Sunday, May 4, 2008

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music October 13, 2007 – September 7, 2008, Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA

Jasen Emmons, Manager EMP Programs, and Senior Curator at EMP walks through the exhibit....

"American Sabor, which opened last week at EMP and will run until Sept. 7, 2008, savors the Latino influence on American popular music [and is] a joyful, colorful, interactive study and celebration of the long-overlooked contribution of Latino music and rhythms to American pop music since World War II."
- Oct. 18, 2007

By Peter Kelley for University Week

This is a show that I was invited to help curate, "American sabor" - specifically I was asked to create a wall of album cover art & write about it for the wall signage. The wall's size and scope grew as I got deeper into it; I also expanded my input to help the EMP team find archive material, as well as providing a "soundtrack" of sorts for the listening kiosks attached to the album wall. In addition I put together some displays covering the different record labels that serviced the Latino markets in the various U.S. cities focused on in the exhibit. Below is some text that will help give you an idea of the show, as well as some pictures. ¡A gozar! - enjoy!

From the EMP web site:

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the profound influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. The exhibition was created in partnership with guest curators from the University of Washington. Rich with artifacts, instrument interactives, listening kiosks and films, American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is open at EMP|SFM through September 7, 2008. A cell phone audio tour is available in the exhibition gallery.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibition focuses on five major centers of Latino popular music production in the post-World War II United States—New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and San Francisco—which represent the diversity of Latino music. Each city section draws visitors into the broader histories and cultures that shaped these musicians’ contributions through artifacts, hands-on instrument interactives designed to teach key concepts, highly produced listening kiosks that allow critical listening and learning, three films created for the exhibition and interpretive text presented in English and Spanish.

American Sabor: Latinos en la Música Popular Norteamericana es la primera exposición inter pretativa sobre la profunda influencia eimpacto de los latinos en la música popular de los Unidos. Repleta de artefactos, juegos interactivos con instrumentos, cabinas musicales y películas, American Sabor: Latinos en la Música Popular Norteamericana se inaugurará en el EMP|SFM el 13 de octubre del 2007.
La exposición, con 5,000 pies cuadrados, se enfoca en cinco centros de producción de música popular latina en los Estados Unidos de la postguerra, que representan su diversidad: Nueva York, Los Ángeles, Miami, San Antonio y San Francisco. Cada sección urbana atrae al visitante a las historias y culturas que definieron a estos músicos mediante la presentación de artefactos, actividades interactivas con instrumentos cuyo propósito es resaltar conceptos clave, cabinas musicales de alta tecnología que promueven la audición y el aprendizaje críticos, tres películas producidaspara la exposición, y material interpretativo en inglés y en español.

The Catalog to the Exhibition

(exerpts from the American Sabor Narrative Touring Text provided by Experience Music Project)

Experience Music Project, in partnership with the University of Washington School of Music and College of Arts and Sciences, is currently creating American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, the first interactive and interpretive museum exhibit to tell the story of the profound influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. Rich with artifacts, instrument interactives, listening kiosks, and films, American Sabor will debut at Experience Music Project (EMP), a non-profit music museum in Seattle, Washington, in October 2007, before becoming a national traveling exhibition in October 2008.

To tell this complex story, the 5,000-square-foot exhibition focuses on five major centers of Latino popular music production in the post-World War II United States—New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and San Francisco—which represent the diversity of Latino music. Each city section draws visitors into the broader histories and cultures that shaped these musicians’ contributions through artifacts, hands-on instrument interactives designed to teach key concepts, highly produced listening kiosks that allow critical listening and learning, four films created specifically for the exhibit, striking graphics, and interpretive text presented in both English and Spanish. Following its 11-month run at Experience Music Project, American Sabor will travel to five cultural institutions (and possibly more) around the United States, spending 13 weeks at each venue.

Latino contributions to popular music in the United States have too often been relegated to the margins and footnotes of a narrative dominated by the interaction of African and European Americans—an overly black and white view of our musical history. Where it is addressed, Latin music is often portrayed as an exotic resource for “American” musicians, as suggested by pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s famous reference to “the Spanish Tinge” in U.S. music.

