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Visual Arts > Visual Arts

Taste this

Dancing about architecture at the Alameda

Courtesy Photo
Wall of records: A mural of Latin vinyl lines a gallery at the Alameda.


Is anything more “Latino” than “spicy,” “hot,” or simply “sabor”?  

Starting with its title, Museo Alameda’s entertaining American Sabor exhibit seems to be perpetuating the Babalú-meets-Azúcar cliché that Latin music is a party for dancers only. In case you doubt it, one of the first videos viewers encounter is called “Dance, dance, dance.” 

Don’t blame the curators: To analyze and squeeze every single representative branch of Latin popular music into 5,000 square feet is no easy task. But if you make the effort to look beyond the congas, you’ll have a pretty good idea of who is who when you’re done. (Unless, of course, you wanted to see some rockeros, but we’ll deal with that later) 

American Sabor is divided into five sections based on the musical culture and contributions of five cities — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and San Antonio — and it didn’t take long for some critics to dismiss SA’s inclusion on this illustrious list as a severe case of wishful thinking. But SA’s conjunto tradition alone is enough for our city to go toe-to-toe with anyone. 

“Texas is a musically self-sufficient state,” B.B. King told me in an interview on his tour bus during his 2005 SA visit. “You guys don’t need nobody here teaching you anything.” In musical terms, the best and edgier of SA’s accordion music stands up greatly against the best of the Miami sound crap. If you don’t think so, with all due respect, go suck an orange. 

American Sabor tells its stories through films, texts, photos, memorabilia, and interactive kiosks (the latter are entertaining, but I’d settle for less activity and more actual listening). The guitar used by Los Lobos’ César Rosas to play “Don’t Worry Baby” is included, and a violin owned by Carlos Santana’s father is displayed next to an amusing 1957 photo of a 10-year-old Carlos playing violin alongside Santana Sr.’s “mariachis” in Tijuana (even though they’re wearing tuxedos and there’s a stand-up bass in the shot). The survey of Tejano music — Laura Canales, Selena, Steve Jordan, Randy Garibay, early Sunny Ozuna, and Flaco Jiménez — is superficial (and I don’t recall much Texas Tornados), while the Chicano rock segments (Los Lobos, Los Illegals, Cruzados, the Brat, and others) stick to the strengths, similarities, and differences of the West and East LA scenes. Again, the show’s biggest weakness is that there isn’t enough aural history: an exhibit of this type screams for more songs. 

Mambo references and El Vez’s charro suit highlight the “spicy,” I guess, aspect of the music, but the meat of the exhibit is on the screens, where ’70s salsa reigns supreme: Take your time and enjoy, even though a little more volume in the “Dance, dance, dance” film wouldn’t hurt. The oral and visual history being told is top-notch. 

Not that the exhibit doesn’t have its fair share of inaccuracies and plain fuckups. 

There’s no such a thing as “Banda Rap,” as stated next to a photo of LA’s Akwid duo, but a genre called Urban Regional, which not only mixes hip-hop with banda, but with norteña and other sounds from Northern Mexico. Rubén Blades is not just a “Panamanian singer,” but a composer who — along with Willie Colón and as a solo artist — cracked open the genre and wrote the biggest salsa song ever (“Pedro Navaja”). And the only direct mention of Latin alternative music in the U.S. (the genre that falls under the horrible and much-maligned term “rock en español”) suggests that Miami (yes, Miami) and not LA is the capital of the genre “thanks to bands like [the now defunct] Bacilos, Spam All Stars, and Nuclear Valdez.” Are you kidding me? 

Thank God for Fania All Stars. Even though the exhibit leaves you with the expected dreadful feeling that “Latin music” is little more than something you shake and shuffle to, the curators devote adequate space to the golden age of New York Salsa Dura (both shoe- and ear-friendly) and in general American Sabor pumps enough adrenaline to enjoy the three-pointers and forgive the rest. 

I don’t know about you, but if there’s a place where I can stand in front of a huge mural of the Fania All Stars — with Blades, Colón, Celia, Pacheco, Cheo, and the rest of ’em smiling right at me — or where I can look at the original handwritten notes for Los Lobos’ “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” I’ll return and return for more.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music was created by Seattle’s Experience Music Project in partnership with guest curators from the University of Washington.

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