Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles.

Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. – book reviews

John Koegel

The university presses of Illinois, Indiana, and New Mexico are to be commended for their recognition of the importance of the Mexican American contribution to musical and cultural life in the United States. What immediately strikes the reader of these three books is the vitality and complexity of musical life in the Hispanic community in the Southwest. They offer a fresh look at music in nineteenth-century Mexican Arizona, Sonora, and Baja California, the traditional balladry reflecting the immigrant experience in the United States, and Mexican American-Chicano popular music in contemporary Los Angeles.

In Borderman Edward Ronstadt has skillfully edited the memoirs of his father, Federico Jose Maria (“Fred”) Ronstadt (1868-1954), written between 1944 and 1954. Intended for his family, and probably without any thought of being published, Fred Ronstadt’s memoirs vividly describe everyday life in the late nineteenth century in territorial southern Arizona, the northern Mexican state of Sonora and the territory of Baja California. Even though he was active in Tucson commerce, society, and musical affairs for many years after 1900, his memoirs only deal with the first forty years of his life.

Fred Ronstadt’s father, German-born Frederick Augustus Ronstadt, was a naturalized Mexican citizen who served as a colonel of the National Guard of the state of Sonora and as military prefect of various districts in Sonora. Fred’s mother, Margarita Redondo, a descendent of a long-established land-owning family in the Altar Valley in Sonora, married Frederick Ronstadt in 1867 in the town of Altar. Fred spent much of the first years of his life leading a peripatetic existence, moving with his family to the many places his father’s jobs took them.

Two excellent maps detail the towns, villages, and settlements in Baja California described in Ronstadt’s narrative, several of which were then centers of pearl fishing along the Gulf of California and in which Ronstadt visited, or worked and lived. Ronstadt’s descriptions of Lower California highlight its stark beauty and its vast emptiness and echo historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the frontier and frontier life. The maps also show the geographical interrelationship between the northern part of the Mexican state of Sonora and territorial southern Arizona (which was, until the Gadsen Purchase of 1854, part of Sonora). Fred Ronstadt’s crossing of the border in 1882 to work in Tucson was part of a logical migration northward (a tradition discussed at length in Northward Bound) that began at the time of the American annexation and continues today.

Bernard L. Fontana, in his foreword to Borderman, pinpoints much of the book’s interest when he says that “the considerable charm of these memoirs derives from his [Ronstadt’s] accounts of how children amused themselves. . . . Through it all, too, there were schooling, both public and private, and music. . . . Imagine the impression left on a boy in the 1870s wedding of his half-sister in the Baja California coastal town of Mulege during which a local quartet sang arias from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha to the accompaniment of a piano played by a Mexican mining engineer” (p. xiii).

Ronstadt received regular but interrupted schooling as a boy. One of the subjects frequently taught in the small schools he attended was music (often for an extra fee). Ronstadt remembered having been taught sightsinging from the method by “Gomez, a famous Spanish teacher of music” (p. 48) in music lessons given by his music teacher from the city of Durango. This method must have been Jose Melchor Gomis y Colomer’s Metodo de canto (first published in Paris in 1825 as Methode de solfege et de chant), which went through many editions in Mexico in the nineteenth century.

In Tucson in 1888 and 1889 Fred was involved in establishing the Club Filarmonico Tucsonense. In addition to leading the group, he was responsible for arranging the danzas, mazurkas, polkas, songs, and serenades that the band played. Soon after the founding of the Club Filarmonico, the instrumentation for a complete band was created, as the cost of the larger instruments was subscribed for by the musicians and their supporters, Mexican and non-Mexican alike. A band stand was quickly erected, and weekly concerts were held on Wednesday evenings or Sunday afternoons for nine years. The band also played for church socials, national holidays, Christmas and New Year’s festivities, dances, serenades, political meetings, and parades, and in the 1890s toured to Southern California. The Club Filarmonico enjoyed the patronage and support of both the local Mexican American and Anglo American portions of Tucson.