American Sabor (sabor is the Spanish word for taste or flavor, commonly used to describe good music) is a museum exhibit that turns that phrase and that perspective on its head, documenting the roles of post-World War II U.S. Latino musicians as interpreters and disseminators of Latin American genres, but also highlighting their roles as innovators within genres of music that we understand to be indigenous to the United States, such as jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop. American Sabor thus addresses problems of cultural representation that are of concern to members of an increasingly visible and influential community in this country (Latinos constitute approximately 13% of the U.S. population, and gaining), while at the same time documenting musical histories and connections to the broader Americas that can be embraced and celebrated by all Americans.

Recent exhibitions about Latino music have been much narrower in scope. Latin Jazz: La Combinacíon Perfecta (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service) focuses exclusively on Latin Jazz and does not contain any artifacts, while ¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz (Smithsonian National Museum of American History) concentrates on a single artist. By focusing on five major production centers, American Sabor demonstrates the ethnic roots and diversity of Latino music, from mambo, salsa, and hip-hop in New York City to mariachi, punk, and banda rap in Los Angeles, from post-disco and pop in Miami to conjunto and Tex Mex in San Antonio and salsa and psychedelic rock in San Francisco.

The choice to focus on “popular music” is not simply a curatorial bias or a way to attract big crowds, but is predicated on the fact that popular culture is a medium through which many people make sense of their histories and their places in society. Rather than simply dismissing popular culture as a commercial product of the mass media, contemporary scholars also see it as a source of new ideas that may even shape “high culture.” American Sabor looks to popular music for what it can tell us about how people make sense of a fast-changing world and for the ways Latinos have articulated their identities in and through it.

The Exhibition

Curated by a team of experts from Experience Music Project and the UW School of Music, American Sabor presents the music of U.S. Latinos as never before, in an interpretive and interactive museum exhibition. The exhibit explores the five featured cities’ unique histories, artists, and musical styles since World War II. These geographical and chronological boundaries make the scope manageable for a 5,000-square-foot exhibit while remaining flexible enough to allow stories in the exhibit to extend into other places and times when necessary.

Among the more than 100 artifacts are instruments, costumes, and photographs that document the cultural history of U.S. Latinos, as well as records that have changed the course of U.S. music history. Hands-on music-making, critical listening, and films created by the EMP/UW curatorial team are central elements of the exhibit, designed to deepen visitors’ understanding of Latino music, rhythms, and dance. The instrument interactives teach visitors some basic techniques of button accordion, clave, hand drums, and keyboards, and the five listening stations help visitors identify some of the distinctive components of different genres, through a close listening to and breakdown of key songs. Exhibit films are especially important for the representation of social dancing, which has been a primary means for the integration of Latin music genres into the U.S. mainstream. An hour-long audio tour allows viewers to hear artists and experts share stories about specific artifacts, events, and developments. An important aim of this exhibit is to provide educational models and resources for teachers, including a companion catalog and book of essays, supplementary Web-based materials, and references to other resources.

American Sabor communicates important new perspectives on the music and cultural history of this country by providing ways for visitors, educators, and students of many different backgrounds to actively engage with the music of U.S. Latinos.

American Sabor Album Wall (Curated & Written by Pablo Yglesias)



Before I started to design Latin album covers, they were usually put together by the printers. They'd get a photo and then put down the type / titles with their eyes closed (or so it seemed to me at the time). The album covers did not have much importance to anyone, it was just some small market. I gave up my job at an advertising agency to devote myself to improving the image of Latinos by combining Music and Art.”
—Izzy Sanabria

This wall of record jackets explores the evolution of Latin music album cover art over the last 50 years. Album art should be seen not as a mute ephemeral commodity enslaved to the demands of the music bursting within, but rather as a window onto a culture’s identity, evolution, and inner dynamics. Latin music, and the design that presents it, is a unique collision of influences: African, Indigenous, European, American.
This exhibit proposes that the album is not only an invitation to dance, but that the jacket is a piece of art inspiring feelings of nostalgia while speaking to social themes (the immigrant experience, food, dance, machismo, rebellion, ethnic pride, faith) and political concerns (justice, oppression, racism). Note that humor, folklore, and fantasy were often used in the cover art to mask deeper commentary on aspects Latino life.
These album covers provide us with a visual companion to the evolving soundtrack of various Latino identities as they were shaped by experiences in the U.S. What emerges from looking at this time line of Latin music packaging is the sense that a growing consciousness of self over time has been integral to shaping perceptions of both how others see us and how we see ourselves as Latinos. The covers became more powerful and artistically challenging as the imagery moved away from the outsider view during the first 5 decades of the 20th Century that saw Latino cultures as mysterious, primitive, titillating, threatening, and hopelessly exotic. By the late 1960s, a more native identity was being expressed by designers from within the musical culture, producing a body of work increasingly in control of its own destiny and commercial representation, sometimes honest, sometimes playful and irreverent, but predominantly self-created.
In addition to representing the diversity of Latino musicians in the U.S. market, and investigating representations of identity, this wall of covers pays tribute to the numerous graphic designers and artists who frequently received very little (if any) credit or recognition for their efforts in promoting Latin music and culture.
The left half (six panels long by 12 panels high) concerns itself with the largely Chicano/Mexican-American produced music of Texas and California, while the right half shows the music industries of New York and Florida, produced primarily by people of the Spanish Caribbean. African-American influences and contributions to Latin music are also represented through out.
Though the music and cultures of the two halves are different in many ways, there are some similarities, crossovers, and common themes, the most important of which is the unique aural and visual flavor of Latin music made in this special melting-pot environment of the United States.

