UW Today

This is an archived article.

October 18, 2007

EMP’s ‘American Sabor’ savors the Latino influence on American popular music

News and Information

It’s possible to discuss American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, the new exhibit at the Experience Music Project curated by three UW researchers, without singing — but it’s not nearly as much fun.


So we’ll be doing some humming and singing to ourselves in this story. Ready?


Let’s start with “Louie, Louie,” that famous song by The Kingsmen. (You know: “Dadada! da-da, dadada! da-da …”) Get it going in your mind and we’ll get back to it in a minute.


American Sabor, which opened last week at EMP and will run until Sept. 7, 2008, is a joyful, colorful, interactive study and celebration of the long-overlooked contribution of Latino music and rhythms to American pop music since World War II. You can learn more at http://www.empsfm.org/.


The exhibit was guest-curated with love and enthusiasm by UW faculty Michelle Habell-Pallan, associate professor of women studies (formerly with American ethnic studies); Shannon Dudley, associate professor of ethnomusicology; and Marisol Berrios-Miranda, who has taught in ethnomusicology, music education and Latin American studies, with assistance from graduate students Rob Carroll and Francisco Orozco. The project also was supported by the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities and the College of Arts & Sciences.


“Without Latino music there wouldn’t be any pop music in the United States as we know it,” said Berrios-Miranda. “And what is exciting about this exhibit is the amount of creativity and enthusiasm and love that Latino musicians have given to the U.S. that has never been acknowledged.”


Dudley, the UW ethnomusicologist, said, “The exhibit covers music that most Americans think of as ‘Latino,’ including salsa, which first developed in New York, or conjunto music from Texas. But we also wanted to show how Latinos have contributed to musical styles that we think of as quintessentially American, including jazz, rock, hip hop, and country music.”


His colleague Habell-Pallan said, “Everybody knows the story of how rock emerged — country and western got together with the blues and had a baby named rock and roll. But there was a third party there, too,” she added. “The rhythms and musical sounds of the Latino community. You can’t have rock and roll in the U.S. without that third element.”


Sabor in Spanish means taste, or flavor. In American Sabor the researchers ask, “What makes the music of the United States tasty? What flavors distinguish it, and where have they come from?” The exhibit answers these questions with about 100 artifacts — record sleeves, lyrics, posters, musical instruments and films — and perhaps best, listening kiosks where visitors can hear for themselves the powerful influence of Latino rhythm on the music they’ve been hearing for generations.


Still humming “Louie, Louie”? Good. You’re humming a cha cha cha rhythm straight out of Cuba, called “El Loco Cha Cha.” Dudley said, “That riff was composed by a Cuban band leader named Rene Touzet, and then an African-American musician named Richard Berry picked up on that recording and wrote the song.”


He added, “The cha cha cha has become part of the language of rock and roll, and people don’t identify it as Latino anymore, because it’s the American sound now. And that’s the point of the exhibit — these Latino musicians are American, they have been participating in American popular culture all along.”


Let’s try another. Remember “96 Tears” by ? (Question Mark) and the Mysterians? Let it play in your head (“You’re gonna cry — cry-cry-cry! You’re gonna cry — ninety-six tears!”) right up to the organ solo in the middle.


Got it? That organ solo you’re humming, performed by keyboardist Little Frankie Rodriguez, is an icon of 1960s pop, but it started out as a Tex-Mex-style accordion solo. Habell-Pallan said, “When you hear it in that context you say ‘Oh my God,’ and you can never not hear the accordion again.”


Group and performer names were often changed by record companies to hide the ethnicity of the performers, she said. But in some cases, bands invented their own “way-out” names such as Question Mark and the Mysterians or used barrio names such as Cannibal and the Headhunters, who did the 1965 song “Land of a Thousand Dances.” You might remember it for its famous “na-na-na-na-na” refrain that tells listeners, “You gotta know how to pony! Like Boney Maroney!”


“They were a group out of East L.A. and you wouldn’t know they were Mexican-American,” Habell-Pallan said, “At the time, records were marketed as black or white, and if you were brown you really felt out of that alignment.”


Examples abound throughout American Sabor. In fact, visitors of baby boomer age who have a mainstream, Top-40 sensibility are likely to hear many familiar riffs, rhythms and refrains — only this time attributed to the correct ethnic and international influence.


The exhibit focuses on five American cities that have been key centers in Latino music: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio and Miami, with maps showing the international influences on each city. It celebrates the music of well-known Latino stars — Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Richie Valens (whose vest, which he wore on the television show American Bandstand, is on display as well as a guitar), Selena, and the great Carlos Santana, who started life as a violinist.


There is the painful history of Latino marginalization here to be explored as well as the celebration of Latino music, said Dudley, and the researchers worked hard to strike the right balance between academic and pure musical fun. “We’ve all brainstormed a lot about, what are the big issues here? And what can this exhibit achieve in terms of opening people’s eyes?” They even brought in scholars from across the county to help decide what the exhibit would include, and how.


Dudley said three major themes guided the curators as they worked:


  • that these “irrepressibly exuberant” musical movements were born of the youth culture. Then as now, young people use music to find and express their place in the world.
  • second, that the political issues of immigration and migration are “part and parcel of how this music took the shape it did,” and that such issues remain in the headlines today, and
  • third, that this wonderful music is how Latinos expressed their American experience, and still do.


American Sabor takes up 5,000 square feet of space at the EMP, which is about twice the space originally planned, said Jasen Emmons, EMP curator. Emmons (whom the curators credit with much help and having “great ears”) said the EMP partners with the UW, radio station KEXP and with a group called the Seattle Partnership for American Music, and had been looking for a new project. He said the museum took down its Jimi Hendrix area to make room for the American Sabor exhibits.


The UW guest curators said they could not have done their work without an original seed grant and ongoing support from the UW’s Simpson Center. They are proud, too, that Spanish-speaking UW undergraduate students will get service learning credits for acting as Spanish language docents for the exhibit — making it the first bilingual exhibit hosted by EMP.


Marisol Berrios-Miranda knows that the historic ignoring of the Latino influence in American pop music is part of “a larger challenge — we have to recognize the contributions of Latinos not only in music but in life, too, as well as in academia.


“We’re trying to correct that,” she said, “in a humble way.”


Stop by the EMP to see American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music and learn more about what you’ve been hearing all these years on the radio.


If you don’t — sing it with me now, just as Question Mark said — you’re gonna cry!


Cry cry cry!