Later this week, Los Angeles gets a visit from one of music criticism’s leading lights, Cuba scholar Ned Sublette. Sublette arrives in town as part of a panel discussion with photographer Virginia Beahan and Cuban specialist Lillian Guerra for the Getty’s current photography exhibition, “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now.” Sublette authored the magisterial Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, which I’ve often described to friends in evangelical terms because of its expansive yet carefully researched depiction of the history of Cuban music, tracing its path from transatlantic origins to modernity.
When I first heard that Sublette was coming through L.A., I was reminded of his fantastic article, “The Kingsmen and the Cha-Cha-Chá,” which appeared in a 2007 Duke University collection of essays, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. In that piece, Sublette describes the influential role of Cuban music in the development of American music (and especially rock n roll) before political events sabotaged a fruitful musical exchange. As he persuasively argues, bands like Beatles and the Rolling Stones all took cues from Cuban music, sometimes through the use of maracas, as the Rolling Stones did in a number of songs, and other times through the direct incorporation of Cuban styles (either consciously or unconsciously) like the Beatles did with the bolero-reminiscent “And I Love Her” and the mambo-esque guitar licks of “Day Tripper.”
A couple Los Angeles references pop up in the Kingsmen piece, despite the Cuban context (which is more often felt in this country in places like New York, Florida, and even New Orleans). Particularly interesting for me was the discovery that Richard Berry, an African-American singer who gigged with Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Los Angeles (a band led by two Filipino brothers who performed for a primarily Mexican audience), wrote the words and music to “Louie, Louie” using a cha-cha-cha beat popularized by Cuban-born Los Angeles bandleader Rene Touzet. Later, the song migrated north, to Portland, where it was recorded by The Kinsgmen. Of course, the Kingsmen’s version became a Billboard-topping early milestone of rock n roll, though few knew of its origins as a cha-cha-cha cover or the way its Cuban rhythms would secretly spread into American pop music.
Here‘s a great interview with Sublette, this one concerning his equally wonderful tome about the history of music and race in New Orleans, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.
I just finished with Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City, his recently published account of life and times in Mexico’s capital city. Hernandez, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly, divides his focus between hanging out with some of the characters in that great megalopolis and ruminating on his own adventures navigating identity and aesthetics between the California to the north he knows and the sprawling urban behemoth to the south. While working as a free-lance journalist in Mexico City, Hernandez introduces us to a variety of experiences, with an emphasis on the city’s younger denizens: an emerging fashion designer who is part of a new wave of creative expression in Mexico City (or D.F., distrito federal, as it’s known to most Mexicans); religious devotees of a triumvirate of different saints, Santa Muerte, Virgin of Guadalupe, and St. Judas; visits to tough barrios to hear punk music; cautious observations of the buying and selling of animals at Mercado Sonora, which is known as a witches’ market; and a survey of the scene of musical tribes at the El Chopo street market (among other forays to less-traveled parts of the city, at least to most Americans).
My favorite moment is when Hernandez rhapsodizes about the screw-or-be screwed ethos that pervades life in the megacity. After a cabdriver fobs a fake 10 centavo coin on him, Hernandez has to decide whether or not to contribute to the continuation of this cycle of deceit, ultimately deciding not to fleece a corner newspaper seller. But while living in this city makes for a tough existence, Hernandez tries to illuminate the beauty and friendliness engendered by millions of people on the make, fashioning new lives for themselves. However, not all of Hernandez’s observations are able to transcend reportage into something more compelling or meditative. His experiences in the cultish, quasi-Native American steam bath scene founder, as do a great many of his stories revolving around cocaine-fueled fashions shows. Had to have been there, I think.
Hernandez is at his best when he digs a little bit deeper and adds context to the people and places he witnesses. For example, in a chapter about his peregrinations through the massive El Chopo market, home to dozens of the fiercely tribal Mexico City subcultures, he gives background about what it means to be “banda,” or part of a scene or crew, as well as the historic precedent for some of these subcultures now. He describes the late-1960s, early-1970s La Onda, literally a wave of counterculture and music, that reached its acme with the 1971 Avandaro music festival. More than 200,000 people attended the Mexican equivalent to Woodstock, and the line-up featured the cream of the nascent Mexican rock scene, including personal faves Los Dug Dugs. However, after the landmark festival, the burgeoning subculture was repressed by both the state and leftist intellectuals, who saw the display of American flags and rock music as cultural imperialism. Rock music and similar bohemian artistic inspiration was driven underground, into hoyos fonquis, aka, “funky holes.” These events took place mostly in abandoned urban spaces or neglected barrios and spurred furious police crackdowns. Apparently, the secretive nature of these events and corresponding lifestyle drew adherents of these bandas into close-knit groups that survive today. A more tolerant Mexican government allows the different groups to thrive at El Chopo today, though of course the older rockers grouse that the newer bandas—screamos, rastas, hip hoppers, and emos—haven’t paid their dues in the same way. Speaking of Mexican subcultures, I would have liked Hernandez to touch on the tribal guarachero scene, which Rupture described for a piece in The Fader last year. Certainly, the ferment of pre-Colombian and post-modern musical styles married together is a potent combination for sociologists and bass-driven musical explorers alike.
At a point of two, I was reminded of Maximum City, the gold standard for these sorts of travelogues that combine reporting and historical perspective with a good dose of gonzo journalism. Hernandez’s collection isn’t the first to trade on the tropes of an ultra-hip Mexico City. I enjoyed David Lida’s more collected book on D.F., First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, and have plans at some point to tackle John Ross’s El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, which a couple people have claimed as the best consideration yet of the famed city.