Friday, April 25, 2014

How I became an expert on Latin music.

If you are chuckling at the audacity of that title, trust me: I am laughing out loud.

That said, it's a claim that, were I of the mind to do so, I could make with some justification. After all, I have been writing features on artists, concerts, recordings and other música latina topics for Arte y Vida Chicago for over three years. Just two weeks ago, I agreed to be a regular contributor to Agúzate, an Afro-Latin cultural organization. I've been approached by a couple of other Latino-focused publications about doing some writing for them as well. And, of course, this blog largely covers that very topic.

But an expert? I'm still more of an apprentice. And that, dear reader, is the beauty of it.

The question, as David Byrne might put it, is "How did I get here?"

The bio summary that accompanies this blog references my studies in sociology, for which I earned a degree from the University of Illinois. And, surely, it is my grounding in that social science that informs my writing and, come to think of it, my life. The story begins a bit earlier, though, with a working class childhood as the grandson of Czech immigrants and the first in my family to go to college. It also includes being an eyewitness to the ugliness of racism and injustice in 1960s America, including my own neighborhood and even family. Identity, I believe, is formed in childhood, and crystallizes as you enter adulthood. That entrance in my case coincides with community college and the aforementioned discovery of sociology.

What does any of this have to do with Latin music? In addition to those sociology courses, I also enrolled in a basic Latin American history course. I really don't remember much about it. Truth be told, there probably wasn't much to remember. After all, this was the mid 70s. Vietnam still dominated foreign policy discourse, and the dirty deeds of the C.I.A. in Latin America really hadn't come to light yet to anyone but the closest observers. I'd love to say I was radicalized by that course, but it wouldn't be true. I do, however, remember the Mexican girl that I had a huge crush on. (There's always a woman, yes?) We talked a lot over coffee in the student lounge and went to a couple of parties where we danced. Eventually she told me about her Puerto Rican boyfriend. The romance that I had constructed in my mind was over, but no matter. I had crossed my Rubicon.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I had always liked rhythmic music, and as I've detailed elsewhere on this blog, you can trace most of American popular music like R&B, jazz and rock n' roll back through Cuba and beyond to Africa. So, even though I was listening to Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye, I was being subliminally exposed to that Latin tinge. And, of course, there was Santana. The decade following college is a bit of a blur (draw your own conclusions), but somewhere along the way I was exposed to salsa music, yet still didn't know what it was or where it came from. Then Rubén Blades got his big major label crossover push and for the first time I was hearing not only the rhythm, but also the complexity of the songs and, perhaps most importantly, Blades' incredibly incisive lyrics, which the record company thankfully translated for people like me. That was when I began to understand much more than I was told back in community college. By 1988 I was traveling to Guatemala with a human rights delegation and finding common cause between civil rights struggles at home and abroad. Inequality? Check. Racism? Check. Violence and repression? Check. The distance between What's Going On and Buscando America wasn't that great.

I've subsequently discovered, much to my delight, that there's a lot more to Latin music than salsa. Well, duh, you might say, but believe me, that wasn't so obvious a few decades back, where everything 'south of the border' was viewed through the same foggy lens. By and large, I'm indebted to gringos like David Byrne, who used his clout as the face and voice of the Talking Heads to get his record company to issue collections of essential Cuban, Brazilian and Afro-Peruvian music.

Twenty-plus years later, I'm still learning. In an earlier blog post, I talked about my lack of Spanish language comprehension and my feeling of being walled off from certain experiences because of it, but for a long time simply accepting that and merrily going along my way listening to Latin American music without a clue as to its context, just digging the sound. Music is a universal language, right? Sort of.

Last week, I was asked to review a concert by the legendary Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragón for Agúzate, which you can read here. I own some of their classic music from the 50s as well as a couple of their more recent releases. I even saw them perform live 14 years ago, and since then have learned to discern between various eras and styles of Cuban music.  It was a great show, which I experienced in my typical fashion; smiling, drinking and dancing. The next day, though, I had to write something, which of course required reconstructing the previous evening in my mind. I was missing some details, mainly song titles, so I wrote Agúzate's publisher with a few questions. He told me what he remembered and also translated the gist of a spoken tribute to Cheo Feliciano, who had died suddenly the previous day.

So, here's the really cool thing. The act of writing the review and conducting a little research in order to do it vastly enhanced my understanding of everything that went on that night. Despite everything I've learned about Latin music in the last couple of decades, I know something today that I didn't ten days ago.

Ultimately, I think that's why I write and why I'm thankful that publications like Arte y Vida and Agúzate ask me to do it. I can't just cruise through a concert and fail to understand what I'm hearing if I have to write about it. Similarly, I can't just cruise through life because writing this blog forces me to sift through my memories and assumptions and arrive at a fresh understanding of myself and the world I live in.

Now, that's the real beauty of it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hugh Masekela's 50 year journey

If you've read more than one of these Border Radio posts, you know that the subject of migration is endlessly fascinating to me. What happens to people when their lives, culture and art are relocated? I often examine the way the forced migrations of the slave trade brought various African traditions to the Americas, and those traditions formed the basis for so much music, specifically Afro-Latin, jazz and blues. Between those three, you pretty much have the entire foundation of Western popular music, everything from salsa to rock n' roll to hip-hop and electronic dance music.

Near the end of his set at the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday, South African legend (and really, somebody with a 50+ career in contemporary music is quite deserving of that honorific) Hugh Masekela introduced his late 60s hit Grazing In the Grass by joking that the people in the audience could find it by by looking through their grandparent's LP collections. Me? My copy was on a 45, the little record with the big hole in the middle.

photo: Scott Pollard

Grazing came out in 1968. It's an engagingly cheerful record and one that fit on the radio nicely at a time when the means of music discovery was Top 40, and the charts had room for a little bit of everything: Motown, the Beatles, the Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and odd little bits of reggae (though nobody knew what that was yet) like Desmond Dekker's Israelites.

photo: Scott Pollard

I was a kid at the time and had never heard the word apartheid. I didn't know that the creator of these three minutes of aural pleasure was a political exile from his home, and would remain so for another 26 years. I just heard a grooving song that always put a smile on my face. Being 1968, I always assumed that the grass of the title was marijuana. Good times.

Some journeys end up, happily, back home. The crack multigenerational band that Masekela brought to the Old Town School was entirely African and almost all from Cape Town or Johannesburg, the sole exception being a percussionist from Sierra Leone. The music they played was firmly grounded in South African rhythms and harmonies, but to these ears percolated along like really good 70s-era jazz fusion (think Weather Report), mixing pop smarts and showmanship in with funkified bass and a barrage of electric keyboards. Masekela himself doesn't play his flugelhorn much anymore, but it doesn't appear that it's from lack of energy, as the 74 year old danced, sung, played cowbell, joked and otherwise commanded attention with a rough charisma the entire performance. A joy radiated from the stage, but that was set aside for an extended performance of Stimela, a stark song of remembrance that came out in 1974 and was most decidedly not a radio hit, from an album entitled I Am Not Afraid, and later rerecorded as apartheid fell for the album Hope. For a few minutes, Masekela bared the pain in his soul, and his introduction acknowledged that the conditions described in the songs lyrics still applied to far too much of the world.

photo: Scott Pollard

The pictures that accompany this writing were taken by my friend Scott Pollard, and I think they do a tremendous job of capturing Masekela's joy, but also, more importantly, his dignity. I'm glad that I had the fortune of witnessing this performance and its implied message of perseverance in the face of daunting odds. Sometimes, justice prevails and things do get better.

photo: Scott Pollard