“One night we were performing at the Baked Potato [on the Cahuenga Pass in Studio City] with Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, Dave Grusin on piano, and Patrice Rushen,” recalls Mexican bassist Abraham Laboriel in an interview with Josh Kun, editor of The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles. “The regular percussionist was not available, so Luis Conte came and played. And then we finished playing at one in the morning and Harvey Mason kept playing with Luis for another forty-five minutes… Harvey says, ‘Man, I cannot stop playing, the music feels so good playing with Luis. I cannot stop.’ And I said to Luis, ‘Man how did you learn to do that?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m Cuban 100 percent, what I play is Cuban. But I‘m young enough to know how to adapt my playing to whatever style of music I’m called to do.’”
This excerpt from one of the book’s most compelling chapters (ch. 10, which comprises a set of interviews with legendary session musicians Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Paulinho Da Costa, Alex Acuña, Airto Moreira, Luis Conte, Ray Yslas and others) resonates with José Emilio Pacheco’s idea that poetry is a form of resistance—an existential resilience to material change and the passage of time. “Perhaps it is a type of determinism on my part because I am from Mexico City, where we have lived so many destructions,” he said in an interview in 2008. “I spent my whole life passing by the Insurgentes plaza, which they destroyed already, and I do not remember what used to be in there. Material destruction takes away everything.” “Even memory?” asked his interviewer. “Yes, memory too.”1 Luis Conte’s adaptability and indelible musical presence is an example of such (musical) resilience, which re-collected by Abraham Laboriel becomes a testimony of memory through the editorial work of Josh Kun. Like Mexico City, the history of Los Angeles is one of urban transformation parallel to the constant ethnic and cultural reconstitution of its population, historically marked by racial tensions, territorial claims, and histories of (dis)location.
In this respect, John Koegel (writer of the book’s first chapter) reminds the reader of the Latin American musical activity that once shaped the burgeoning city’s downtown district. “One can see and hear these performers… in films… from Hollywood’s Cine Hispano. One can read and perform Mexican and Mexican American music in digital sheet music collections,” preserved at UCLA and the Archive of American Popular Music, Koegel contends (italics in original). It is all a matter of recovering these past presences of the city’s history. Similarly, one can watch Ninón Sevilla and Carmen Miranda in films that made the rumbera genre famous in the 1950s and ‘60s (ch. 2, 3), and thus get a sense of the sensual utopias and racialized sexual politics that imbued the Latin American imagination at the Hollywood Palladium theater during this time. Latin American music and musicians were also big billing acts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Paramount Ballroom (though always fitting white American expectations of what “tasteful Latin Americanness” ought to be). Even the work of highly polished session musicians gave life to some of L.A.’s best known recording studios, and made memorable some of the best known music coming out of L.A. (Blondie’s version of “The Tide Is High” and Lalo Schifrin’s music from Mission: Impossible, discussed by Kun in the introduction, are two examples). In a way, material culture has survived in archival sources and in the city’s monuments and landmark buildings. Yet, no affectual trace seems perceptible—visible or even audible—as no collective attempts to re-member (re-collect, piece together) have been made. It is as if, as the book’s title suggests, the tide has always been high, historically voluminous and dense, always flowing, lifting and moving us to and fro above the sand, above the ground. Such is Kun’s concern, to give material presence to these Latin American creative forces that have shaped and transformed Los Angeles. The interest behind the volume is to uncover the musical stories that mapped the city throughout the twentieth century—to amplify the “b-sides” (as he puts it) of the recording, the racist, politically, and economically exploitative policies (ch. 4, 9) that wrought a history of urban displacement. “Latin American music” (not only in terms of styles particular to specific locations in the continent, but also pertinent to the imaginaries that white Americans have made of what Latin American music ought to sound like) is surely part of this mapping effort, not necessarily to recover lost sounds but to understand them as part of the city’s history and its aesthetic and cultural politics.
The book might appear a bit messy, disorganized, and “thin” to some scholarly minds. The volume comprises scholarly articles, small appreciative (though somewhat uncritical) vignettes about performers and their renditions of “Latin American” music (ch. 6, 7), interviews, and otherwise straightforward historical chronicles of musical activity. Such a varied array of chapters (which range from the scholarly to the merely descriptive) makes it impossible to assess the book’s value in terms of one sole writing approach and way of assessing cultural memory. It is the volume as a whole that, by virtue of its convoluted character, gives the reader a sense of the historically thick and affectually loaded Latin American cultural presence that has permeated L.A. for more than a century, an account that aims to resist forgetting through a phenomenologically rich act of recall. This book is part of an activity that Kun describes as “musical urbanism”: “There’s something about the urban form that is inherently musical. And, there’s something about the musical form that gives us a model for how cities can function: through sociality, mutual listening, collaborative work, desire, energy,” he says. Thus Kun brings music into dialogue with urban studies to trace the material marks of urban voices whose memories are steeped in conflict and that resist erasure.
In times of political turmoil, deep socio-economic shifts, and re-emergent (re-lived, re-called, and re-enacted) racial violence, Kun’s volume demands much-needed engagement from readers. And here is where the structure of the book becomes quite clear. Each isolated chapter is a snapshot that can become a potential act of listening for the reader. “Every act of listening mobilizes, connects, traffics, transforms,” Kun said at a lecture in Stanford University.2 “To listen is to excavate, to embrace, to enact,” to re-member. Therefore, the book requires a culturally and socially active readership: if sound can be the site of memory, listening, then, is an act of historical resonance with those enunciating sounds, whose presence becomes temporally extended and memorialized. Reading and Listening are too political acts.