The Music Moves the Streets : BARRIO RHYTHM: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles, By Steven Loza (University of Illinois Press: $16.95 paper; $42.50 cloth)

Lynell George is a Times staff writer for View

In Echo Park most Saturday nights, long after afternoon has softened to evening, mariachis strolling al talon --from cantina to cantina--drift east along Sunset Boulevard, voices tipped to the sky. Alongside them, late 1970s Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds proceed, low and slow, to their own soundtrack: Kid Frost rapping the word of these streets, sounding as "straight outta Compton" as they come. Frost infuses his rhymes with the power and force of black "gangsta rap," but trades English for Spanish--and sometimes blurs the borders.

The vibrant tapestry of L.A.'s Latin music is too often viewed as mere remnant, a faded mural depicting only fuzzy details of immigrant musician lives that no longer occupy the present. Rescuing these lives from storage, Steven Loza's "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles" explores the music on the streets as the music that moves the streets; a music that is ongoing, ever evolving. He presents an enduring, largely indefinable music form--electric in its immediacy--as the woof and warp of the city's fabric.

An unwieldy hybrid, the lyrics and the pulse behind them in Loza's telling communicate more about the city we live in than any sun-bleached Beach Boy harmony, or the imported grunge wending its way down from soggy Seattle, because it incorporates the rhythms, the dreams, the fusions of the collective Angeleno experience--from swing, to jazz to rough-hewn rock 'n' roll.

"Both rhythm and el barrio are complexes of space, motion and destination," writes Loza, underscoring the properties of restlessness with a bold stroke.

Loza explores the music as if it is a metaphor for terra firma, strains on rolls of sheet music to be blazed like trails. The music has changed radically and swiftly through the eras, with dabblings in jazz, disco and punk; but amid all the trends it still reflects, and thus pays tribute to, traditional Mexican forms, richly echoing of the past.

Los Angeles' Chicano/Mexican American communities, as well as the music that swells from the various quarters, or the lips of its progenitors, defies broad-brush definition. Absorbing the many tone colors of experience, the verse and melodies reflect a complex relationship with a capricious city; the city that eagerly invites, yet abruptly throws up its hands, then makes wild impatient gestures toward the door. L.A., with its messy history of restrictive housing covenants and exclusionary hiring practices, has been for too long the rash and temperamental host.

Like African-American field songs rich in metaphor and euphemism, the music of the L.A. Chicano has served well as a tool of resistance spanning generations and class designations. As well it has become a mechanism to vent frustration, dissatisfaction when working through contradictions of life in America. The key to the persistence of this subculture, Loza suggests, is a "complex matrix of interdependence, ethnic identity and cultural survival."

Loza's meticulous study is dense; as expansive as it is exhaustive (and at times exhausting) in its scope. His ambition is large: to trace the history of a people through dates and other numerical milestones (record sales, for example), immigration, migration and social upheaval while paralleling it with the delicate process of assimilation and acculturation--and to show how it all serves to feed a song.

From morning vespers and early recordings of the Mexican cancion captured by writer-photographer Charles Lummis on wax, to the mainstreamed big-band crooner Andy Russell (nee Andres Rabago) and the reawakened post-'60s voices of "La Raza" embodied by El Chicano, Loza illuminates the path from the 1980s "Eastside Renaissance" to punk and post-punk (The Brat and Los Illegals) and is hot on the trail of Los Lobos.

Though the music has fit its soul into various forms, it hasn't lost sight of its purpose as an instrument of communication and education, nor as a living artifact of "cultural survival." "To what extent will the Latino subculture assimilate into mainstream?" asks Loza. "Some will agree that this will never occur to the extent it has with other minorities. Mexico is simply too close--geographically, historically, economically and in final analysis culturally."