By the late 1960s, a more native identity was being expressed by designers from within the musical culture, increasingly producing work free from the constraints of the past, and in control of its own destiny.

Though the music and cover art of the two halves (Chicano versus Caribbean) differ in many ways, there are similarities, crossovers, and common themes, most importantly the unique flavor produced by the U.S. melting-pot environment.

Cover art helps shape perceptions of both self and other. Graphics became more powerful and artistically challenging as the imagery moved away from the initial portrayal of Latino cultures as primitive, wanton, threatening, foolish, exotic.

Humor, irony, folklore, and fantasy were often used in cover art to mask deeper commentary on aspects Latino life such as the immigrant experience, food, dance, machismo, rebellion, ethnic pride, faith, justice, oppression, and racism.

“[Our] aesthetic forces you to deal with being simultaneously enlightened and offended. [It] display[s] a keen sensitivity to universal fears, fantasies, frustrations, and stupidities. In essence, raunch and taste…achieved through craftsmanship [and] truth...” —Walter Velez

American Sabor Record Label Signage (Curated & Written by Pablo Yglesias)


The diverse melting-pot environment of the East Coast, specifically New York City (or La Gran Manzana), has been immensely important for the creative development and sustainability of Afro-Caribbean based Latin music and dance. Many record labels, big and small, have been documenting this vibrant scene for over a century now.


Various small domestic record labels sprung up in Texas from the 1950s - 70s to record the diverse Latin music made by people of primarily Mexican-American heritage. Some were Latino owned, while others were not. Starting in the 80s much of the music was licensed to multi-national corporations based elsewhere.


California represents a musical environment as multi-cultural as New York, though the musicians are primarily Mexican-American. From tiny independent labels to huge corporations, the music has found a home, with markets based primarily in L.A. and San Francisco.


Until the arrival of multi-national corporations in the 1980s, small labels were the norm and flourished in Florida, though some of them had previously existed in Cuba, and were transplants to the U.S. due to the Cuban Revolution.

Photos of the opening and related events

The three guest curators of American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music. From the left, they are Michelle Habell-Pallán, Shannon Dudley and Marisol Berríos-Miranda. Behind them in a similar pose are Latino performers Celia Cruz, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan.

Pablo Yglesias, curator, and renounded mambo, Latin Soul, and salsa singer Willie Torres (member of the Joe Cuba Sextet, composer of hit tune "To Be With You" and the guy dancing in the photo used for the invitation and show signage)

Members of Santana, the EMP crew, and Manager EMP Programs/Senior Curator Jasen Emmens

Jasen Emmons, Manager EMP Programs, and Senior Curator at EMP and the man in charge of the exhibit (a LOT of hard work and dedication!)

Jorge Santana, leader of Malo

Mark Guerrero, musician (solo work, Mark & The Escorts, Tango, son of Lalo Guerrero, exhibit guest curator, historian, educator) with Pablo Yglesias

Santana percussionist Mike Carabello

Santana drummer Mike Shrieve

Exhibit curators Marisol Berríos-Miranda, Shannon Dudley, and vocalist (and pster boy!!) Willie Torres

DJ Bongohead plays at the opening...

