Tag: Music

Articles

Life of the Party

by Regine Basha
photographs by Spring Warren

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

Music by Iraqi Jewish Angelenos

The only reason I know the Iraqi folk song “Fog il Nachal,” which means, literally, “I am as happy as the highest date palm tree,” is because it played continuously against the backdrop of my youth in Los Angeles of 1978–1988, mingled in with The Police, Blondie, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and Bananarama. Though at the time I hated the Arabic music my father and his friends played at home and at their parties, it was always “Fog il Nachal” that stuck in my mind throughout those years. Although I could sing it perfectly and whistle the tune, I had no idea what the lyrics were, nor did my parents bother to tell me. Arabic was spoken between them and their Iraqi friends—on the phone, at parties, at the synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard; Hebrew was spoken to my older brothers, who both grew up in Israel, and English was spoken to me. In fact, from around the ages of eight to ten, I believed that Arabic was a language that only belonged to adults. I was completely floored when I first heard a child speak Arabic—ironically, this happened when we visited Israel and I saw Palestinian children for the first time. Somehow Arabic got absorbed, as languages and music do, in that department of “forbidden sounds” in my brain.
boom-2011-1-3-67-ufigure-1“Fog il Nachal” was particularly loved by the community because it was, as my mother called it, “a happy tune” not a “sad, wailing” tune in Arabic. At all night house parties, the men seemed to love the sad, wailing tunes. They sat around on the floor waving their hands and wagging their fingers at the musicians (my dad sometimes playing the oud), while the women gossiped in the other room and only emerged for the more upbeat tunes. I often slept over in guest bedrooms amid the coats and handbags, lulled to sleep by the twang of the khanoun, the drumbeat of the darbukka, and the deep-belly tones of the oud. Songs that seemed to go on forever by Egyptian greats Uum Khalthoum and Abdul Wahab, and Lebanese songstress Fairouz, repeated abstractly in my head the next day as I attended dance class at Beverly Hills High. Layered over the remnants of the Arabic music was a daytime soundtrack of another kind of wailing from Siouxsie Sioux or David Sylvian, or experimental music with oriental sounds coming from Brian Ferry or Peter Gabriel. All my friends at the time were immigrant kids—Mexican or Filipino or Armenian—and we were united in our love of the same music. My best friend at the time, a Latina musician, played her own new-wavey version of Latin-Arabic sounds that predated so much of what would explode in pop music a decade later. It was as if this music led to our self-understanding as people with different cultures at home. It was not harmony but disharmony that felt real and more complicated. Strangely, it only occurred to me sometime after college that this kind of happy/sad sound—shared by new wave and oriental music—was united in dissonance. It was all about that singular quarter tone that makes music sound slightly off-key or out of tune (especially to Western ears).

The history of atonal music is bound up with the history of modernism—related to industry, depersonalization, ideas of progress and social utopia. But was the dissonant quarter tone used in alternative music of the 1980s an expression of difference? Or resistance? It certainly seemed to represent longing, but longing for what? I and my immigrant friends might have heard it subliminally, might have interpreted it as a validation of our otherness, of our melancholy at being misunderstood both at home and in Californian culture. In a sense, those of us who fall between cultures—the never-really-modern, never-really-traditional cultures—inhabit this space created by the dissonant tone—the tone that resonates as deceptively off-key or unfinished, and that allows us to choose a constant state of tuning.

 

boom-2011-1-3-67-ufigure-2I knew early on that there must have been a really good reason my parents did not speak their native Judeo-Arabic dialect outside our home and deftly avoided references in public places to countries of birth. These were secrets I did not enjoy; they made our otherness more pronounced and mysterious. Looking back, what I did enjoy, despite my teenage grumblings about ethnic parents and their habits, was their flagrant party culture. When there weren’t enough families to host those all-night house parties (more Iraqi Jews live in London, Montreal, or New York than Los Angeles), we’d go to nightclubs like the Lebanese club, Byblos, on Westwood Boulevard, or Pips on Doheny Drive. (Pips wasn’t an Arabic club, but the Iraqis liked its plush carpeting, mirrored walls, low-lighting, and disco.) At Byblos, at least two or three belly dancers would perform throughout the night, and on their breaks, the dance floor would open up for us to dance to Western music. The belly dancers, to my great surprise, were more often American women who had learned to dance in LA, rather than Middle Eastern women. I always wondered how my parents and their friends tolerated this “inauthenticity.”

I later learned that belly dancers in Middle Eastern cultures are practically regarded as prostitutes. In the 1940s, in Iraq at least, a woman singer or entertainer was considered loose and compromised. Traditionally, women living in Muslim countries were not supposed to attend musical gatherings in public, let alone sing in public. Although there was nothing of the fanatical fundamentalism we are seeing today, those cultures are still conservative when it comes to women appearing in public spaces. Jewish women living in those societies followed suit, which is not a stretch, as women in Judaism traditionally sat separately from men in the synagogues. Thankfully, the divisions today are less severe.