Would that Edward Ronstadt, the editor of Borderman, had given even more details about the life and musical career of his elder half-sister Luisa in his introduction. Fred Ronstadt’s daughter Luisa took the stage name of Luisa Espinel as a young woman (later she married Denver artist Charles Kassler); as a professional singer she was active in the United States, Mexico, and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1946 she published some of her father’s songs in her aptly named collection Canciones de mi padre (“Songs of My Father”). Fred Ronstadt taught Luisa many of the songs he had learned from his mother and her people in Altar. Luisa Espinel’s collection inspired her niece, Linda Ronstadt (Fred Ronstadt’s granddaughter), to make her very successful recording of popular and traditional Mexican songs, Canciones de mi padre (Asylum Records, 1987). Given the extended nature of the Ronstadt and Redondo families, a diagram would have been useful to help keep all the relations straight.

Borderman is an evocative personal narrative of an early immigrant to territorial Arizona. The many photographs included in the book help bring to life the people Fred Ronstadt describes. Dealing with society and music on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, it will be of interest to anyone with a desire to know more about Mexican American life at the turn of the century and the relations between the various ethnic groups that populated the Southwest before 1900.

Maria Herrera-Sobek’s Northward Bound studies the ballad and song tradition of the Mexican immigrant to the Southwest (especially California and Texas) and other areas of the Mexican Diaspora, principally after 1900. Her book is divided into two parts dealing with the corrido (ballad) before and after 1964 (when the bracero program encouraging the importation of migrant Mexican agricultural workers ended). Having conducted extensive fieldwork for her book The Bracero Experience: Elitelore versus Folklore (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center, 1979), and having collected thousands of corridos and other popular Mexican songs on recordings and in print, Herrera-Sobek is uniquely qualified to speak of the Mexican immigrant experience as expressed in song.

While the main development of the corrido occurred during the time of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Herrera-Sobek traces its history to the mid-nineteenth century (and earlier). In one of the best of her chapters, “Cowboys and Outlaws,” the author has drawn together wide-ranging historical and folkloric information as well as pertinent visual illustrations about Joaquin Murieta, the bandit whose activities in gold-rush-era California so successfully exercised the imaginations of mid-nineteenth-century journalists and writers. The Corrido de Joaquin Murieta, recorded in Los Angeles in 1934 by the Hermanos Sanchez y Linares, shows how long the Murieta legend lived on in popular folklore and folk music. Though this corrido deals with Murieta’s life and exploits, it cannot be shown to be contemporaneous with his life. Since a thorough study of the corrido during the past century in Mexico and the United States remains to be written, we cannot know with certainty the extent to which corridos were sung in the Southwest before 1900. In searching through fifty years of Spanish-language newspapers from Southern California (circa 1850-1900), I found hundreds of popular poems and song texts, but very few examples of verse which might be called corridos. While this absence of corridos may reflect the prejudice of the largely middle- and upper-class editors of these newspapers against such working-class popular balladry, this lack may also indicate that the development of the genre occurred at a later date (at least in California). Perhaps the large-scale project headed by Nicolas Kanellos at the University of Houston, “Recovering the Hispanic-American Literary Heritage in the United States,” will provide the impetus for a study that will reveal new information about this thorny issue.

The chapters in parts one and two dealing with the history of the corrido from the time of the Revolution to the present are of special interest. The issues of past and present racial discrimination against and exploitation of Mexican (im)migrant workers are dealt with squarely in Herrera-Sobek’s text. The most compelling situations of such discrimination are pungently and directly described in the corridos themselves. While the author’s chapter headings, “Revolution and Hard Times,” “Of Migrants and Renegades,” “Repatriation and Deportation,” “Songs of Protest,” and “Racial Tension” point to the often serious nature of inter-personal and collective relations between majority and minority groups in the Southwest as represented in the corrido, her chapter entitled “Love” shows that the ballad is not always of a socially charged nature.

