Performances



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  • PERFORMANCES

38

    


PERFORMANCES

 

MAGAZINE



LATIN MUSIC at the Bowl,   

 1943-1967



The Hollywood Bowl Museum presents a new exhibit this summer: 

Música y Sabor, featuring 90 years of Latino performers at the Bowl. In 

this article, Professor Josh Kun concentrates on 1943-1967, an exciting 

period of growth in Latin music here in Southern California.  

– Carol Merrill-Mirsky, Curator

On a brisk October night in 1943, at the bottom of the sloping hills of

Bolton Canyon, Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra pulled off a Hollywood

Bowl first: they sent elegantly arranged mambos and rumbas up into a

star-filled Los Angeles sky.

In the more than two decades since the Los Angeles Philharmonic

debuted there in 1922, the Hollywood Bowl had seen everything from

symphonies and Easter services to gospel choirs and big band swing,

but it hadn’t seen anything like “Perfidia,” “I’m A Bombshell from the

Bronx,” or any of the other Latin-tinged hits that Cugat and his guest

that night – Mexican-American singer and screen siren Lina Romay –

were famous for. But there they were, both appearing courtesy of Metro

Goldwyn Mayer, the studio that featured them that year in Stage Door 



Canteen, and the timing was perfect. Cugat – born in Spain, raised in

Havana, and made famous in New York – had already gone from being a

society fixture at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria to becoming Hollywood’s

favorite chihuahua-cradling musical Latino, the perennially tuxedoed

poster boy of the Latin craze who already had even the most buttoned-

up of Anglophiles rushing off to sign up for mambo classes.

The Bowl dubbed the historic night Latin American Fiesta, and

while Cugat was

the evening’s ideal

featured star, he

was far from alone.

Conceived in the

Good Neighbor

Policy wake of Walt

Disney’s three-

month goodwill trip

to South America,

Latin American 

Fiesta was political

diplomacy re-

imagined as a pan-

American musical

buffet. Besides

Cugat and Romay, it

included Colombian

singer and rising

MGM star Carlos

Ramírez, Mexican singer Carmen Molina, Cuban bandleader and former

Cugat guitarist Desi Arnaz, and the Boys Band of Los Angeles County

Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz (a descendent of Spanish settlers in California).

There was a parade of 21 Miss Americas from across the Americas,

complete with their respective national tunes and dances, and even

cameos from Donald Duck and his Brazilian parrot pal Joe Carioca,

both stars of 1942’s Saludos Amigos, the first of Disney’s South of the

Border features. The night’s program framed the concert as a tribute to

“American Democracy” and as proof that Los Angeles was itself a good

Latin American neighbor – a city that, as the chair of the Venezuelan

consulate wrote in the program above a drawing of Uncle Sam dancing

with a Latin American señorita, “has repeatedly given proof of its

sympathetic understanding and appreciation of the Latin-American

peoples and its ability to interpret our psychology.”

Latin American Fiesta wasn’t just a victory for consulates and

politicians; it was a victory for Bowl audiences who had rarely been

exposed to Latin American popular music. Though the Bowl was created

in the midst of the Progressive movement as part of a belief in the

power of public concerts to promote social consciousness, morality,

and virtue, those values rarely extended to the music and culture of the

thousands of Latinos who called Los Angeles home in the 1920s and

’30s. After 1920, the Mexican population of Los Angeles was on the rise

like never before (the Los Angeles Times even toyed with printing a

Spanish-language edition of the paper), and Spanish-language arts had

been thriving in the city since 1910, from Spanish-language theaters

to an ever-growing local Mexican music scene anchored by acts like

Las Hermanas Padilla and Los Madrugadores. Yet as historian Kenneth

H. Marcus noted in Musical Metropolis, his 2004 study of early Los

Angeles music culture, “the progressive spirit that drove many of the

Bowl’s founders rarely allowed the participation of Latinos.” There were

notable exceptions, of course: Mexican folk songs were included in a

FROM SOUTH OF THE BORDER TO WHITTIER BOULEVARD:

By Josh Kun


40

    


PERFORMANCES

 

MAGAZINE



1924 “Spanish Program,” a Latin American ballet troupe appeared in

1926, and Mexican classical composer Carlos Chávez made his first of

many Bowl appearances as early as 1937. “The fact that the residents

of this State are the immediate neighbors of Mexico, and understand

the country,” the program for Chávez’ debut insisted, “goes to assure

Chávez of establishing for himself a permanent place in the hearts of his

audience tonight.” It was only after Latin American Fiesta six years later

that the popular music of both Latin America and U.S. Latinos would

start to establish its own permanent place on the Bowl stage.

