Taking Score of the Voices on the Street : Music: A composer’s chance encounter leads to a piece that echos the tempo and tensions of Downtown’s roving kaleidoscope of vendors.


Like many city sounds, the street vendors’ brief shouts of “mango, pepino, nance” and “cigarros, chiclet” went unnoticed as Joseph Julian Gonzalez, 31, took his daily walks Downtown.

“It’s so common,” said the composer, “it’s so part of the landscape; it was invisible.”

But what he heard on on particular day made him take notice. While walking on 7th Street toward Broadway, he heard a woman call out and then another. The two of them fell into a rhythm that perked up his composer’s ears.


“They were in the same tempo and at the same time, they were against each other, like a musical canon, like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ ” he said. “I wrote in my journal, ‘I really have to do something with this.’ ”

In the months since, Gonzalez tape-recorded the female vendors, most of them women, who sell fruits and vegetables along Broadway and composed the first of three movements that echo the vendors’ rhythmical songs and include their voices as they call out to their customers. The work in progress combines synthesizers and the vendors’ voices. It will eventually be orchestrated for a string quartet.

Their calls have an intrinsic pattern that the vendors themselves did not realize, says Gonzalez, who invited them to his loft for a chicken mole dinner and to explain why he was so interested in them. He surmises that the rhythm of their cantaletas can only be described as a natural desire for order and unity in their lives.

“I guess it’s an innate thing in people,” said Gonzalez, who most recently composed the score for the HBO movie, “Power: The Eddie Matos Story,” and a movie for Turner Network Television. “People innately know this underlying musical architecture. Once I made that discovery, it was easy to compose something. I didn’t have to manipulate any of this.”

In the daily bustle of their lives, the vendors do not take much notice of their songs; rather, they contend with a few patrons who skip off without paying and police officers who cite them for operating without a permit.

“In the country I’m in, I’m not supposed to sell, but I can’t leave behind my traditions,” said a 37-year-old vendor who requested anonymity because she fears retaliation from police. Her mother was a vendor in Guatemala and passed down the tradition of selling on the street. “In my country, vending is accepted. I don’t know how else to live.”

The vendor carries carts of fruits and vegetables from corner to corner Downtown, peeling the mangoes fresh for her customers and flavoring the slices with chili, lemon juice and salt. She knows that cold mangoes and nance sell well in warmer weather; steamed corn with butter and chili do better in the winter. When it rains, she sells umbrellas, and in the weeks before Christmas, she sells Christmas cards.

The first time that Gonzalez tried to record a woman calling out to her customers, the woman fled down the block. Gonzalez then noticed a police car pulling up nearby.

If they have time, the vendors will whistle to each other or find some way to warn their fellow vendors of approaching police.

The drama plays out in Gonzalez’s composition, which starts out slow, then picks up the tempo, echoing the underlying tension of the street.

His project caught the attention of two USC graduate students, who made a 10-minute documentary of Gonzalez recording on the street and composing in his loft. The students, Bann Roy, 30, and Gillian Goslinga, 30, are both majoring in visual anthropology and hope to exhibit the film.

“It’s an interesting way to tell their story,” Goslinga said, “because many people drive down the streets and see these vendors and never notice that these women are being run off the streets.”

The film, along with the composition and art from other media, are part of an exhibition Gonzalez aims to put together with his neighbor, a visual artist who goes by the single name Gronk, who also is working on projects with a street vendor theme. They hope to use the Fisher Art Gallery on the USC campus for an opening tentatively set for November.

Gonzalez likens his composition to the work of New York artists in the 1950s who incorporated common items that were disregarded or things that people had thrown away to show it in a different context. In this case, it’s the vendors who have been discarded, he said.

“I was just following a creative impulse and it turned into something with all these implications,” Gonzalez said. “It was almost like an intellectual, musical thing at first. You take the raw material and put it into a musical context, but you can’t get away from the emotional, social and even psychological context.”

More on His Music

* To hear the rhythms of Downtown street vendors’ voices, which flavor a new composition by Joseph Julian Gonzalez, call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5130Details on Times electronic services, B4