The author includes a useful and extensive bibliography. However, some of the citations in her section “Major Corrido Collections” are wrongly classified (Hugo de Grial’s Musicos mexicanos is a biography of Mexican musicians, not a collection of corridos). While a number of books by the Mexican music scholar Vicente T. Mendoza are cited in the bibliography, important studies of Mexican music by Robert Stevenson, Gabriel Saldivar, John Donald Robb, Juan S. Garrido, Otto Mayer-Serra, and Higinio Vazquez Santa Ana are not listed. Daniel Castaneda’s important musical and literary study of the corrido, El corrido mexicano: Su technica literaria y musical (Mexico: Editorial Surco, 1943) is cited; however, Herrera-Sobek fails to mention in her text Castaneda’s reproduction of the seventeenth-century corrido from Sebastian de Aguirre’s manuscript Metodo de citara in tablature (Codice Saldivar II).

The only discussion of the corrido and other types of Mexican song as musical genres in Northward Bound is taken by the author from Americo Paredes’s A Texas-Mexican Cancionero (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976). The criticism that Herrera-Sobek generally ignored the musical aspect of the corrido in her earlier book The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990) is also true for Northward Bound. The corrido is a genre in which music and verse have equal importance: corridos are almost always sung and played and hardly ever simply recited. Understandably, literary scholars may be untrained in musical analysis, but the corrido is not such a complex musical genre that Herrera-Sobek could not have made an attempt to describe the musical structure and performance practice of the corrido herself. As an insider in the tradition, and truly an expert in the literary and social aspect of the field, her insights about the music would be valuable.

While the author did not undertake a complete synthesis of social and political history, folklore and literature, and musical composition and performance as they relate to immigrant ballads and their major themes (and it is perhaps unfair to insist on such an all-encompassing view), she has made an important contribution to Mexican ballad scholarship in Northward Bound with its well-chosen and fascinating collection of corridos, its pertinent commentary, and its evocative selection of photographs. Her book helps us understand better the immigrant point of view through the medium of sung poetry.

Happily, music is the primary focus of Steven Loza’s pathbreaking book Barrio Rhythm. Loza, an ethnomusicologist, performing musician, and insider in Mexican American professional musical circles in Los Angeles, centers his book (a revision and expansion of his dissertation [University of California-Los Angeles, 1985]) around a series of ethnographic interviews with Mexican American popular musicians from the Los Angeles area.

Part I, “History,” is divided into three chapters that study the history of Mexican music in Southern California before and after 1945 and the social history of Los Angeles’s Chicano population after World War II. The first chapter, “Society and Music in Mexican Los Angeles,” is outside the main focus of Loza’s book. It briefly discusses musical life in Mexican Southern California before 1900 and lightly touches upon musical developments during the first three decades of the twentieth century, relying upon the work of Robert Stevenson for this earlier period.

A few errors have crept into this first chapter. Vespers and compline (mentioned on p. 5) are not musical repertories but rather canonical office hours during which music is performed. Antonio Coronel was not active in the Los Angeles County Museum (p. 13) because it had not been established before his death in 1894. One of the founders of the Mexican orquesta tipica movement was Carlos Curti, not Carlos Certi (p. 16). In 1904 and 1905 (not between 1904 and 1912 as stated on p. 17) Charles Fletcher Lummis, founder of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, recorded somewhat more than 300 different wax cylinders of Spanish-language songs (probably the earliest non-commercial Spanish-language recordings extant anywhere in the world).

Chapter 2 (“Social Development since the Postwar Period”) documents the increased representation in political circles, better opportunities for higher education, lessening of discriminatory practices, and heightened awareness of Mexican and Latino culture that have all contributed to empowerment of the Spanish-surnamed in Los Angeles since World War II. These social forces have been reflected within the entire music industry in Southern California. Increasingly, other recent Spanish-speaking arrivals to Southern California have broadened the range of musical influences, as immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean have infused portions of their own musical identity into the local Hispanic community.