In excavating this community's history and philosophy, Loza tilts the traditional classroom history book point of view. To those peering in from the outside, Mexican communities have existed either as romanticized tableaux or fictions riddled with holes, empty of insight and full-to-bursting with stereotypes. Loza does not so much redefine as define, casting the past and present with an optimistic eye toward the future of this Mexican city. Utilizing a self-constructed model, Loza leaps far beyond simply "finding" a community. Rather he has attempted not just to amplify its voice, but to find the source of its spark and its color. The culture flickers into focus through oral histories, the reminiscences of musicians, club and record store owners, interviews with DJ's, and Loza's careful dissections of the multi-layerd shades of a song.

Loza's first section, "History," reads like it--dead worlds far removed, arid, ponderous, with texts borrowed (heavily) from various secondary sources. Slowing the pace further is a lengthy meander (when a short glimpse would suitably illustrate his point) through the pages of La Opinion for a paragraph-by-paragraph listing of the newspaper's musician profiles, club advertisements and calendar listings--sadly devoid of rhythm, the lot reading like uninspired blank verse.

Loza, however, has another voice, which, oddly enough, enters only rather timidly through brief epigrams heading chapters, or bridges spanning eras. These brief notes link themes and often play like winsome flirtation or notebook poetry. More of his lyric voice would have been welcome.

When "Barrio Rhythm" jumps to life, it's through the voices of those who bore witness. Most poignant are two testimonials of the exhausting climb toward fame, and how location (physical and social) was negotiated by two artists of the same era. Lalo Guerrero drifts through " los golden years de la musica Latina ," through a downtown L.A. lit up with a commingling of Latin inspirations, from Carlos Gardel's Argentine tangos to the tropical Afro-Cuban union. A gifted musician and respected club owner (Lalo's in East L.A.), Guerrero held on to his crossover dream. But his "Indian" features and accented tongue impeded his U.S. crossing, while his Americanized lifestyle, as viewed by those across the border, left Guerrero labeled pocho : not authentic enough.

Juxtaposed with Guerrero's struggle is the ferocious success of Andy Russell--a Mexican-American version of Cuba's Desi Arnaz. Though struggling with his own issues of pride and place, Russell knew his crossover was possible because he could pass--physically--as well as belt out a ballad to fill a cavernous ballroom dance-floor in unaccented English: "I wanted," Russell recalls, "all my life to be something in the American atmosphere."

Yet no matter the social station, all wrestled with the complex construct of identity.

As demographics shifted, blacks and Latinos lived and labored side by side, as the products of leisure--talk, food, dance and music--fused. Swing, rumba, jazz all strutted out of the sinfonola (jukebox) as Mexican tunes wended their way through Tin Pan Alley, fitted with English lyrics. Jump blues became the battle cry of the defiant, zoot-suit-clad pachuco--the lyrics sung in the Spanish hipster dialect --Calo-- as the voice of Mexico entered mainstream consciousness, albeit at first in clandestine form.

The stigma of pocho fueled musings about forging identity. And while the music industry's artificial boundaries were challenged, they were formidable and slow to come down. In the wide-span between the pop-styled Thee Midniters and El Chicano's vamps on pride and identity to the R&B-disco-drenched; ballads of Tierra, the canvas, these artists proved (even if society chose to ignore it), had no limits.

Whether or not there is a movement on the wind as organized as an Eastside Renaissance, as musician Ruben Guevara holds to be true, the unifying and undying theme is one of cultural survival, giving a nod to the mix and the articulation of pride through the powerful conduit of music.

Rapper Kid Frost, as Loza cites, proudly displayed his colors in his 1990 album "Hispanic Causing Panic." The single "La Raza" contained mighty echoes of El Chicano's "Viva Tirado," the piece composed fittingly enough by African-American jazz musician Gerald Wilson. The wash of rhythms speaks to interdependence, the evolution of sound acknowledging the influences one can pull out of air. It is the sound of perpetual motion. But the music far outlives the fervor of a movement or a moment. Movements jump track, loose steam, are rendered outmoded--or die. As Los Lobos' Conrad Lozano so keenly observes: "We didn't carry the flag . . . we just carried the guitars."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°