Once in California, such restrictive social mores were more or less left behind. Perhaps, too, the Californian Iraqi Jews had something to prove to the Iranian Jews, who arrived in Los Angeles through the 1980s: we were more “modern,” more assimilated than they.

So much seemed to be revealed at those house parties and through the music. Every so often I’d see a woman who so loved Arabic music that she couldn’t help singing alongside the men. One such family friend—I’ll call her “Laura,” which is the name she chose when she came to the States—sings a mean “Fog Il Nachal” herself, when begged to do so. Her family had migrated to California earlier than my parents, in the 1950s, barely getting safely through Israel, so the evidence of assimilation was much deeper. Their accents were less pronounced, their children were more removed from Iraqi culture, their morals seemed looser, and they had a dog (Arabic culture, by and large, frowns upon dogs as pets).

Laura was the quintessential hostess for Iraqi parties. She made everyone from every class within the community feel at home. She also arranged for all the music, sometimes bringing in Palestinian or Syrian musicians who could play the tunes loved by the Iraqi Jews. No one ever spoke openly of this interreligious musical arrangement, though.

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Loads of live recordings of these house parties on cassette and VHS tapes fill my parents’ bathroom cabinets. My own meager teenage cassette collection from this time has nothing on theirs. It wasn’t only about capturing the music but just as much the heckling, teasing, and jokes from the live audience, typical Middle Eastern behavior that you’d never encounter outside that intimate setting. The cassettes are traded and presented as gifts to friends and family abroad in a network that, ultimately, contains the social code holding people together. It may not be nostalgia, but it is reenactment, a kind that feels more like a form of resistance than active nostalgia does. It was as if our secret musical citizenship superceded time and place. Repeated again and again in different homes—the same songs, the same food, the same guests—this was the ever-present internal life of the party, where the music of 1940s and 1950s Iraq played on in pockets of Beverly Hills, Encino, and even San Diego. I had always wondered if Iraqis back in Iraq were still listening to this repertoire. Or was it just within the diasporic community?

Images, courtesy of Regine Basha, from the VHS recordings copied and shared among the Iraqi Jews of Los Angeles. The author explores these parties in her project “Tuning Baghdad” at http://www.tuningbaghdad.net

As my curiosity about our identification with this music grew over time, I decided to research the history of “Chagli” (the Arabic word used for Jewish musical house parties) in Baghdad. In 1932, a Jewish band called Chagli, a folk ensemble with nye, dumbek, violin, and oud, was invited to represent Iraq at the Cairo International Music Convention, the first music industry event of its kind in the Middle East. At that time, Jews and their music were not separated from Iraqi culture; the Chagli was never considered “Jewish music.” But for reasons that had to do with social mores in that era, Iraqi Jews tended to be the musicians of Iraq—so much so that music ceased on the radio and in the streets on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, the Iraqi National Radio station was a productive place for new compositions and collaborations, headed by the Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al- Kuwaiti. Though the Iraqi Maqam (a kind of musical scale) was often sung by a Muslim singer, Jews always provided the musical accompaniment. This led to the writing of new modern compositions modeled after the popular Egyptian compositions at the time—which led the way for Modern Arabic music throughout the whole Middle East. The eventual displacement of this culture (a force majeure after Israel was established) affected the music scene of Iraq for decades, as most of the music teachers were also Jews.

In my latest research on the Iraqi Jewish musicians of this generation who are still alive and playing, no one stands out more than the octogenarian Abraham Salman. A virtuosic khanoun player, blind since birth, he now lives modestly in an Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, performing only for the friends who come over and egg him on. Salman was a beloved child prodigy in Iraq and continued to perform shortly after arriving in Israel in the early 1950s as part of the program “Kol Israel” (a televised “Oriental” orchestral broadcast à la Lawrence Welk). In his living room over cookies and tea, his wife told me of his continued following in the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia, where efforts to bring him for a concert have proved futile. Earnestly, I asked Salman if he could talk about the Maqam to me, and explain it in layman terms perhaps. He reluctantly responded in Arabic by asking where I lived. When I stated, “New York,” he simply said, “Oh … that’s too far.”

I don’t know whether or not Abraham Salman’s music is still known to or appreciated by Iraqis back in the homeland. I have heard of a younger generation of Iraqi musicians who are seeking out this modern chapter in history, as apparently, Saddam Hussein actively erased it from the history books and radio waves. How ironic it is that in the hills of Encino or the suburbs of Tel Aviv, we are likely to hear the sounds of one of the last bastions of cosmopolitanism in Iraq.

If there could be a sound for that condition, it would definitely ring atonally.

Glossary

Chagli: a four-piece ensemble that performs the Maqam. A term also used to refer to the party at which this ensemble would play. Related to the Byzantine Caglia that also spread to the Balkans and other reaches of the Ottoman Empire.

Darbukka or Dumbek: a clay or ceramic drum with a natural membrane for the skin.

Khanoun: A Middle Eastern instrument, like the zither that is plucked. Features prominently in most Arabic music orchestras.