Chapter 3 (“Musical Life: Los Angeles, 1945-90”) attracts the reader with a vivid narrative of life during one of the most explosive and vibrant times in Chicano-Mexican American history in California. Loza studied the pages of Los Angeles’s major Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion from the late 1940s and early 1950s to glean information about the activities of local Mexican and Chicano popular and classical musicians, and interviewed Mexican and Latin American performers, composers, and conductors. Loza also surveys the Latin nightclub circuit, the post-war recording industry, the influence of swing, “jump blues,” salsa, mariachi, jazz, and the developing Chicano-East Los Angeles rock scene. The mix of musical styles that has influenced Mexican American popular music in the past fifty years is indeed remarkable. Opportunities for Spanish-surnamed musicians within the Hispanic music industry and in Hollywood recording studios have widened considerably since the end of World War II.

Part II, “Ethnography,” contains the results of nine interviews with fifteen individuals woven into a narrative description of the musicians’ lives and musical accomplishments. Chapter 4, “The War Veterans,” outlines the careers and personal experiences of three performers (Andy Russell, Eddie Cano, and the very well-known Lalo Guerrero) and of record distributor John Ovalle, all of whom were particularly active in the immediate post-World War II period. Chapter 5, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” synthesizes the information Loza gained from interviews with the younger generation of Mexican American musicians (singer-songwriter Teresa Covarrubias, percussionist Poncho Sanchez, singer Irma Rangel, four of the members of the group Los Illegals, and the well-known band Los Lobos). The fascinating information given to the author by his collaborators is deftly interpreted in the light of contemporary social and musical trends in Los Angeles since World War II.

Three musical transcriptions are included in chapter 4 as examples of different aspects of musical style. Loza is to be commended for including them, and some other transcriptions in chapter 5, and for providing pertinent analysis. Rarely are musical transcriptions of popular music such as these found in publications on Mexican or Mexican American music. Loza presents these musical examples as useful road maps to the songs rather than as complete transcriptions, stating that they are “intended as a general melodic, harmonic, rhythmic guide to indicate song form and style” (p. 166). Although Loza says that Lalo Guerrero’s song No Way Jose incorporates “various motives from different American (U.S.) styles such as Broadway, ragtime, swing, vaudeville, and pop” (p. 180), it is difficult to note these styles in the transcription; perhaps the recorded version demonstrates this point more clearly. One wishes for greater detail in the notation to resolve some ambiguities in the transcriptions; a recording accompanying the book would have been even better.

In chapter 6, “Change, Conflict, and Childhood,” Loza explores how matters of “enculturation, the formation of style, and inter-cultural conflict” have influenced the musical education and the extent of immersion in Mexican musical traditions among the musicians he interviewed. He shows that unlike tejano (South Texas) popular music, with its several clearly identifiable musical genres, Mexican American music in contemporary Los Angeles cannot be categorized into a few musical styles because the diversity of types of music performed by Chicano-Mexican American musicians is too great. Stylistic influences from Mexican ranchera, mariachi, Latin jazz, salsa, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and other styles have had their strong effect on the local music scene.

The illustrations included in Barrio Rhythm are especially well chosen. The photographs – from the Lummis Collection at the Southwest Museum (of Rosendo Uruchurtu, Charles Lummis, and the Villa sisters); from the personal collections of Chico Sesma, Don Tosti, and Tony Garcia; and those supplied by commercial recording companies – document the variety and scope of Mexican American musical life in Los Angeles. Loza also includes a sample composition (La suplica) of Guadalajara-born and Los Angeles-based composer and guitarist Miguel S. Arevalo (died 1900) which is of special interest.

At the beginning of Barrio Rhythm, Loza is appropriately generous with thanks to the many individuals and institutions who made his study possible. The final chapter, “Reflections of a Homeboy,” is a sort of epilogue or summation of the experience and insights he gained while at work on this project.

Barrio Rhythm will be of interest as a general book on the subject, as a supplementary text for courses in American music and Mexican-Latin American music, and as a primary text for ethnic studies classes. Perhaps for future editions the University of Illinois Press might consider releasing an accompanying CD with pertinent recorded examples (much of the music Loza discusses from before 1980 is difficult to access). Barrio Rhythm is a very valuable book that is sure to spark interest in and discussion about the entire spectrum of music and music making among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and Southern California.

John Koegel Claremont, California

COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Illinois Press

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