paired with a reverence for spirituality and mysticism, has made El Tri a rock en español pioneer. While the band's allusions to the Stones may look like a desperate grab at brand recognition, the comparison functions 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. And young bands like Ozomatli, Café Tacuba, Plastilina Mosh and Columbia's Aterciopelados might not have discovered influential rock artists had El Tri not created a market for the style in Mexico. El Tri serves 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 from their long years in the business. Estimates say that El Tri has sold more than 100 million records in Mexico in the past three decades; the problem is that 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.

"If we played the auditorium on Friday and the civic center on Saturday, by Tuesday you can get both gigs from the underground," Lora says. Despite the fact that the fans aren't necessarily contributing to El Tri's financial success, Lora and his mates continue to soldier on for them. This past July, they released No Te Olvides de la Banda (Don't Forget the Fans) and plan to continue touring throughout the year. Lora hopes to find enough studio time while juggling the demands of the road to lay down tracks for another record, to be released next year.

And as for his long-term goals: "We expect to be rocking at least two or three million years more," Lora says. "And try to communicate what the people feel and what the people want to say a lot better."

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Melanie Haupt