Maqam: a system of melodic modes in Arabic music that can be played in an improvisational way.

Nye: an ancient flute.

Articles

KWXY, AM 1340, Cathedral City

by Josh Kun
photographs by Jeff Conlin

From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Music for desert driving

This is how it happens, every time the same.

I drive Interstate 10 east, following the curving concrete line out of downtown Los Angeles. I clear the Inland Empire, pass Banning and Beaumont, and when I see the T. Rex and the Brontosaurus, those fading plaster emblems of lost worlds, I know it’s coming, that feeling I won’t be able to control. I switch the radio dial to KWXY as the freeway bows south and then crests in a sea of towering, spinning white windmills. The car fills with the sound of lush strings, gentle voices, and tickled piano—Jackie Gleason visiting “Shangri-La,” the Norman Luboff Choir cooing “Tenderly,” Ray Conniff watching the fall of “Autumn Leaves,” and all I can see is what suddenly surrounds me: the vast, caked brown expanse of the desert. My eyes water, my heart aches, and I have to pull over. It’s as if, to borrow the words of one of the Sublime’s great advocates, Friedrich Nietzsche, I have put my ear to the “heart-chamber of the world-Will and felt the roaring desire for existence gushing forth into all the veins of the world, as a thundering current or as the gentlest brook, dissolving into a mist.” How could I not fail, as he put it, “to break suddenly”? It might not be a Wagner opera or a recital of eighteenth-century instrumental music and might just be the purring vanilla swing of The Ray Charles Singers, but this is my sublime, my desert sublime. This is where I break suddenly, where I put my ear to the world.

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The whispery-voiced golf announcer DJs of KWXY still call the station’s format “Beautiful Music,” a post-WWII FM radio format that stations like KWXY employed to characterize their “soft” and “unobtrusive” music. It was mood music for the imaginary quiet villages of post-war suburbia, its formulaic, nearly commercial-free hush meant to heal the ears of a country made tired by war, social unrest, and rock ‘n’ roll. “Isn’t the rattle of your neighbor’s garbage can lids enough without having to listen to freaked-out music?” one Beautiful Music station asked. “Pull yourself out of your old radio routine and get into something nice and sweet. They say many young people today will be deaf by the time they’re 30. Their own music is doing them in. Life has gotten louder for the rest of us, too. The song bird, the cricket, the soft crunch of snow underfoot are all becoming lost in the roar of the Seventies. … Fortunately, there’s still one place where you can hear something beautiful.”

Yet as Wagner himself once argued, even the beautiful, when stripped of its appearances and order, when its Apollonian nature is taken over by Dionysian impulses, can become the sublime—the beautiful can be where the sublime begins. For me, KWXY’s music is not only beautiful, not only a hush or a calm or a lull, but sublime, a soft roar that shakes me. Not topiary and manicured English gardens, but the swoon and sweep of awe, melancholy, and mystery.

I have spent most of my life coming to the desert. My maternal grandparents lived there for almost thirty years, at first as weekend golfers and bridge hounds, and eventually as full-time residents—two former North Dakota farm kids, with Russian and Swedish family trees, reborn as retired Palm Springs desert rats with impressively low handicaps, the greens and sand traps of the eighth hole as their backyard. My grandfather was a volunteer police aviator. He flew over the Mojave weekly in his wire-rim sunglasses with chocolate brown lenses, looking down over its subdivisions, soaring above its vast aridity.

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KWXY was my grandfather’s station of choice. Back on the ground, he would listen as he drove, singing and humming along in his gentle voice to the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. When he was in the hospital, not long before he died, I asked him what it was that he liked so much about the station. The music, he told me, is “olden but golden,” a comforting sentiment for a man realizing that his own life was nearing its end. These were songs and artists, sounds and recording techniques, that were outdated and archaic, forgotten by most; surely all of them were, as my grandmother liked to say, “dead you know.” Yet the dead lived, the ghosts sang, the olden became golden, the dinosaurs never really left. The end was not the end. Through music, the past outlived itself.

Tune in to KWXY and, especially if former RCA Victor archivist Don Wardell is at the boards, you’ll hear something like this: the sound of the station’s trademark strumming harps, Henry Mancini performing “Latin Snowfall” from Charade, a station I.D. that is more like a poem or a prayer (across the blue of the sky, jet trails remind us of journeys long ago, and the sounds of the desert), Erroll Garner playing “And My Heart Stood Still,” Percy Faith and His Orchestra doing “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’,” a weather report registering a 108-degree summer afternoon, Doris Day singing “Our Day Will Come,” and then an in-house choir released from an old open reel analog tape that reminds you what you’re hearing, a musical rainbow, K-W-X-YYYYYY.

