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Rockabilly Hybrid

It’s called the “magical gun of love,” and it’s a huge glass rifle filled with tequila.

It’s either the greatest or the worst idea of all time, you know, kind of like the microwaveable burrito or sobriety.

And the man who wields it, one Tony Pelayo of Latino rockabilly fireballs the Moonlight Cruisers, is playing chicken with his internal organs just for you.

“He’s probably the most dedicated member, because he risks his liver every single show, just to make sure people have a good time,” guitarist Al Martinez says, chuckling. “He always gives people shots from the rifle. It’s interesting.”

This from a dude known for taking the stage dressed as a rock ‘n’ roll Zorro or a luchador named “El Mysterio,” complete with shiny black and silver mask, like some lucha libre refugee.

That’s the thing with this bunch: They take all the familiar rockabilly trademarks — economy-sized upright bass lines, lots of high-stepping, reverbed guitar licks and the tendency to view the world through the bottom of a beer mug — and sprinkle them with liberal doses of Mexican-American culture and Latino roots rock, fashioning a fresh hybrid of the genre that the L.A.-based band dubs “cumbiabilly.”

It’s a feisty pairing, further loosening rockabilly’s limbs with a hard swing and Spanish-language party starters.

“It’s really kind of a subculture of a subculture,” Martinez explains. “With L.A. rockabilly, there are so many Latinos. It’s just kind of a way to incorporate a little bit more than one style of music. We could play traditional rockabilly stuff or we could just play the Mexican music, but we play a little bit of everything and modernize it a little bit.”

As such, the group has become a gateway act of sorts, bridging the divide between traditional Mexican music and bluesy rock ‘n’ roll.

In its infancy, rockabilly began as a rural, backwoods genre that spoke primarily to the working class, and lots of Mexican-oriented sounds have a similar blue-collar heritage.

Decades later, the Cruisers are underscoring this shared genealogy and resonating with old-timers and young punks alike.

They play everywhere from weddings to dingy rock dives, anywhere a dance floor can be fashioned.

“We played a baptism this past weekend,” Martinez says. “This coming weekend, we’re playing a quinceanera. A lot of time, the kids are into rockabilly. They want us to play rockabilly music for them and Mexican music for the family. We do that a lot. It’s just kind of like a blending of cultures.”

Martinez is a student of those cultures.

He was an ethnomusicology major in college and is fond of excavating music’s deepest, most dirt-encrusted roots. Music’s in Martinez’s blood: His uncles on both sides of the family played guitar and were in bands. One of his brothers, Aaron, plays drums in the Cruisers, while his youngest brother, Andrew, mans the kit for fellow rockabilly favorites the Rocketz and the Nekromantix.

Their tastes are distinctly evocative of the multiculti melting pot that is their hometown.

“I don’t think we would exist in the way that we do if it wasn’t for us all living around here in the area that we do, only because I think the Latino culture is such a big part of different pockets of L.A.,” Martinez says. “Everyone sees it. Everyone knows a few words of Spanish around here.”

Show up at one of the Cruisers gigs, and you’ll learn a few more — not to mention how to weather a gnarly hangover.

“The whole point of it all is that everyone has fun when they’re listening to our music or going to our shows,” Martinez says. “There’s two things that people always come up and say to us, either, ‘Oh my god, I love the Mexican songs so much. I remember dancing to them in the kitchen with my mom when I was a little kid.’

“Or the other thing is, ‘I have no idea what you guys are saying, but it’s so much fun, I can’t help but dance,’ ” he continues. “It’s kind of nostalgic for some people. For other people, I think it just kind of transcends cultures.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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