The Sweet Sounds of Yesterday...Here and Now

Montebello's THE WISEGUYS

By Frankie Firme
Published on LatinoLA: June 7, 2007

The Sweet Sounds of Yesterday...Here and Now

Ahhh...the Goddess of Ritmo continues to bless the Land of 1000 Dances with sweet, fresh breezes of beautiful music and inspiration that compels me to put out this piece today.

While the buzz in L.A. is all about the fantastic focus given to CHICANOS during the nationally televised 2007 ALMA Awards finally afforded the Gente Brown of the City of Angels, I feel it timely & appropriate to report on the hard work and effort a group of East Los Angeles area artists were putting in while missing this historic telecast that has Gente all throughout the southwest saying "it's about time!".

While almost everyone I know was glued to their TV sets, a hot new music group known as THE WISEGUYS were putting in some work rehearsing their trade as L.A.'s most promising new music group to come out of the Land of 1000 Dances recently.

While almost all of you have read my stories on Chicano Music groups that represent the Chicano sounds of Rock & Roll, Soul, Latin Funk-Soul-Jazz, Tex-Mex, Top 40, Salsa, and Oldies..... this time , it's all about the big band sound .

Conjuring up memories of classic American music icons of yore such as the Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Les Brown, Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway bands, and Hollywood's "Rat Pack" eras, the WISEGUYS are a group of talented youngsters to be reckoned with in this genre of music. I jive you not!

A true art form that never dies is music, and like me, THE WISEGUYS seem dedicated to bringing it back and keeping it alive for the love of the art and the people.

We had been receiving glowing reports from the East L.A. Revue/LatinoLA road dogs about this group out of Montebello that has been performing locally to packed houses, so I gambled away my night of watching the ALMA awards to catch these guys and a gal at their weekly rehearsal in hopes of finding something new, exciting, and promising....and the gamble paid off.

Led by Art Barajas, a 1992 graduate of Montebello High School, the WISEGUYS are an 18 piece ensemble of talented musicians and singers that are surprisingly professional and competent at their trade for being so young, and their sound is by far one of the best big band tributes I have ever heard live, and I have been searching. I know Buddy Rich and Perez Prado are smiling down at them from the heavens.

"We started out when I was a sophmore in high school", Art Barajas explains," We were all inspired and taught the big band sound by our music teacher at Montebello High School, Mr. Larry Covellone. Being that the MHS team name is the 'Oilers' , he used to good naturedly call us 'the MOB'(for the Montebello Oiler Band), a play on his Italian heritage. We later became known as the 'Montebello High School Alumni band', then with strong community support, we became the "Montebello Police Department band', and after graduation, and with the popularity of the movie "Goodfellas', we played back on Larry Covellone's good natured teasing & moniker, and became the WISEGUYS", Art laughs, "Nobody objected, and the name has stuck ever since. We started out doing community & civic gigs at convalescent hospitals, school alumni events, city sponsored events, and the gigs kept coming as we got better & better. Since 2000 we have been the Official City Band of Montebello".

As we spoke, myself and Bennie Najar of PACHUCO CAR CLUB ( who gladly accompanied me) were struck by the beautiful music the band was making.We stopped for a minute as vocalist Gabriella "Gaby" Yakas, age 25, hit a beautiful rendition of a classic Sara Vaughn ballad that reminded me of my parents, the old neighborhood when I was a kid, and silver screen musical movies on TV. The band played flawlessly behind her, as she simply melted everybody in the room with her seductive crooning.

"I've been lucky to have been exposed to music all my life", Gaby explains, " I was Miss Montebello 2005. I was invited to appear and sing at various community events, and one day I was lucky enough to appear at an event where THE WISEGUYS were the house band, and we clicked on stage. Later on, I was invited to join the band, and I've never regretted the decision. Sure, a lot of people my age are into other kinds of music, and I am too, but the desire & dedication to do swing & big band music like we do keeps us together as a family. Not everybody can play this kind of music, and, not to brag (well.... maybe a little), as good as we do, being part of something so different and unique just drives us to be the best we can. I just love it! We're a family, and we're passionate about our music!".

The band is made up of Art Barajas, Gaby Yakas, Frank Alonso, Gabriel Melendez, Nathan Brenner, Joshua Salazar, Charles Hargett, Eric Rosales, Robert Villalobos, Tatsuya Koyama, Edgar Villapando, Jesus Viramontes, Jorge Lopez, Edgar Esquivel, Jose Luis Jimenez, Yosuke Miyoshi, Sergio Zazueta, and vocalist Frank Barajas (Art's younger brother) who has a hauntingly striking singing resemblance to the late, great, Frank Sinatra.

"All band members are first generation Americans. I'm really proud of all of them. They work hard together, have fun together, sacrifice a lot of their time together, and together....I dream and hope we can do Vegas, the Hollywood Bowl,The ALMA Awards show, and ultimately,Carnegie Hall", Art beams."We're not a professional band per se, and all band members are volunteers, working full time jobs, going to college, and living life.
We have performed at such venues as Disneyland, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Thee Mr. Duran cable TV Show, the L.A.TV show, and are truly honored to have just been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2009....all we gotta do is raise the money to get the band there!".

At this, the whole band smiled and nodded their heads in agreement. You could feel the electricity & excitement in the air when Art announced this.
( Had we thought of bringing them, Bennie I would have gladly pulled out our checkbooks)

"It really hasn't truly sunk in yet", vocalist Frank Barajas adds, "but I'm telling you now ....we're going to Carnegie Hall in New York, and we will perform on that stage!".

A striking similarity and coincidence is that the founder of the only Chicano music band from East L.A. ever to perform at New York's famed Carnegie Hall, is the same person who has been responsible for the bands success and inspiration up to now.

"I really have to take the time to acknowledge Mr. Rudy Salas of TIERRA" Art beams proudly. "He heard us play when we started out, gave us his personal encouragement, and got us our first big gig opening up for them at the Puente Hills Hop a few years ago. That really got the ball rolling and making people aware of who THE WISEGUYS are. I'll never forget that. I've probably been a TIERRA and Chicano Music fan all my life, but to actually have a Chicano Music legend & pioneer like Rudy Salas personally put his stamp of approval on us, taking the time to encourage us to continue our pursuit of the big band sound, and offering to help us record our first CD....well, you can't get any more luckier than that! A lot of veteran artists have come out to see us and complimented us on our music, but Rudy is the only one who has stepped forward and offered to help us make it...Thanks Rudy....we won't let you down!".

And with that, Bennie Najar & I left THE WISEGUYS at their rehearsal studio at the Montebello City Park, content that we had just come into contact with future greatness.

We could see it in their eyes, feel it in the air, and experience it through their music.

LatinoLA proudly welcomes it's newest music warriors to Azltan and the Land of 1000 Dances : THE WISEGUYS de Montebello, Califas!

Note: The WISEGUYS will be performing Saturday, June 16th at BB King's in the Universal Citywalk.
For tickets, info, or showtimes: www.mtbwiseguys.org
and www.myspace.com/mtbwiseguys
or call (323)887-4584


About Frankie Firme:
Frankie Firme is the Al Capone of the microphone & the Hitman of West Coast Chicano Soul.
website: www.frankiefirme.50megs.com

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