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Yet the music I most associate with KWXY, which after decades of airing on 98.5 FM has now retired to its new AM home, is its endless parade of stereo-surround strings—a lushness that seems to float above the speakers, like aural clouds or angels made of sound—and the voices, all of those whispering and sighing choirs, exalting love lost and found, days rainy or sunny, nights in Old Monterey, or days of wine and roses. Though it’s also home to classic film scores and songbook standards, KWXY’s lingua franca is the “beautiful and familiar” instrumental cocktail music and singing choirs that blossomed in 1950s recording studios— a sonic balm usually mentioned right alongside the postwar, GI Bill birth of suburbia, the rise of the supermarket, and the sale of the first home air-conditioning unit. Closed-in environments needed piped-in music, and studio arrangers like Ray Conniff were happy to oblige.

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As muzak historian Joseph Lanza has written, “Conniff’s music connotes the mystically metallic clanking of shopping carts trailing down aisles, the rustle of cash registers, the tinkle of loose change, and the grunt of chromium doors automatically opening for the next phalanx of shoppers.” It was Conniff, a former regular with the Harry James band, who is credited with first pairing the studio choir (four men, four women) with the delicate swing of orchestrated, symphonic brass played by over eighteen musicians. There was something always spectral about the Conniff choir and the choir craze he started. The voices were human but sounded disembodied, like ghostly echoes serenading from the grave, mystical shadows back to haunt the present.

Even though he did his time in Hollywood and was certainly out West long enough to shop at my grandfather’s clothing store and leave with him a signed autograph copy of his Somewhere My Love LP, Conniff is not usually thought of as a Westerner. But the music he made in the ’50s was quintessentially Western. It was music that cut right into the closed-in spaces of the developed West—the planned communities and shopping malls, the parking lots, the supermarkets and country clubs and tract homes and mobile trailer parks—and piped in some open space, some vastness, some ooh and some ahh, some sublime. It was also Western in its ghostliness, in its desire to use music and the technologies of recorded sound to speak with the past and not let the past go silent. “That’s the game The West invites,” Marianne Wiggins writes, “the game everybody plays out West: pretending we can see the past, here, in the present. Pretending we can call down the impossible, invalidate the present, and convince ourselves we’re in another time, another century. The West—true West—attaches to you like a shadow.” Conniff’s choir gave those shadows sound.

When I am in my car, facing the burning desert through the windshield and immersed in his angel choirs, I am pulled out of time and into place, into the aurality of space where my grandfather still lives, invisible but present, olden but golden, another dinosaur still hanging around the desert shadows. If the desert is what the theologian David Jasper calls “a theater of memory,” a stage for a cyclical return to the past as a means of returning to the present, then out on the side of the highway, breathless and teary-eyed and sublime-sacked, I am center stage, my grandparents in the wings, Ray Conniff filling the packed house with angel voices, and I face the desert with my ears open wide, swarmed by noisy shadows.

Kiene Wurth, The Musically Sublime: Infinity, Indeterminacy, Irresolvability. Dissertation, University of Groningen, 2002. 172.

Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy- Listening, and Other Moodsong (New York: Picador, 1994), 173.

Lanza, 103.

Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 13.

David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 44.

*A KWXY SAMPLER
Percy Faith Orchestra, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place'”
Ray Conniff Singers, “Autumn Leaves”
Tony Bennett, “When Joanna Loved Me”
Paul Weston, “Time After Time”Norman Luboff, “Laura”
Henry Mancini, “Latin Snowfall”
Doris Day, “Our Day Will Come”
Jackie Gleason, “Shangri-La”
Gordon McRae, “Carousel Waltz”
Anita Kerr Quarter, “La Mirada”

All photographs ©Jeff Conlin

Articles

Listening to Art Laboe

by Susan Straight
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.

For nearly all their lives, since they could first begin to understand the words to the songs playing on the kitchen radio that sits on the window ledge facing north, the deep wooden sill of a room that used to be a laundry porch in a classic California orange-grove bungalow, my three daughters have heard the veteran DJ Art Laboe in the evening, playing Killer Oldies while I cook dinner, clean the counter, do the dishes, pay the bills, and check the homework.

boom-2011-1-1-1-ufigure-2The very first song my middle daughter ever fully comprehended was “Just My Imagination,” by the Temptations. She was about five. In the kitchen, sitting on the floor, she looked up at me and said slowly, “So he never even talked to her? He just loves her?”

“Yeah,” I said. I think I told my child, “He loves the idea of her.”

That’s what Art Laboe’s Killer Oldies show has always been about—love, the idea of love, missing love, remembering love, hoping for love. For many of us who grew up in a certain time, in certain neighborhoods in California, his voice and those songs are as iconic as Route 66 winding through San Bernardino, Valencia orange groves in Riverside and Corona and Pomona, and crowded drive-ins in El Monte.

Now that daughter is eighteen, her sisters twenty and fourteen, and they roll their eyes when 7:00 PM rolls around, saying, “Oh, my God, Mom, do we have to listen to the same songs over and over? The same guy, saying the same things, every single night? Really? Seriously?”

I was born in Riverside, down the street from this house. After long days of working, being a single mother, living on a street where for twenty-two years my neighbors and I have struggled to keep it together, sharing eggs and oranges and babysitting and minor car repairs and major emotional repairs—after funerals and ambulances and foreclosures and new babies and trees that fall on roofs and graduation parties in a front yard with a cousin for DJ, we are all still here.

