Suavecito de Mayo

Richard Bean and Sapo headline downtown Oakland's Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

In the annals of Bay Area music, Malo’s “Suavecito” will no doubt go down as the ultimate Latino love song. The San Francisco Latin rock group’s 1972 hit featured the voice of Richard Bean, who wrote it. But unfortunately for him, Bean left the band just as the single was hitting the national airwaves. “The song was written out of the love I had for this girl,” he recalls. “I used to write a lot of poems, so I wrote one for her. But she never got a chance to see it, ’cause she broke my heart. I wrote that song in algebra class. I guess I was better with words than numbers because I flunked the class. But it was a story that had to be told.”

Today the longtime Hayward resident is still going strong with Sapo, the band he formed after leaving Malo. Sapo (the name translates as “Frog”) also got national exposure with a very nice self-titled album in 1974; barrio low-rider classics such as “Can’t Make It,” “Sapo’s Montuño,” and “Ritmo del Corazón” came out of that now-collectible LP.

Late last year saw the publication of Voices of Latin Rock, a book by Jim McCarthy and Ron Sansoe that chronicles the SF Latin rock scene spawned by bands like Santana, Malo, Azteca, Sapo, and others. It was a vibrant time, as rock meccas like the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland opened their doors to young Latino bands. “The book has brought an awareness of where that sound evolved from,” Bean says. “Back in the day, there was a lot of different kinds of music coming through here. It was head music, and there was an open and searching spirit that had everybody trying different things. Then along came Carlos Santana.”

Santana’s appearance at Woodstock in 1969 broke open Latin rock. Richard and Carlos grew up together in San Francisco’s Mission District and played together in the Dynamics, a short-lived band they formed in high school. After Malo and Sapo, Bean joined Jorge Santana for a couple albums on the Tomato label. He rejoined Malo in the early 1990s, and while touring with the band he found audiences were still interested in hearing Sapo. “We started doing Sapo tunes in Malo, and people started coming up to me asking what happened to the group,” Bean says. “But as things are, I started butting heads with the bandleader, so I decided to reform Sapo around 1994-’95. And it’s all been good!”

This Friday, Sapo headlines the fourteenth Annual Cinco de Mayo Fiesta, alongside trad-Mex singer Blanca Sandoval and KPFA radio personality Gary “The G-Spot” Baca, presented by AMIGOS — City of Oakland Chicano/Latino Employees Association at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall (11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.). Cinco de Mayo, of course, commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla in Mexico, when a ragtag Mexican army defeated the sophisticated French forces of Napoleon III. Celebrated more here than in Mexico, the day was initiated in the 1970s by students in the Chicano Movement as a holiday to honor the accomplishments and contributions of Mexican Americans. And no, it is not Mexican Independence Day!

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