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Friend for Life

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Album Review

Friend for Life is a recording that for all practical purposes should never have been made. It has nothing to do with anything that's out there on the gringo American music scene — and that's part of what makes it so necessary. Until you've heard this record, don't say the words "alternative" and "music" in the same sentence again. It seems to exist out of time and out of place — though not space. Ersi Arvizu will be virtually unknown to all but the most ardent of music fans, in particular those who loved the Latin soul sounds of East L.A. in the 1960s, or who were fans of the killer rockers El Chicano in the '70s. Even Ry Cooder, the album's producer, didn't know who she was until a few years ago when he discovered her voice on some old singles by the Sisters, a vocal trio (with two sisters) who scored nationally with "Gee Baby Gee" and "Ooh Pooh Pah Doo," on Bob Keane's Del-Fi label. Cooder did his homework and found her in a recording studio cutting demos for an El Chicano reunion — it is her voice you hear on the classic singles "Sabor a Mi" and "I'm a Good Woman," which helped to cement the Latin rock explosion that began with Santana. Both songs are still regarded as East L.A. anthems, depending on your neighborhood. Cooder recruited her for his Chavez Ravine album, the wonderful concept recording that told the story of the biggest ruse in Los Angeles history where they bulldozed a neighborhood to build a ballpark. Arvizu played the part of Ms. Chavez Ravine on the album. She was hard to coax and cajole, but Cooder was able to use his charm, some money, and a future favor to cajole her into doing his project.

Arvizu didn't want to be a singer, but a boxer. Her father trained fighters in the family's garage tuned gym, and although he never acquiesced to her dreams, she eventually did manage to get four professional bouts in and came away 4-0 — all were knockouts — before her family found out. After she left El Chicano, she moved to Arizona and trained young fighters while driving for Fed Ex; music was not a concern until the fateful day Cooder came snooping. These 12 songs are Arvizu's musical autobiography. Writing with pianist Joey Navarro, she's surrounded by a killer band that includes Cooder, Jim Keltner, founding El Chicano member guitarist Mickey Lespron, bassist Rene Camacho, a killer horn section starring trombone ace Francisco Torres and saxophonist Brandon Fields, to name two, conguero Johnny Sandoval, and a slew of backing singers who include her sisters on a pair of tracks and Willy Mondragon, Lance Moody, and Juliette Commagere.The punchy organ and dirty ass funky guitar in "Windows of Dreams" (a tune about watching the boxers in her father's gym through holes in the walls) introduces the husky, hearty Latin soul-inflected voice of Arvizu to the listener. The backing vocals, the crackling Keltner drum kit playing double-time in a shuffle between Pachuco boogie, reggae backbeat, and rhythm & blues, and the horns all lay down the groove hot and thick; this is pure steam heat. It's a feminist anthem that exists outside the canon of feminist art, especially as she celebrates boxers from Cisco and Eddie & Manny Castillo to Oscar Del La Hoya. "El Arbol," sung with her sisters Mary and Rosella in Spanish, is pure bolero, full of steamy passion with popping snares, Navarro's B-3, and the horns swirling in the cut.

The jazzy, nocturnal ballad "En Al Tambo" gives way to a shape-shifting conga rhythms of Sandoval as Arvizu recounts in Afro-Cuban son the tales of El Chicano playing in community centers, auditoriums, and correctional facilities. And on it goes, this 50-minute journey through a life is also a journey through time; not as nostalgia, but as a continuum that informs the present and looks to the future as the integration of a lifetime of victories, hardscrabble existences, defeats, and the gratitude for its depth, dimension, and diversity. In Arvizu's songs, the East Los Angeles of another time lives, eternally. It's music, culture, battles, and celebrations, an America within an America. And she can still sing her ass off — check the gorgeous ballad "Mi India," the primal Latin rocker "Soledad (Ya No Puede Ser)," and the shimmering nightclub ballad cum arabesque "Angel De Mill Voches." There is even a killer, modern-sounding funky Latin soul number called "Cruising to the Hop" that exists in the no man's land between Nuyorican soul and Los Angelino fingerpopping soul. It's a burner that's worth the price of the disc all by itself for the killer horn charts and B-3 groove. No matter how you listen to it, Friend for Life is unlike any record you will hear in this calendar year or perhaps any other. It is both timeless and ancient, and therefore points a way to a future so far ahead we can't imagine it in any other way than aurally. One thought, though: it would be a shame to let a voice like this one go to waste. This album should be the soundtrack for a book, a film, an aural history of a very special place and time that America (in general and Los Angeles in particular) has done its very best to erase. Anti should get an award for releasing this. Arvizu, her songwriting partner Navarro,and Cooder all deserve Grammys for celebrating the best of American music regardless of the marketplace. This is one time that it's fine for NPR to jump on the bandwagon, because everybody should.

Customer Reviews

Everything old is new again

Read the LA Times review of this record last week and could not wait to hear it. If you loved El Chicano as much as I did (a white kid growing up in LA in the 60's and 70's) but never knew who the chick with the beautiful voice was, then you are in for a real treat. Thank goodness for Ry Cooder and his eclectic choice of projects. This is just one more awesome tribute to the Latin culture--triumphs and tragedies--of LA. Chavez Ravine is still one of my favorite albums of the last few years, and this one goes straight to the list too.

Sultry Smooth

Wow I love the sultry smooth latin Jazzy sound i can just sit back have a drink in my backyard and relax. She has out done herself. Ersi if yoy happen to read this you should really thing about just making another CD latin style simply latin. Your voice has never sounded so great. Good Luck in your next endevor. I am a new fan for life.

friend for life

it is nice to hear that sultry voice of ersi and i'm glad she came out of retirement to do this CD. I would have liked to have heard some Rancheras as her style is suited for that. Overall the arrangement and orchestration on the cuts are great. I only hope this CD is given a decent promotional push.


Born: September, 1948 in Los Angeles, CA

Genre: Pop Latino

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Singer Ersi Arvizu grew up in East Los Angeles in a highly musical family, where she was raised on a steady diet of ranchera, mariarchi, soul, and R&B. Her familial ties brought the young artist her first taste of success in 1964 with the single "Gee Baby Gee," a number three hit for her Latin soul group, the Sisters, featuring siblings Rosella and Mary. Arvizu spent the remainder of the decade fronting a variety of groups before landing a permanent spot in the mid-'70s with Latin rock giants El...
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Friend for Life, Ersi Arvizu
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