My street is one of eighty-and one-hundred-year-old houses. This week, two neighbors talked to me about their home additions—both are doubling the size of their houses. It sounds grand, only these are small wood-frame buildings—one is 950 square feet and one 650 square feet—and my neighbors have for two years been building the new parts themselves.

So when darkness falls I am still in the kitchen, making a cake for a neighbor whose truck was wrecked when the flatbed towing it away for repairs flipped. My girls go to the living room and watch YouTube videos of strangers dancing at weddings, falling off coffee tables while singing, and doing whatever else their friends think they should see. I stay in the kitchen; as ever, welcoming me to what must be approaching his millionth show is that deep, reasonable, invariable voice: “This is Art Laboe with another night of Killer Oldies on the Art Laboe Connection.”

Some Californians can’t wait to open laptops and listen to their favorite Beethoven sonata; some Californians in living rooms that I imagine with beige carpets and heavy drapes can’t wait for evening to put on an LP of Frank Sinatra or Tommy James and the Shondells or the Beach Boys.

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Susan Straight’s north-facing kitchen window with lavender radio, June 1, 2010 (photograph © Douglas McCulloh)

 

But the people who live where I do, we wait for Etta James to sing “At Last,” as she does nearly every evening at this time. We wait for Ralfi Pagan “To Say I Love You” and Brenton Wood to declare that “Only the Strong Survive.”

I’m waiting for, yes, the same old songs, the ones that comfort me, remind me of other times. Just like millions of listeners all around California, close to radios in cars and kitchens and yards and factories and prisons and night fields where if things are desperate they pick grapes or oranges by the beams of headlights.

He has to be nearly eighty years old, I thought this week, and so I looked him up. He is Armenian-American; his given name Art Egnoian. The girls think he resembles an ancient gangster, with his dark hair, still-vivid eyebrows, and wide slash of mouth. But I’m amazed by his youthful face.

Art Laboe is eighty-four. He loves playing songs for people. That’s what he does. It’s all he really talks about.

On a 2009 television interview with the newscaster Tony Valdez, who looks thrilled to tell Laboe that he grew up listening to his show, Laboe looks at a photograph of himself taken around 1947 in Pomona, at radio station KPMO, and says with a note of wonder, even now: “I was on Cloud Nine—I was on the radio.” In his voice, you can hear that this was his single-minded dream and obsession. He talks about being seven years old in Salt Lake City, sitting for hours in front of his mother’s radio, “completely enthralled with this box that talked.” When his parents divorced he decided to move to Los Angeles to live with his sister, so he bought a bus ticket: he was nine years old and rode there alone.

In 1951 Laboe built his own “roving radio” truck, a mobile DJ booth that had regular stops on street corners on Jefferson, Manchester, and Crenshaw in South LA, among other places. By 1956, he says, on the Los Angeles radio station KPOP he was the first DJ to play rock and roll on the West Coast. He was the inventor of the term “oldies but goodies,” which he used when kids requested songs by Big Joe Turner and other older R&B stars; he says people wanted “an old song, but it had to be a good one.”

He must reach more listeners, and more kinds of listeners, than anyone outside the mainstream media can imagine in this age of talk radio, satellite broadcasting, and high-definition TV. This morning, when I bought tamales from Angel, Sr., my tamale guy, who was born in LA and lives in Riverside, he said, “Oh, man, I grew up listening to Art Laboe! I was a kid. I listened to Wolfman Jack, too, but Art Laboe was the one. We used to go to Legion Stadium in El Monte and hear him. All the oldies.”

And a few hours later, when I was talking to a class of athletes at a college, one twenty-year-old basketball player grinned wide and said, “Art Laboe! Man, I grew up in Baldwin Park and the whole neighborhood listens to him! The women love him.”

I said, “He’s eighty-four,” and his face fell. “Man, if he dies, there’s gonna be thousands of people at his funeral. I’m not lyin’, man. Thousands.”

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Art Laboe hosts a dance, El Monte Legion Stadium, 1957 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

The thousands live all over California, Utah, Nevada, and even Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and, given the Internet, all over the world. Growing up, I knew people who called Art Laboe’s show to send greetings and dedications to their families who moved around to harvest grapes in Dinuba and Mecca. And always there have been women who send dedications to family members in prison. It’s a code many of us know: to send a song to someone in Chino, Delano, Calipatria and mention that you got a letter, or are urging your listener to “keep your head up,” to send the Brenton Wood song, means you’re talking to someone behind bars.

Most nights, when I’m listening, more women call than men, but guys call too, to send anniversary wishes, birthday wishes, and sometimes just wishes that a girl will call again.

He has two syndicated shows, the Art Laboe Connection, airing nightly, and the Art Laboe Sunday Special. The Sunday show started in 1991, the year my middle daughter was born, on 99.1 KKGO in Riverside, but I had heard his voice for years before then. The shows have grown; they now play on radio stations around the southwest, wherever people listen to the songs that are part of Chicano and black culture from a certain time, the songs that remind them of high-school dances, of parties in the park or at the beach, of front seats and back seats of cars like my friend Penguin’s Dodge Dart.

