UW News

January 3, 2018

Popular exhibit on Latino music debuts as a book: A Q&A with UW faculty authors of ‘American Sabor’

UW News

"American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music," by Marisol Berríos-Miranda, Shannon Dudley and Michelle Habell-Pallán, was published in December. The authors also created an American Sabor playlist.

“American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music,” by Marisol Berríos-Miranda, Shannon Dudley and Michelle Habell-Pallán, was published in December. The authors also created an American Sabor playlist.UW Press


When “American Sabor” opened at what was then the Experience Music Project a decade ago, its University of Washington creators saw it as a chance to celebrate the extensive Latino contribution to popular music. It was a product of years of interviews and research, and an often challenging exercise in collaboration and presentation.

But that was just the beginning for Marisol Berríos-Miranda and Shannon Dudley, both ethnomusicologists in the UW School of Music, and Michelle Habell-Pallán, a professor in the UW Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. Their multimedia showcase of Latino performers and genres since World War II then went on to becoming a touring exhibit of the Smithsonian, visiting 18 cities in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Now “American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music” is a book, published this month by University of Washington Press. It’s a guide to the artists, communities and wide range of musical styles, from salsa to punk, Tejano to mambo, iazz to hip hop. It’s a bilingual experience – Spanish on the left-facing pages, English on the right – filled with photos and the occasional icon alerting the reader to a song available on the American Sabor playlist on iTunes and Spotify.

Here’s an excerpted conversation with the authors:


Describe the process of turning a sound-based exhibit into a book.

Marisol Berríos-Miranda: The sound is paramount. You read the book and you get these descriptions, but there’s no substitution for hearing the music, the melodies, rhythms, harmonies and breaks. The different colors of the instruments and the excitement of the music — there’s no substitute. I come from the music. Since my inception, I’ve been dancing and listening to the music. So for me, a lot of it is very personal. I wanted to keep the music in the front, always in the front. I am also the only Spanish speaker on the whole project, so that took on more responsibility. We’d always intended for the book to be bilingual, and my sister [Angie Berríos-Miranda] is the translator. I wanted the Spanish to be beautiful, and well-written. I also did 20 in-person interviews with musicians.

Marisol Berríos-Miranda

Marisol Berríos-Miranda

Shannon Dudley: I’ve taught the American Popular Song class for many years, a class that thousands of students take here at the UW every year. So I had a sort of narrative in my own head that had taken shape from teaching this class, and that really helped with the signposts of the development of American pop that this book follows, and connecting the Latino story to that larger narrative.  Ethnomusicology is the study of culture; you want people to understand not just what music sounds like but who made it and what it means to people. This book really is about a lot of different local communities and stories that are woven together in a larger picture.

In every chapter there are a couple of places where we focus on a particular song, say, one by Eddie Palmieri. We very briefly narrate the song in a way that you could read it and hear the music, the history and the personality. Then if people read the book and hear another song by Eddie Palmieri, they’ll remember these things. When they go out and hear music, even music that’s not cited on this [American Sabor] playlist, they’re going to be hearing with ears that are attuned to new things and learning more as they listen more.

What gets overlooked when people think of Latino music?

Michelle Habell-Pallán: Often they’re not thinking that it’s coming from inside of the U.S., rather than outside of the U.S. You look at the scene in New York – the Nuyoricans, Puerto Ricans living in New York — these young people growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, surrounded by music, the way they put sounds together and used instruments that were not used in the more traditional way. They really changed the sounds.

Michelle Habell-Pallán

Michelle Habell-Pallán

These were young people, taking the music of their parents, and making something different out of it when they got here. Same with the West Coast and Texas: They were taking all kinds of influences – African-American, Afro-Caribbean, country — and making something completely different, a new sound. Then you had the early punk scenes in Hollywood and East Los Angeles that were deeply influenced by Mexican American youth living in Los Angeles County. That’s not what people are thinking about when they think of Latino music.

How does the book reflect gender and sexuality studies?

MHP: I’m looking at cultural studies and cultural politics — how people make meaning out of music but not necessarily as music-makers, which is what Shannon and Marisol do. I have a very feminist critique, and at the beginning that was difficult to merge the two methods. I felt that if we were going to include a certain song, for example, then we needed to talk about how deeply it objectifies women. Maybe the rhythm that was embedded in the song was important, or it was a popular song, and people needed to know about it, but at the same time layered on it were these really sexist lyrics. We needed to figure out how to talk about both at the same time — how a good song can reproduce gender ideas that are not good.

My critical analysis had to be adapted for this book because we decided early on that we wanted people to read the book and enjoy it, and to reach a large audience beyond the university. So as a writer, saying this is a sexist song, this is what’s wrong with it, this is what this means — that’s not going to fly in this kind of narrative, but that intention is still there in the background. It’s more about asking questions. And we made sure to highlight women and to talk about what the barriers to them in the music business have been.

What did you learn from the process, and from each other?

SD: I write very differently now – less academic. I continue to write in academic publications, but in a way that a lot of people can read. And the museum exhibit was the first place where I was really challenged to do that: shorter sentences, more direct, visually provocative language. It was a lot harder to write 30 words [for a display] about Tito Puente than 200 words. For me, that was a huge part of the experience. In writing the book, we had regular meetings where we’d go over drafts, and I’d get immediate feedback about how what I said was perceived, or what was missing. Ultimately, to write a book with three authors is about three times as hard as writing a book by yourself.

Shannon Dudley

Shannon Dudley

MBM: That was an incredible learning experience. And I’m very grateful for Michelle bringing her gender side to things. The attention to female musicians wouldn’t be half what it is if it weren’t for her. We have different styles, but her contribution, puts women right up front, women with attitude — and their stories are so beautiful. And I taught her music, and what to listen for in a sound story. We discovered many things together. Our relationship has been really productive.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

MBM: I am teaching with the book. What I gather is that people are seeing with new eyes who Latinos are. All this stereotyping that’s going on right now, the backlash against Latinos as “criminals” and “rapists.” Many of my students who read the book said the narrative is accessible. A lot of people can read this book and take something out of it, but the basic idea is to make sure that Latinos are considered equal partners in the production of music in the U.S. They did it with incredible talent, invention and initiative vis-à-vis all the terrible discrimination that they have suffered, and yet there is the joy of the music. The music is so delicious.