LA LA LAND 2.5.21
One of the joys of living in Los Angeles, in addition to the hundreds of things to do every night and the dozens of clubs and bands pumping out music, was the Grammy Museum. I was a member of the Museum and went to each new show, sometimes twice. I especially loved the glass cases with original song sheets in them, complete with notes and comments and cross outs sometimes even cuss words. Birthing a song, apparently, is not always easy. And there were usually many mothers and fathers.
When I launched this column so many years ago, I usually started out with a description of an obscure club or venue to give my readers a look at the LA and Hollywood that only musicians and hardcore fans know. But I also described a few shows at the Grammy Museum – an early personal concert by La Santa Cecelia, a glamorous post Grammy party, an original guitar from Elvis, or a program of ethnomusicologists from UCLA walking the audience through the origins of Chicano Rock.
I am not in LA any more, and I can’t write about going to obscure clubs in Chapala or Guadalajara because they are all closed because of Covid, but I still love looking at the history and origins of popular music. One story I like to tell is about the documentary produced by a major studio and co-produced by a former record label president about the entry and spread of Latin influence in the US through music. The doc attributed the birth of Latin music in the US to high-priced nightclubs in New York City in the 1940’s that brought in Cuban bands from the nightspots in Havana and treated Americans to talent such as Desi Arnez, Xavier Cougat, and Perez Prado.
The doc completely overlooked the fact that the Spanish brought the guitar to this continent in the 1600’s and there was a flourishing Latino music scene in Mexico and what is now Southwestern United states a century before the “Cuban invasion” of New York. It also missed the rise of Chicano Rock in the 60’s, the proliferation of Mexican-owned radio stations in Central California whose audience dwarfed that for Cuban music in NYC, and the “border blaster” radio stations in Tijuana which nightly introduced thousands of young people in Southern California and Arizona to banda and mariachi – which are now being bended with rap and blues and rock and jazz.
And of course, we don’t need a documentary to tell us that gospel, blues, hip-hop, R&B and jazz are all directly born from African slave music. And rock itself grew directly from R&B – considered “Negro music” – which can be traced back to Trixie Smith, a Black woman who recorded what may be the first proto rock song, “My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)”, in 1922. And many others who added to and enhanced the music of black slaves until it became the precursors of rock, rockabilly, and then rock itself. Sister Rosetta Tharp with “Rock Me” in 1938, and Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” in 1951, which many music historians say is the first full-on rock recording.
The journey of African slave songs to bestselling records is well documented in a museum in Nashville, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), in Nashville. NMAAM is brick and mortar and thus out of reach for a while – although the airlines tell me they can fly me safety there, I am not sure what happens when I land. Quarantine does not like fun, unless it was in the museum, not likely.
Since the NAAM is not online I can ‘t tour it from home. But it offers online and livestream programs that trace the ways virtually every form of popular music we enjoy in the US today, originated with the slave songs and black work hymns. Even Mexican music contains influences of songs from slaves in the Caribbean islands – including today’s Cuba – that were brought to Veracruz who developed an Afro-Latin style that has moved throughout Mexico as son jarocho, and into music played by modern bands like Las Cafeteras.
So, I can’t wander through the exhibits of the Grammy Museum like I used to, but until live music starts up again, I can satisfy my hunger for both music and the stories of where it came from with online programs at NMAAM, and even some from the Grammy Museum. So I can entertained and informed at least until I get vaccinated (April is ow my date).Patrick O’Heffernan, Host, Music Sin Fronteras radio
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