Malo was one of the great Latin rock acts to come out of San Francisco's Mission District in the early '70s, following in the wake of Santana's success. The band, founded by Arcelio Garcia and bassist-cum-timbalero Pablo Tellez, had originally been called the Malibus; it also included Carlos Santana's brother Jorge on guitar. Their Latin roots came from all over the Spanish speaking world: Nicarauga (Tellez), Mexico (Santana), Puerto Rico (Garcia), and saxophonist Richard Bean from Texas, were signed by David Rubison to a production deal. He had signed Santana to Columbia and produced their first record. He got Malo signed to Warner, and proceeded to turn the lineup inside out by bringing in Latin jazz players like trumpeter Luiz Gasca, Abel Zarate, and Richard Kermode as members, along with guests such as percussionists Coke Escovedo and Richard Pantoja. Malo scored big with their first single, the inimitable and utterly catchy Latin-drenched soul ballad "Suavecito." Though atypical of their harder driving sound, it went to number 18 on the Billboard chart and the album rose to number 14. The band recorded three more albums for Warner Brothers in the 1970s -- Dos (1972), Evolution (1973), Ascencion (1974) -- and one more for an independent label (Malo V) before disbanding.

While there is a core "sound" that is undeniably Malo's, it was wildly adventurous. They were more than simply a Latin rock band (but they COULD rock as well as anybody); they were inherently more diverse than War, and as musically adept as Brooklyn’s Mandrill (another band well deserving of a career retrospective). Malo played jazz, son, rumba, cha-cha, rock, blues, funk, soul, salsa, and boogaloo; sometimes in the same song. They sang with four-part harmonies and swung like mad. The groove was constant no matter how stretched out the tunes were. The band may never have scored as big with later singles; but the quality of its records -- despite reviewers who judged that single and debut album to be the sum total of the band's contribution -- were high and ahead of their time. The lineups changed constantly, but the music went wider and deeper; the band never narrowed its focus.

  • "Latin Bugaloo"

Rhino Handmade, a label well known for its high-quality, limited-edition box sets and reissues, seemed to see this when they announced Celebracion: The Warner Brothers Recordings. Indeed, they remastered the band's complete Warner catalog, including singles and B-sides, placing them in individual LP-style sleeves -- three of them gatefolds -- in an individually numbered run of 5000. So what's the problem? First, the box itself, a flimsy cardboard box where the bottom folds into the top in a single color. It is almost impossible when looking at it up close to see what it says (what you are seeing is a stock retail photo of the box) -- even if the band's name is embossed on the front. Secondly, Rhino didn't do jack in terms of design. Malo paid careful attention to their sleeve design like most bands did during that era (see the other pictures here). They simply pulled a Wounded Bird and shrunk the original artwork down into miniature, making it almost impossible to read anything on the sleeves without a magnifying glass. These are not Japanese-style mini-LP sleeves where everything is done according to a new scale to make it all legible; it's all just munchkin size. Lastly, the booklet design doesn't do what's in it justice. There are a few great photos to be sure, but they are printed on paper that's meant to seem arty because of its rougher finish, but doesn't capture the photographs very well. The booklet had to fit in the box and this amazing oral history of this band is also shrunk down to a size only slightly bigger than the type on the individual CD covers. You can believe the Rascals never got this treatment, nor did the Stooges, the Doors, or the Monkees.

About the only thing they did right was the sound -- it's awesome. Just clean, brisk, and warm. In fact, it's one of the better remastering jobs they've done. But this band, which is a legend among fans of Latin rock, deserved the super-deluxe treatment. This is the kind of set that, were it more handsome, would have attracted more critical attention and hipped others to the sound of Malo, a band initially celebrated by the critical establishment who went on to the next big thing and forgot them. That said, the quality of Malo's music did NOT decline. In its way, it was as arguably influential, and perhaps more so during the '70s than Carlos Santana, especially among jazz, funk, Latin, and soul musicians. So the design sucks and Rhino deserves to be called out for it, but the music is more than worth it.

  • "I'm Moving Away"