Nearly every night I hear what used to be Penguin’s favorite song—it is requested every evening: “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” by War, the classic California band with members of every color, cowbells, and sweet deep harmonies and even a white guy, Lee Oskar, on flute. War was famous for “Low Rider” but is loved by those of us who grew up on “Slippin’ into Darkness” and “Me and Baby Brother.” I haven’t seen Penguin for years—he’s slipped back into the darkness of drug addiction so many times that he won’t come around now, and I miss him. Hearing this song takes me directly back to a night in 1981 when we sat around in the yard of his first house in the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, a converted stucco garage. We sat on upended milk crates, eating his first barbecue, with a boombox beside us in the grass.

My children know this, accept this, shake their heads at my fatalism, and my calcified listening habits, and my inexorable sentiment. They think they will never listen to the same songs over and over, or have friends who disappear.

Laboe’s website, KillerOldies.com, is one of the most heavily-trafficked sites on the Internet. On it he reads dedications for men and women in the military serving across oceans, and dedications for loved ones serving prison sentences in other states. Because California exports inmates now, I wonder sometimes if those dedications and goodnight kisses are heard by the intended recipients.

There is a comfort in listening to Laboe’s voice. He’s live six nights a week and he’s always patient. Last week a little girl named Pearl calls in, and he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you before,” and she says, “Yes, you have,” and Laboe says with a half-smile in his voice, “Really? When?”

“Two years ago!” she says, as if astonished that he doesn’t remember. Laboe asks, “How old are you?” and she replies, “Eleven.” Then she dedicates a song to her grandmother.

The commercials are embarrassingly cheesy: Smoker’s Savior, a machine that allows people to quit smoking by imitating cigarettes somehow, with smoke rings of steam; Hero Tabs, a new Viagra made of watermelon rinds. But one Sunday night this year, April 12, Antonio Villaraigosa called in—yes, the mayor of Los Angeles, who grew up in East Los Angeles and proudly says he listened to Art Laboe while driving his Camaro through the streets with his friends.

The mayor and Art Laboe talked about the 2010 Census, and how important it was for Killer Oldies listeners to send in their forms and not be afraid that the information would be used for anything but counting them. It was standard stuff. But the mayor’s voice changed when he talked about how he used to cruise at night, listening to Laboe, and he seemed almost abashed—maybe he was remembering how he looked in that car, how he was seeking girls, how the boys beside him must have teased him sometimes.

That night there was a strange timelessness as I listened, looking out the kitchen window at the dark. Even the mayor of Los Angeles must still hope to hear specific songs from his past, evoking comfort and history and, yes, memories of love.

The good-night dedications begin at ten and last until midnight. “This is Pelon from East LA, man, Boyle Heights, and I wanna send out a song to all my boys. Sly Slick and Wicked.”

Alejandra calls from Pomona to wish her boyfriend a happy anniversary—it’s been three years and seven months.

Esperanza calls from LA to tell her grandmother Esperanza that she loves her. She asks for “At Last” by Etta James.

And every night, Betty Johnson calls from Madera, where she listens to KOKO 94, to chant in a breathless mantra variations on the same message: “This is for my husband Randy Johnson, Jr. Baby, I love you I adore you You Are My World and I’ll always be here for you. Don’t worry, baby, I’ll send some money tomorrow. Thanks for your card. I hope you got my letter. I’ll see you soon.” She asks for a different song every night.

I think she is one of the women who used to kiss their loved one goodnight via Art Laboe, who actually made the smooching sound of a kiss right there, live, on the radio.

boom-2011-1-1-1-ufigure-4

Art Laboe in KRLA studio, 1977 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

When my daughters roll their eyes at around seven, when the small lavender boom box we bought ten years ago at Target has trouble tuning in the station, I feel old. I’m forty-nine. But I stand at the sink, looking out the window at the long, dark four-lane avenue that leads directly east, to Colton and San Bernardino and then the Cajon Pass and the Mojave Desert, while hearing “Memories of El Monte,” a song you might only hear on Art Laboe’s show, and I realize that his voice is as totemic and Californian as the missions, each built a day’s journey from the next to unite the whole sprawling state. His voice does the same. I cannot explain that to my daughters, listening to this litany of love and heartbreak and memory in this immense place that many Americans never see. They think we’re all Beverly Hills with sedate, decorative palm trees; but we are the huge silver groves of date palms in Mecca and Indio. They picture the crashing waves and cliffside mansions of Malibu, but we are the strawberry fields of Oxnard and the Marine base of Camp Pendleton, where the ocean mist is full of salt. They see Hollywood and Sunset, but we are also on E Street and Whittier Boulevard; cruising, boxing groceries, welding mufflers, changing tires, sewing prom dresses, picking oranges, teaching kids—and calling after nightfall to request “Don’t Let No One Get You Down.” B

