Reflecting on the Sounds of California


ACTA - Posted on 24 June 2016

Share this

chicane youth in San Jose

Music is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world. A tool of understanding... An instrument of understanding, it prompts us to decipher a sound form of knowledge (Jaques Attali, Noise, 1977).

…sounds may alter or disappear with scarcely a comment from the most sensitive of historians (R Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, 1977).

I most recently spent some time going through the East Side Story Limited Edition CD Box Set, transferring the majority of the tracks onto to my iPhone. For those of you unfamiliar with this “classic collection,” it is a compilation of what we called back in the 1970s and 80s, oldies—not oldies but goodies, just oldies. These were the songs that were blasting from the lowriding ‘52 Bel Airs, ‘65 Chevy Impalas, or any of the immaculate motorized art cruising machines that cruised the thorough fairs of Whittier Blvd. in East LA, King and Story in San Jose, Highland Ave. in National City, the Mission in San Francisco, or around the plazita in Española, New Mexico, the “lowrider capital of the world.”

This compilation, rightfully titled as a Story, captures the essence of the history of the Chicano community found throughout the Southwest United States that continues to resonate in the barrios along with the purring lowrider cars. Though there were some Chicano and Latino artists that performed the oldies—groups like the Premiers, Thee Midniters, Sunny and the Sunliters, Ralfi Pagan, and of course Ritchie Valens—it is African American music, doo wop, soul, R&B, blues, that was recorded in 50s and 60s by groups like the Intruders, the Miracles, Brenton Wood, Etta James, Don and Juan, the Moonglows, and all Motown, to which we grew up listening. The soul, sentiment and emotions that the songs assert, reverberate in the collective memory of the Chicano communities. The arpeggiated I-VI-II-V7 harmonic progression, for example, to Rosie and the Original’s Angel Baby, effectively brings people into a harmonious engagement as they prepare to sing “It’s just like heaven being here with you...,” singing through the verses with many knowing the words and others not. Yet once the chorus comes in, all enter with the falsetto “Ooo, Ooo, I love you, Ooo Ooo I do...,” all totally crashing on the last falsetto note that Rosie Mendez Hamlin, hit with ease in the recording. The lowrider cars, the graffiti (tagging), the style of cholos and cholas, were all intertextually entwined with the sounds of the cars, the language of Caló, and the Oldies providing a sense of individual and communal identity and importantly a sense of belonging for a community that has been part of California’s hidden history for a long time.

 What's Your Name
 Written by Claude Johnson of the group Don and Juan in 1962
 This performance is by Los Hijos de José

chicano youth San jose

For many years now, scholars have been arguing the value of music and sound, utilizing music as a resource that can be read to reflect the ongoing developments of society. In the overwhelming imagination of the mainstream however, music and sound continue to relegate a comfortable positioning of commercial value and/or adornment to the landscape of our cultural environments. Always taking a back seat to what is visualized or to text, sound is seen (not heard) as lacking in meaning, or because of its ephemeral state, ambiguous at best. Sociologist Paul Gilroy in his wonderful study that complicates the history of hybrid communities, The Black Atlantic (1993), states, “Textuality becomes a means to evacuate the problem of human agency, a means to specify the death (by fragmentation) of the subject and, in the same maneuver, to enthrone the literary critic as mistress or master of the domain of creative human communication.” Gilroy suggests that attention be paid to the sounds and presentation of music as another resource of knowledge. In the song Angel Baby, the sound of “Ooos” provide just as much meaning and probably more sentiment than any of the lyrics in the song, as does a percussion groove set in an Afro-Colombian cumbia, indexing a historical development of expression from communities of the coastal area of Colombia.

Here at ACTA, we have come to realize that folk and traditional artists and practitioners, in coincidence with the academics, yet not necessarily with the same results, find deep meaning in the soundscapes and musical expressions to which their cultural practices live. We are invested to make evident how music, songs, sounds, and soundscapes of specific communities are read as indicators, understanding when they may be invitations for communal engagement or warnings to keep to oneself (not all sounds are positive indicators i.e.,. “the ghetto bird,” or rather, the police helicopter). By focusing on sound, our goal is to offer a resource of information that may provide an alternative understanding or a counter narrative about neighborhood or community that is oftentimes envisioned as problematic, illicit, or even dangerous. We believe that sound has the potential to exhibit how universally similar we are across communities yet provide nuanced particularities that make our state culturally rich and diverse.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.