Thursday, July 4, 2013

Radio knows no borders.

Visiting an artist studio in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood last fall, I was struck by a number of works featuring monarch butterflies. The artist, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Chicago for decades, explained that the monarch was a symbol of migration that doesn't recognize borders like the one that separates Mexico from the United States. Instead, the butterfly travels back and forth freely in an annual rhythm, flourishing in the conditions that exist on both sides. I've since come to learn that the monarch butterfly is often used as a metaphor for immigrant rights struggles.

Radio, too, transcends physical borders. In the realm of popular music, radio station XERA is legend. With a million watt signal tower located just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, free from the regulations of the FCC, border radio crossed cultural boundaries and thousands of miles with an uninhibited mix of country music, blues, gospel, rock n' roll and, of course, Mexican music that could be heard as far away as South Dakota. From the 1930's all the way through the 1960's, this unregulated miscegenation of sound flaunted the law to entertain and inspire countless people, many of whom became musicians themselves.

Shortly before the studio visit described above, I took in the Smithsonian traveling exhibit American Sabor and wrote about it for, a Hispanic arts website. Something that I always understood was made explicit there: There is no art, most notably music, that exists sui generis. Everything is preceded by something else, and more often than not, it was carried from one place to another through a process of migration.

The book Cuba and its Music by Ned Sublette goes backward and forward in time, starting all the way back in 760 BC and the freakin' Phoenicians to make his point that the mambo didn't just spring up out of nowhere. Similarly, another book by Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans, shows that city's cultural debt to Cuba. Growing up in Chicago, I'm quite familiar with the way the front porch blues of the Mississippi Delta made its way upriver with and became electric blues here, which further excited Brits like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. We know where that led. And the circle continues ever-spiraling outward...

This blog ain't a radio station, digital or otherwise, so if you're looking for an audio stream, go elsewhere. I'm writing it mostly to explore all these thoughts about migration, art (music mostly) and the societal context of both that have been rattling around in my head since community college. I'll review albums (old & new) and concerts. I might talk about last night's dinner at the taqueria around the corner, or point you at an article or video that caught my interest. Some politics might creep in here and there, but I'll try to keep that to a minimum.

Stay tuned.

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