Two of this week’s Great Reads were about music, which in my book means it was a good week for the Great Reads. (Hmm, maybe I can organize a musical theme for the entire week sometime...)
But the two genres of music were so far apart, it was like they were from different planets.
One was about L.A.’s accordion culture, a world of polka throwdowns and Weird Al Yankovic and twentysomethings with pixie haircuts.
The other was about Brazil’s “ostentation funk,” a dance music born in the hard-luck favelas that’s full of economic braggadocio and beats so heavy they’d shake your house like an earthquake if a car drove by blasting them from the stereo.
I’m trying to imagine a mashup of the genres. The “Amelie” soundtrack with rapid-fire drum machine and shouted lyrics about garden gnomes and bling? I’m sure Weird Al could come up with something.
Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!
Rose Hills cemetery cultivates Chinese clientele
Bruce Lazenby remembers the spring morning when the management staff of Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier gathered in a boardroom, baffled by the events of the weekend.
In two days, the cemetery had seen Dodger Stadium-size crowds of Chinese mourners. Their cars backed up traffic for miles. Every trash can overflowed, and at many of the graves, people had laid out a confusing feast: fruits, vegetables, entire dishes on disposable plates wrapped in plastic.
The staff later learned that the crowds were celebrating the Qingming Festival, a Chinese holiday on which families tend the graves of relatives and leave food offerings.
Lazenby, the cemetery’s executive director, said that weekend in 1991 was a wake-up call.
“At that point, we began to realize how important our Chinese business was,” he said.
For most of its 100-year history, Rose Hills has attracted customers reflecting the region’s diverse history. Former California Gov. Goodwin Knight is buried here, as are legendary East Los Angeles educator Jaime Escalante and Compton rapper Eazy-E.
But in the 1980s, waves of Chinese immigrants poured into the San Gabriel Valley and the cemetery found itself at the center of the largest Chinese diaspora in the country.
The 1,400-acre cemetery, so large that mourners need maps and cars to get around, began a massive transformation to compete for an increasingly lucrative Chinese funeral business that has seen some family “estates” go for six figures.
Since 1991, it increased the size of the Chinese-speaking staff by nearly seven times, to 160. Executives learned about Chinese astrology and stepped up construction of feng shui amenities. Salesmen built relationships with feng shui masters.
#soundtrack: “Cemetery Gates,” by the Smiths. Wilde is definitely on Morrissey’s side, but I’ll take Keats and Yeats (especially Yeats).
Rivals spar over the spouts off Dana Point
Captain Dave Anderson’s face tightens as he peers toward the horizon through his binoculars. The Manute’a has been out at sea for nearly an hour, bouncing across the waters off Dana Point, and so far there’s not a single whale to be seen.
Clutching cameras and wrapped in sweaters, passengers, who moments before were entranced by a pod of dolphins, crane their necks, looking in every direction.
Anderson’s reputation rides on giving his 49 passengers an up-close view they’ll share over and over once they get back to port. And, with any luck, some eye-catching video he can upload to his website.
As Anderson searches, his rival is one step ahead. Donna Kalez’s crews have already spotted a pair of whales during their first voyage of the day.
Just then, a passenger shouts up to Anderson, “10 o’clock!”
Anderson revs the boat’s engine. Was that a puff of water in the distance?
#soundtrack: “Love’s Not a Competition (But I’m Winning),” by Kaiser Chiefs. One of the better song titles in recent memory.
Wednesday’s Great Read:
We held the Great Read because of an overload of news. It happens sometimes (but not too often – it’s good to have an alternative to hard news, don’t you think?)
More fans of the accordion are squeezing in lessons
Across the street from a wine lounge and a gourmet sausage spot on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, a small red-and-white neon sign reads: “DAVE’S ACCORDION SCHOOL.”
Inside, black and tan cases sprawl in a row along the floor, and two shelves hold a hodgepodge of squeezeboxes for sale. Business cards of norteño stars blanket a corkboard near the door, and nearby there’s a printout of the dictionary’s definition of the word “accordion,” with a suggested alternative: “A fantastic companion.”
Owner Dave Caballero, 68, sat on a piano bench examining the innards of a brown accordion. Down a narrow hallway, in a room decorated with an old blue couch and a figurine of Andy from “Toy Story,” his wife, Veronika, was finishing up her session with Emily Gaughenbaugh.
The 92-year-old said she took up the instrument a couple of months ago, in part because it beats doing crossword puzzles. She packed up her small red accordion and walked back into the shop’s storefront, where a signed picture of the Irish band the Pogues hangs on the wall next to one from Weird Al Yankovic that reads: “DAVE — Thanks for everything.... And don’t forget to eat your broccoli! Weird Al.”
As Gaughenbaugh waited for her 66-year-old daughter to finish her guitar lesson in another room, she watched a man with graying hair finish his lesson, her slim shoulders swaying to the melody from the French film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Soon a twenty-something with a pixie haircut and a young Russian boy showed up for their lessons.
“Accordion is coming back,” Gaughenbaugh said, smiling. “For a while it was kind of a joke.”
#soundtrack: “La Valse d’Amelie,” by Yann Tierson. This soundtrack puts me into an immediate good mood. By coincidence, I watched the movie again just before editing the story. As quirky, endearing and romantic as I remembered.
In Brazil, music for the flaunters and the wanters
Covered in tattoos and gold jewelry, MC Guime took the stage at a Sao Paulo club where patrons pay up to $4,500 for the VIP area, his lyrics fitting right in with the ostentatious surroundings.
“Top of the line! Nike Shox sneakers, Oakley shorts, Oakley shirt, look at us!” he belted out, celebrating some of Brazil’s more popular brand names to a crowd of the playboy children of the country’s elite.
The club usually puts on shows of safe, traditional Brazilian country music, a far cry from the thoroughly aggressive dance music known here as funk, which was born in Brazil’s favelas, or slums. Guime flew through the set, delivering a frenetic ghetto beat and conspicuous-consumption lyrics about clothes, cars and champagne.
Two years ago this kind of lifestyle was little more than an aspiration for Guime. Since then, he’s become the most famous face of funk ostentacao, or ostentation funk, an explosively popular new take on the genre that replaces themes of crime, poverty and social protest with a full-throated celebration of consumerist abandon.
It’s a transformation familiar to historians of U.S. hip-hop, which gave birth to its bling phase in the 1990s and whose reigning king, Jay-Z, still excels at economic braggadocio.
But in Brazil, where tens of millions of people have risen out of poverty as the country surfed a boom powered by sales of commodities to China, the gospel of shopping is a relatively new phenomenon for ordinary people.
Popular music’s exaltation of wanton spending and ostentation has made some uncomfortable, from members of the upper classes to left-leaning social movements defending the poor in the country, where the average salary is still just $780 a month.
“I personally think ostentation funk is crude,” says Gaia Passareli, a Brazilian music journalist and former host on MTV Brazil. “It goes too far venerating objects and distorted values.”
#soundtrack: “Plaque de 100,” by MC Guime. I’m afraid I like a little more melody than this, but I can see the dance appeal.
If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.