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Southern California Continues to be a 'Land of a Thousand Dances,' Grooves, and Culture Mashups

Ritchie Valens via Getty Images
Latin rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, California in 1958. | Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.

"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.

Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

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Authors David Reyes and Tom Waldman trace in “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California” the early and deep presence of Chicano musicians and fans in the post-World War II popular music scene. But more than a history of participation and production, the book is a celebration of the unique music-culture milieu of the region and the various Chicano communities that helped define the sound. Reyes and Waldman argue that the marginal and racially ambivalent position of Chicanos in American society both hindered commercial success and allowed for open and even transgressive musical borrowing and hybridity. Perhaps, no artist exemplifies this tension better than iconic rocker Ritchie Valens, who was advised to drop his surname of Valenzuela for the more ambiguous Valens even as he styled his sound after black R&B and doo woop musicians. Before becoming a national star, Valens made a name for himself locally as the “Little Richard of Pacoima.” 

The book’s title song, “Land of a Thousand Dances,” also reflects the multicultural cooperation and innovation possible in Southern California. The song about young people coming together to do popular dances like the mashed potato and the watusi was originally recorded in 1962 by New Orleans R&B singer Chris Kenner. Bands from the eastside with a deep affinity for R&B like Thee Midniters, and Cannibal and the Headhunters were among the first to cover and popularize the song. Famously, Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia forgot the opening lyrics to the song and ad-libbed the opening hook: na na na na naa. The accidental but catchy hook became a staple of the song and appears on Wilson Pickett’s 1966 cover, which is the best-known version of the song. The production of the song itself speaks to the unique blend of cultures that came together around music. The Cannibal and the Headhunters cover appeared on the Rampart Records label owned by Eddie Davis, an Anglo restaurateur turned tireless promoter of the Chicano “Eastside sound.” Known by some as the “Berry Gordy of East L.A.,” Davis invested in and promoted the Eastside sound of bands like The Premiers, The Blendells, Tierra, and El Chicano.

Cannibal And The Headhunters at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, circa 1965
Cannibal and the Headhunters (Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo, Frankie Garcia aka Cannibal, Robert "Rabbit" Jaramillo and Richard "Scar" Lopez) onstage at The Shrine Auditorium circa 1965 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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The Southern California of a land of thousand dances, grooves, and cross-cultural connections is on full display at the Vincent Price Art Museum exhibit “Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943-2016.” The show further mines unique Southern California contributions to popular culture — especially by eastside communities and its Chicano/Latino heritage — and the music and sound cultures that are the lifeblood of Southern California youth culture. Curator and director of VPAM, Pilar Tompkins Rivas says the intent is to exhibit and celebrate Southern California youth culture that receives less recognition or falls outside sanitized images produced by Hollywood. 

“Youth culture from Los Angeles has been exported by Hollywood but it’s very different from what I’m portraying here — that’s ‘90210,’ ‘The Hills,’ ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’ They are saying, ‘this is L.A.,’ [and] I’m saying, ‘this is also L.A.,’” she says.

While not exclusively about music and sound, music abounds in many of the installations or provides vital subtext to the curated art. Another use of music in the exhibit comes in the way of curated playlists by local tastemakers: musicians, artists, journalists, and promoters. The playlists run the gamut from early Chicano soul, pacucho boogie, disco, 1980s female-led punk, and rock en Español. The curated playlists are as much autobiography as ethnography as they narrate personal and collective sonic landmarks. Indeed, as the exhibit transports us across eras, subcultures, and themes one constant is the importance of music or sound culture as metaphorical connective tissue of youth culture. As such, the exhibit invites us to listen as much as observe.

London Calling

One key part of the exhibit is dedicated to the transnational and transcultural connection between Chicano and English youth culture. While much ink has been spilled about Chicano’s love for all things Morrissey — which the exhibit also nods to with Shizu Saldamando’s Morrissey portrait and a video clip of tribute band Mariachi Manchester — a longer history of pop culture exchange is revealed through juxtaposing pachucas and Teddy girls, Alice Bag alongside Johnny Rotten, El Vez covering David Bowie, and motorcycle crews in both the U.K. and L.A. Music is at the heart of much of this exchange of affective and political affinities.