In 1945, the Bowl launched Pan-American Night, a high-meets-low,

Hollywood-goes-folkloric mash up that fed directly off the rising

popularity of “Latin” themes in U.S. pop culture and was split between

classical pieces led by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, a grab bag of folk

songs from across the Americas, and a finale featuring Corinna Mura

singing the music of leading Mexican pop songwriter María Grever.

Mura was no stranger to L.A. audiences. She had already sung at the

bar of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca and was about to appear on screen in

both The Gay Señorita (Columbia’s “Hippy, Heppy Latin Love Show” set in

Mexican California) and on Broadway in Mexican Hayride (Cole Porter’s

musical comedy about a female Mexican bullfighter). Grever was also a

friend of the mid-century U.S. pop songbook, perhaps best known for

“Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” becoming “What a Difference a Day Makes”

and “Te Quiero Dijiste” ending up as an Esther Williams hit, “Magic Is the

Moonlight.”

By 1959, the Bowl began to look beyond Hollywood musicals as its

source for all things Latin pop and started to dig deeper into Latin

American popular music traditions with a concert that paired the

acclaimed Chilean crooner Lucho Gatica with Mexican ranchera

diva Lola Beltrán. The night’s hosts included Mexican actor Ricardo

Montalban and Nat King Cole, who just a year earlier had released Cole 



Español, his now iconic tribute to the music of Latin America.

But it was in the 1960s, with two installments of the Bowl Goes Latin! 

concert, that the Bowl lived up to its boast that “The Bowl goes Latin all

the way.” The 1966 concert made plenty of solid, if predictable, choices –

Cuban bandleader René Touzet, Mexican mariachi legend Nati Cano, the

return of Xavier Cugat – but also mixed the bill up by adding the Boyle

Heights-born pop singer Andy Russell (who sang both “Frenesi” and “In My

Wax Museum”), pioneering Tijuana rock band The Moonlights, Mexican

ranchera star Lucha Villa, and beloved Cuban singer Miguelito Valdez.

Its sequel a year later continued to splice genre and culture by

featuring Mariachi Los Camperos doing “Spanish Flea” (a Herb Alpert

and the Tijuana Brass tune that was already a fixture on The Dating 



Game), plumed Brazilian strummers Los Indios Tabajáras playing both

Chopin and Tommy Dorsey, and the octave-hopping Incan princess Yma

Sumac doing the “Magic Flute Mambo.”

Perhaps most importantly, though, 1967’s Bowl Goes Latin!  also

featured East L.A.’s own Chicano rock pioneers Thee Midniters,

performing what

the Bowl program

described only as

“Songs of Love, Rhythm,

and Psychedelia.”

Their set undoubtedly

included their fuzzed-

out cruising stomper,

“Whittier Boulevard,” an

anthem for a Mexican-

American musical

world that had for too

long been kept at the

Bowl’s margins. Cugat

may have led the Bowl

on a Latin American

expedition in 1943, but it was in 1967, right on the brink of the Chicano

civil rights movement, that the Bowl decided it was time to listen even

closer to home. It was time to point its ears east of Bolton Canyon to the

Latin America that, from the very start, had always been making music

within the heart of Los Angeles.



Josh Kun is a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication 

& Journalism at the University of Southern California and the author 

of Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America and co-author of And You

Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the

Records We’ve Loved and Lost.

MUSEUM 


continued

Lucho Gatica (right) with Nat King Cole receiving the JCI

Inter-American Goodwill Award at the Hollywood Bowl, 1959.

Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection





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