Dr. Phil Scher, scholar of Carnival

Outisde the EMP building

Album cover wall

Album wall with listening stations featuring music selections from the albums on the wall, assembled by Pablo Yglesias

Musicians from the opening: Adrián Areas (the son of Chepito Areas) and bassist and orchestra leader Joe Santiago

Bassist and orchestra leader Joe Santiago (played with many salsa and Latin Jazz greats in NYC in the 70s, including the original Willie Colon Orchestra where he played trombone, and with Andy Harlow, as well as playing on the Eddie Palmieri "La Perfecta II" albums!!)

Full text of article on the show:
EMP's 'American Sabor' savors the Latino influence on American popular music
By Peter Kelley - University Week

It's possible to discuss American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, the new exhibit at the Experience Music Project curated by three UW researchers, without singing -- but it's not nearly as much fun.
So we'll be doing some humming and singing to ourselves in this story. Ready?
Let's start with "Louie, Louie," that famous song by The Kingsmen. (You know: "Dadada! da-da, dadada! da-da …") Get it going in your mind and we'll get back to it in a minute.
American Sabor, which opened last week at EMP and will run until Sept. 7, 2008, is a joyful, colorful, interactive study and celebration of the long-overlooked contribution of Latino music and rhythms to American pop music since World War II. You can learn more at
The exhibit was guest-curated with love and enthusiasm by UW faculty Michelle Habell-Pallán, associate professor of women studies (formerly with American ethnic studies); Shannon Dudley, associate professor of ethnomusicology; and Marisol Berríos-Miranda, who has taught in ethnomusicology, music education and Latin American studies, with assistance from graduate students Rob Carroll and Francisco Orozco. The project also was supported by the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities and the College of Arts & Sciences.

"Without Latino music there wouldn't be any pop music in the United States as we know it," said Berríos-Miranda. "And what is exciting about this exhibit is the amount of creativity and enthusiasm and love that Latino musicians have given to the U.S. that has never been acknowledged."

Dudley, the UW ethnomusicologist, said, "The exhibit covers music that most Americans think of as 'Latino,' including salsa, which first developed in New York, or conjunto music from Texas. But we also wanted to show how Latinos have contributed to musical styles that we think of as quintessentially American, including jazz, rock, hip hop, and country music."

His colleague Habell-Pallán said, "Everybody knows the story of how rock emerged -- country and western got together with the blues and had a baby named rock and roll. But there was a third party there, too," she added. "The rhythms and musical sounds of the Latino community. You can't have rock and roll in the U.S. without that third element."

Sabor in Spanish means taste, or flavor. In American Sabor the researchers ask, "What makes the music of the United States tasty? What flavors distinguish it, and where have they come from?" The exhibit answers these questions with about 100 artifacts -- record sleeves, lyrics, posters, musical instruments and films -- and perhaps best, listening kiosks where visitors can hear for themselves the powerful influence of Latino rhythm on the music they've been hearing for generations.

Still humming "Louie, Louie"? Good. You're humming a cha cha cha rhythm straight out of Cuba, called "El Loco Cha Cha." Dudley said, "That riff was composed by a Cuban band leader named Rene Touzet, and then an African-American musician named Richard Berry picked up on that recording and wrote the song."

He added, "The cha cha cha has become part of the language of rock and roll, and people don't identify it as Latino anymore, because it's the American sound now. And that's the point of the exhibit -- these Latino musicians are American, they have been participating in American popular culture all along."

Let's try another. Remember "96 Tears" by ? (Question Mark) and the Mysterians? Let it play in your head ("You're gonna cry -- cry-cry-cry! You're gonna cry -- ninety-six tears!") right up to the organ solo in the middle.

Got it? That organ solo you're humming, performed by keyboardist Little Frankie Rodriguez, is an icon of 1960s pop, but it started out as a Tex-Mex-style accordion solo. Habell-Pallán said, "When you hear it in that context you say ‘Oh my God,' and you can never not hear the accordion again."

Group and performer names were often changed by record companies to hide the ethnicity of the performers, she said. But in some cases, bands invented their own "way-out" names such as Question Mark and the Mysterians or used barrio names such as Cannibal and the Headhunters, who did the 1965 song "Land of a Thousand Dances." You might remember it for its famous "na-na-na-na-na" refrain that tells listeners, "You gotta know how to pony! Like Boney Maroney!"

"They were a group out of East L.A. and you wouldn't know they were Mexican-American," Habell-Pallán said, "At the time, records were marketed as black or white, and if you were brown you really felt out of that alignment."