“Similar socio-economic conditions existed between London and Manchester, and East L.A.,” says Tompkins Rivas, as she noted the parallel rise of youth culture around War Word II. One of the original inspirations for the show was comparing the similarities of how pachucos in L.A. and Teddy boys in the U.K. mobilized around fashion, music, and argot. As rock music emerged as a central force in youth cultures it also became a bridge between L.A. and the U.K. “Rock music as a cultural vehicle was one of the main ways that the circulation of culture happened,” she adds.

Guadalupe Rosales, "Veteranas and Rucas" Instagram feed
Guadalupe Rosales, "Selections from veteranas_and_rucas instagram feed," 2016. | Image: Courtesy of the artist

Home is Where the Music is

The exhibit highlights a variety of mundane social spaces as key spaces of creativity and youth identity. Tapping into the available resources around them, youth found in vacant city lots, backyard parties, and bedroom music collections peripheral and domestic spaces to experiment with style and expression. The standout piece in this section is the mixed-media installation “This Machine Kills Fascists or Labor Sets You Free (Love is the Message)” by Juan Capistran, a small-scale model of a Southern California Spanish hacienda-style home combined with a DJ system and set up under a pop-up tent. With house music thumping and frenetic laser lights, the work pays homage to the late 1980s and 1990s practice of throwing backyard house music parties. Tompkins Rivas points out that the “hacienda” concept also connects with the famous house music club The Hacienda in Manchester, England. Several of the other works link with this piece as a nearby video monitor displays images of 1990s partygoers and party crews from the popular Instagram account “Veteranas and Rucas,” which serves as a public archive of 1990s L.A. youth culture. Another part of the exhibit runs a disapproving 1990s investigative report on the backyard party scene by Fox 11 news. The disdain in the reporter’s voice comes through loud and clear as young brown partygoers dance, fight, and scream for the cameras.

For more introverted youth (or when the party moved indoors), display cases highlight ephemera and other materials likely consumed and stored in bedrooms, such as punk posters, KRLA cassette recordings, oldies albums, magazines, and newspaper clippings.

Vincent Valdez, "Kill the Pachuco Bastard"
Vincent Valdez, "Kill the Pachuco Bastard," 2001, oil on canvas, 41 x 80 inches. Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection.

“The Delicate Dance with Authority”

A final key section of the exhibit is organized around the 1992 L.A. uprising sparked by one of the nation’s first viral videos: the Rodney King beating at the hands of the LAPD. This section also documents the longer history of interactions between police and youth of color. Historical photographs of pachucos being inspected by LAPD hang near Vincent Valdez’s barroom brawl painting “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” Tompkins Rivas describes youth of color as caught in a “delicate dance with authority” as they attempt to resist the criminalization of their bodies and art — and the convergence of the two. Music in this section functions as a soundtrack of conflict and site of possibility. N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” lyrics fill one wall across from Alex Donis’ playful illustrations on plexiglass of law enforcement officers dancing with men of color. Posed in cooperative, vulnerable, and even sensual positions homeboys and LEOs groove to an imagined beat. 

As one moves across the exhibit, listening critically or thinking musically orients the overall goal of the exhibit. Like listening to our favorite tunes in the spaces/places we grew up, the show begins in a set locale but moves us to far off places, connects us to hidden histories and opens us to connecting with strangers within and outside ourselves.

Alex Donis, "Officer Moreno and Joker"
Alex Donis, "Officer Moreno and Joker," 2001, oil and enamel on Plexiglas, 41 x 28 inches. Collection of Marc S. Arranaga.
Zoot suited teenagers jitterbugging in Los Angeles
Zoot-suited teenagers jitterbugging in Los Angeles, November 13, 1943. | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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