(album cover image property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

Articles

California Sueños

by Josh Kun
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

“California is a tragic country—like Palestine, like every promised land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations—the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories—followed, in each instance, by counter migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward.”
—Christopher Isherwood, “Los Angeles”

In 1967 Los Tijuana Five, a band best known for their Beatles mop-tops and live Revolución Avenue recreations of the entire Rubber Soul album, took on the California dream. On their first full-length album for the US label Pickwick Records, the band recorded a cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” one of the great pop manifestos of mythic Upper California sunshine. Written by John Phillips after leaving LA for a particularly rough and frigid New York winter, the song casts California as its own cinematic fantasy, full of perfect beaches and warm evening winds, a promised land without tragedy. But instead of merely translating the song into Spanish, Los Tijuana Five use it to play with the politics of their location. When “California Dreamin’,” becomes “Sueños de California,” they are singing from California about a longing for California. It’s just that their California is Baja California, not the California north of the line. They change the original refrain “California dreamin’,” into a possessive that happens to rhyme with the English lyric: “California mía,” my California. The California they miss, the illusion they create through their longing, is not the same one that Phillips built behind the frost on his New York City windows. Their California isn’t LA; it’s Tijuana. Their California is their California.

Ever since a war-birthed border split the two Californias in the nineteenth century, the idea of California—its sunshine myths and romances as much as its noir realities—has been a prime subject of musical interpretation for Mexican artists across the California-Mexico borderlands. While Los Tijuana Five dreamed their California from their home south of the borderline, critiques of California myths and harsh, dramatic accounts of California realities have dominated the Mexican migrant music made and consumed on both sides of the border.

The migrant experience in California has been at the very heart of norteño music since the beginning of the twentieth century, from Los Hermanos Bañuelos’ dishwasher tale of failed Hollywood hope in “El Lavaplatos” in 1929 to Carlos y José’s wishful thinking in the 1980s in “Me Voy a California” (“I’m going to California, I’m going to harvest money”) through song after song on contemporary Spanish-language radio. It can be heard in the music of Los Tucanes de Tijuana (once Tijuana-based, now in San Diego), El Chapo de Sinaloa (from Sinaloa, but now calling the Inland Empire home), Los Razos (from Michoacán, now living in Oxnard), and Jenni Rivera (born and raised in Playa Larga, a.k.a. Long Beach). For that matter, the entire body of work of Sinaloa-born, Northern California-based Los Tigres del Norte—the reigning musical titans of Greater Mexico—could easily be read as a collective study of the political, cultural, and affective impacts of Mexican migrancy in California and belongs in Literature of California anthologies and on California Studies syllabi, right next to Ramona, The Grapes of Wrath, Southern California: An Island on the Land, and City of Quartz. The Mexican scholar Gustavo López Castro has written extensively about norteño music and other musical styles of migrant Mexico as forming a decades-spanning “songbook of migrancy,” a dynamic, living archive of everyday migrant life, of cross-border feelings and emotions that create communities of sentiment between Mexico and the US. Or to borrow from Roberto Tejada’s important work on Mexican photography, norteño music has created not a “shared image environment” but a “shared sonic environment” between the US and Mexico. Nowhere is this more the case than in the current popular music of California. Music made by migrant Mexicans for migrant Mexicans—arguably the most commercially popular and culturally galvanizing music in the state—has been a key source of migrant articulations of longings and feelings for Mexico and for a better, more just life in the US. It is also, as Catherine Ragland and Hermann Herlinghaus have persuasively argued, a key site for shaping everyday vernacular reactions to the asymmetries, dislocations, and violence of economic globalization.

Don Cheto, one of the top Spanish-language radio DJs in Los Angeles (he hosts the morning show on the massively popular station La Que Buena), has built his entire career on the belief that Mexican migrant music—and its stories of immigration, identity negotiation, and daily economic struggle—is the music of Southern California, the music that most clearly and powerfully speaks to his millions of listeners, be they migrants from Jalisco and Michoacán or the US born sons and daughters of migrants from Zacatecas, Sinaloa, and Sonora. A character created by Juan Carlos Razo, a thirty-year-old immigrant from Michoacán, Don Cheto is a seventy-year-old immigrant veterano who wears a campesino hat and a big gray moustache and, between the latest banda and norteño hits, dispenses wisdom and advice about immigrant life in LA. When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids LA factories, plants, and warehouses, he sings “Ice, Ice, Baby,” putting an agitpop immigrant spin on Vanilla Ice’s late-eighties hip-hop hit. Earlier this year he released “La Crisis”—first on the radio, then on YouTube, and only later on iTunes—a comical song about the impact of the global recession on family life in LA that takes shots at both President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Don Cheto has become the unofficial poster boy of Mexican migrant music and a leading cultural mouthpiece and media icon for LA’s massive (and thriving) Mexican music industry. This industry is a formal and informal commercial network of record distributors, multinational record companies, homegrown indie labels, swap-meet vendors, neighborhood record shops, corner grocery stores, nightclubs, clothing stores, and weekend jaripeos, rodeos, and bailes that stretches from Westside beaches to South LA, from Orange County and East LA to the eastern suburbs of the Inland Empire and beyond.