Examples abound throughout American Sabor. In fact, visitors of baby boomer age who have a mainstream, Top-40 sensibility are likely to hear many familiar riffs, rhythms and refrains -- only this time attributed to the correct ethnic and international influence.

The exhibit focuses on five American cities that have been key centers in Latino music: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio and Miami, with maps showing the international influences on each city. It celebrates the music of well-known Latino stars -- Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Richie Valens (whose vest, which he wore on the television show American Bandstand, is on display as well as a guitar), Selena, and the great Carlos Santana, who started life as a violinist.

There is the painful history of Latino marginalization here to be explored as well as the celebration of Latino music, said Dudley, and the researchers worked hard to strike the right balance between academic and pure musical fun. "We've all brainstormed a lot about, what are the big issues here? And what can this exhibit achieve in terms of opening people's eyes?" They even brought in scholars from across the county to help decide what the exhibit would include, and how.

Dudley said three major themes guided the curators as they worked:

* that these "irrepressibly exuberant" musical movements were born of the youth culture. Then as now, young people use music to find and express their place in the world.
* second, that the political issues of immigration and migration are "part and parcel of how this music took the shape it did," and that such issues remain in the headlines today, and
* third, that this wonderful music is how Latinos expressed their American experience, and still do.
American Sabor takes up 5,000 square feet of space at the EMP, which is about twice the space originally planned, said Jasen Emmons, EMP curator. Emmons (whom the curators credit with much help and having "great ears") said the EMP partners with the UW, radio station KEXP and with a group called the Seattle Partnership for American Music, and had been looking for a new project. He said the museum took down its Jimi Hendrix area to make room for the American Sabor exhibits.
The UW guest curators said they could not have done their work without an original seed grant and ongoing support from the UW's Simpson Center. They are proud, too, that Spanish-speaking UW undergraduate students will get service learning credits for acting as Spanish language docents for the exhibit -- making it the first bilingual exhibit hosted by EMP.
Marisol Berríos-Miranda knows that the historic ignoring of the Latino influence in American pop music is part of "a larger challenge -- we have to recognize the contributions of Latinos not only in music but in life, too, as well as in academia.
"We're trying to correct that," she said, "in a humble way."
Stop by the EMP to see American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music and learn more about what you've been hearing all these years on the radio.
If you don't -- sing it with me now, just as Question Mark said -- you're gonna cry!
Cry cry cry!

Joe Santiago, Salsa/Latin bass, percussion

Joe Santiago (courtesy U Washington)

When Joe was playing trombone in Willie Colon's orchestra, c. 1968

Joe Santiago was born in 1950 in Naranjito, Puerto Rico. He grew up in the Bronx, New York. His first musical instrument was the viola, assigned to him by his junior high school music teacher because of the size of his hands. Santiago was more interested in the trumpet, though, and shined shoes on the street corner until he earned enough money to buy one. Not long afterwards he met an ambitious classmate named Willie Colón and switched to the trombone so he could play in Colón’s band. Playing for dances at clubs and community centers, these teenagers’ brash trombone-heavy sound (soon to be labeled “salsa”) earned them an enthusiastic following in the Bronx and attracted attention from record producer Al Santiago of Alegre Records. Santiago went on to play trombone on Colón’s first two albums for the new FANIA label, “El Malo” (1966) and “The Hustler” (1967), before switching to the instrument he was to play for the rest of his career, the bass.
Santiago supplemented his catch-as-catch-can learning in the Bronx with formal training at the New York School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Berklee School of Music. By the 1970s he had become one of the most sought-after bass players in the burgeoning salsa scene. He stands today at the top of his profession, with a portfolio that includes recordings and performances with some of the great names in Latin music, including Machito, Mario Bauzá, Mongo Santamaria, Carlos “Patato” Valdez, La Sonora Ponceña, Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz, and Tito Puente, to name just a few.  Since the mid-1990s he has played and recorded with pianist Eddie Palmieri, from whom he earned the nickname “Timba” (a word that refers to the sound of a drum) for the powerful rhythm of his bass playing. 

Willie Torres dancing at a gig in the Catskills, late 50s early 60s (thanks Johan K.)

Joe Cuba Sextet

Johnny Pacheco

Ray Barretto

Ritchie Valens

Lalo Guerrero (Mark's dad)

Mark Guerrero's band, Tango

San Antonio legend, Flaco Jimenez

Celia Cruz album cover in show from Henry Medina, Jr. (thanks for all your help Henry!!!!)