When Los Lobos appeared on the national scene in 1984, with How Will the Wolf Survive?, the band had already been playing for eleven years. For the first seven years, they were Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, a drummerless, acoustic quartet that specialized in Mexican folk songs. The only documents of that early phase were 1,000 copies of a low-budget, 1977 vinyl album, Just Another Band From East L.A. — the rarest of roots-rock rarities. Now that album has finally been reissued on CD, and amid the clinking beer bottles and good-natured banter you can hear the contagious joy of sons of immigrants discovering a cultural heritage they had previously ignored. The music isn’t as accomplished as its Mexican models or as Los Lobos’ other folk album, 1988’s La Pistola y el Corazon, but from the Frank Zappa pun of the title to the rockabilly drive of the guitars, the music has a youthful irreverence and enthusiasm that are hard to resist. And this early apprenticeship in the songs of their ancestors lent a weight to everything Los Lobos did afterward.
You can hear much of what they did afterward on El Cancionero, a four-CD box set that spans everything from two songs from Just Another Band to a track from the upcoming Los Super Seven II. In between are smartly chosen samples from every Los Lobos disc, plus rarities from side projects, tribute albums, movie soundtracks, demos and live shows. Taken together, these eighty-six songs suggest that Los Lobos deserve to be remembered as chroniclers of the American Dream, as much as Bruce Springsteen or Curtis Mayfield, and not just as singers of the fluke hit “La Bamba.”