Los Tigres del Norte performing in 2008
Image: courtesy of Jose Cornide, www.alterna2.com

That is the California we’re welcomed into on “California,” the single released earlier this year by the Michoacán-born, South LA-raised hip-hop duo Akwid. It’s a classic “welcome to California” song, but their hook is “Bienvenidos a California,” and while it’s still a land where “all of your dreams become reality,” their California is “the land of my people . . . California, Mexico . . . the land of the sorcerer wetback.” Akwid’s migrant remapping of California is on the same album as “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas,” a song dedicated to Mexican migrants, or paisas (slang for paisanos), who shave their heads, wear cowboy boots, listen to banda music, and take pride in their working-class rancholo (or rancho-meets-cholo) lifestyle. “I can’t hide who I am,” they rap over slow West Coast funk, “These clothes I’m wearing? I bought them at the swap meet.” Like Los Tijuana Five’s “Sueños de California,” Akwid’s song is a cover, but instead of a California myth makeover they do a Chicano makeover. “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas” is based on “La Raza,” the influential nineties Chicano hip-hop anthem by the East LA-born rapper Kid Frost, which was itself based on “Viva Tirado,” a low-and-slow 1969 cruising instrumental from the seventies Mexican-American funk and soul band El Chicano. (True to California-Mexico form, El Chicano’s “Viva Tirado” was itself a cover; the song was originally penned by the African-American jazz composer Gerald Wilson, who originally wrote it in 1962 as an homage to the Mexican bullfighter José Ramón Tirado.)

Frost’s original call for “Aztec warrior” brown pride was based in East LA; Akwid shift the focus to South LA, Southgate, and Bell, areas that since the 1980s have become hubs for newly arrived Mexican migrant populations. Instead of Chicano pride, Akwid preach Michoacán pride and paisa pride, musical formulations of identity that are as rooted in the urban geographies of LA as they are in the binational migrant labor networks that have historically connected LA to Mexico through a shifting series of loops and circuits. (According to one 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 36 percent of LA immigrants are Mexican and of the one million undocumented in LA county, 60 percent are of Mexican origin.)

Akwid weren’t always rapping in Spanish about being paisas. Originally called Juvenile Style, they were an English-language rap duo whose heaviest influences—2nd II None, King Tee, DJ Quik—were born directly from their 1980s upbringing in largely African-American neighborhoods across South LA. But in the 1990s Akwid, like so much of Mexican California, got banda fever. Due in large part to rising immigration numbers, the music of banda sinaloense became a central part of California’s radio soundscape, producing what George Lipsitz has called “a new cultural moment, one that challenges traditional categories of citizenship and culture on both sides of the border.” The 1992 murder of Sinaloa’s leading corrido superstar Chalino Sánchez—a former Coachella farmworker who had become a migrant icon throughout Southern California—further cemented the relationship between migrants and the rural, working-class music of the Mexico they had left behind. In the Los Angeles of Akwid’s childhood, it produced what the journalist Sam Quiñones famously dubbed “the Sinaloaization of LA.” Mexicans who had previously looked to gangsta rap as a mirror of urban outrage now looked to corridos and banda; closets full of Raiders jerseys suddenly shared hangar space with cowboy hats, belt buckles, and boots.

Since the 1990s in the US the commercial genres banda and norteño have been subsumed under the rubric of “regional Mexican.” The category has rapidly become one of the most commercially and culturally vital genres in US popular music. For this is not just a California story, of course, but a national one as well: the more Mexicanized the map of the US grows, the more regional Mexican music becomes the genre with which to reckon. Regional Mexican is currently the top-selling Latin music in the US, responsible for over 70 percent of all Latin music sales and outselling pop and tropical by significant margins. It is the official music of the geography that Los Tigres del Norte called, back in 1986, el otro México, the other Mexico, the Mexico that lives and thrives beyond Mexico’s territorial national borders and within the spaces of the United States.

Los Tigres reimagined the US as part of a new map of Mexico (or, to borrow Roger Bartra’s formulation, a new map of “post-Mexico”). That they charted el otro México not in the press or in their liner notes but over accordions and snare drums in a song of that title is a reminder of just how central Mexican migrant music has been to articulations and explorations of social and political identity in the US. Regional Mexican music in California is not simply the soundtrack to Mexican migrant life, but, to borrow terminology from Thomas Turino, it is “music as social life” grounded and shaped by “the politics of participation.” “The other Mexico that we have constructed here on this ground that has been our national territory,” Los Tigres sang, “is the effort of all our fellow Mexicans and Latin Americans who have known how to improve themselves.” The “other California” that has for so long been a key part of the “other Mexico” has likewise been its own republic of song, its own binational audio territory, where migrant songs blasting over car radios and cell phones continue to reveal, perhaps more than any other contemporary art form, all the tragedy and all the promise of the California yet to come. B