When Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin and music manager Dan Goodman started thinking about a follow-up to 1998's Grammy-winning album Los Super Seven, they knew they wanted to take the music in a bit of a different direction.
That project, which evolved from informal performances at Las Manitas Café during the 1997 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, explored Mexican, Tex-Mex, country and border music by a one-off group of artists from several groups.
"It wasn't that we felt we'd said everything we wanted to say the first time out," Berlin, who produced the new album, reflected as the second Super Seven project, Canto, was released last week. "But certainly we felt as though we would have been treading over similar ground had we gone back and done it the same way. So my thought was, let's broaden the concept."
It began with a trip to Mexico.
"My executive producer, Dan Goodman, went down to Guadalajara," Berlin said. "There's a guy there, Nacho Orozco, who's an amateur musicologist. He's 70-something years old and he's been collecting all his life; he has this amazing archive of music. Dan went down there and hung out with him for about a week, and came back with about 25 CDs full of stuff, ranging from well, it was virtually the entirety of Latin music, from Mexico to Chile to Venezuela and back."
Berlin and Goodman began a selection process. "We picked about 25 songs, and these went out to the participants."
It was a different mix of artists, too, for this Los Super Seven project. Returning from the earlier project were Berlin's Los Lobos cohorts Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo, country star and Austin native Rick Trevino, and Tejano great Ruben Ramos.
"Basically, Los Super Seven has never been a very well-defined group," Berlin said. "It's just whoever we feel like playing with."
Also signing on for this outing were Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso, multitalented Peruvian musician Susana Baca, and Grammy-winning country music star Raul Malo of the Mavericks, who grew up in Miami's Cuban-American community. Once these artists got their hands on the CD of suggested songs, they had their own ideas.
"That turned out to be just a template, actually, for other suggestions," Berlin said. "Various members of the group would say, 'Yeah, that's a great song, but if you like that check out this one,' so it wasn't a prescription so much as a starting place. Raul Malo, for instance, came with 'Siboney' (RealAudio excerpt), the opening cut, and also with 'Me Voy pa'l Pueblo,' and others came with other songs that were important to them."
Veloso offered two of his own songs, "Qualquem Cosa" and "Baby," while Hidalgo wrote two original songs specifically for this album, "Teresa," an offering to Saint Teresa, and "Calle Dieceseis" (RealAudio excerpt), a street-level look at a Latin neighborhood. Ramos riffed on his stage nickname, El Gato Negro (The Black Cat), by performing "Compay Gato."
Berlin engaged Alberto Salas to arrange most of the material for Canto, and he became the eighth member of Los Super Seven on the album.
"He proved to be genius," Berlin said. "We knew we wanted to take the record in a more Caribbean direction than the first one. He's of Cuban-American descent, and he brought his influences. We knew we wanted to record in Los Angeles, too, and use L.A.-based players, who wouldn't necessarily be as Tex-Mex-influenced as those on the first record [which was recorded in Austin].
"We just gathered this group of players together and somehow made the songs fit this idea," Berlin said. "It wasn't like we had a clear idea of where we were going. Super Seven has always had a very, very experimental sense that we do everything with. That certainly makes it fun for everyone, because you never really know day to day where you're going to go."
Besides that spirit of experimentation, the important thing, Berlin believes, is the dialogue of the artists with the music. "That's what Super Seven has always been about, you know. It's about heartfelt performances and songs that are emotionally powerful to the participants."
And will there be another Super Seven project? The first one, after all, began as a one-off idea spawned by an impromptu showcase in a tiny café, and the second spawned an eagerly awaited SXSW showcase and an equally anticipated album.
"Yes," Berlin said. "This is just such rich music, both melodically and rhythmically, and ... some of the most interesting music being made right now is Latin. That's not an opinion I came to just from this record, of course, but the deeper I go the more interesting things get."