College of Arts & Sciences

College of Arts & Sciences

American Sabor: An Exhibit with Latin Flavor

Visit American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, the current exhibit at the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, and you may never listen to the song “Louie, Louie” quite the same way again.

Written by Richard Berry in 1955 and popularized by The Kingsmen, “Louie, Louie” made headlines in Washington state when it was nominated for state song in 1985. Despite the coverage, few people are aware of the song’s strong Latin influences.
The same is true for hundreds of other popular tunes, from R&B hits by Marvin Gaye to country songs by Shania Twain. Visitors to American Sabor learn about Latino’s long-overlooked contributions to American popular music through displays, videos, and sound modules.

  Mike Etnier kneels at the edge of a pit being excavated.

The three guest curators of American Sabor are (from left) Michelle Habell-Pallán, Shannon Dudley, and Marisol Berríos-Miranda. Behind them in a similar pose are Latino performers Celia Cruz, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan. Photo by Kathy Sauber.

American Sabor—‘sabor’ means taste or flavor in Spanish—was guest-curated by three UW faculty: Michelle Habell-Pallán, associate professor of women studies (formerly with American ethnic studies); Shannon Dudley, associate professor of music; and Marisol Berríos-Miranda, who has taught in ethnomusicology, music education, and Latin American studies. School of Music graduate students Rob Carroll, Francisco Orozco, and Amanda Soto assisted with the project.

“In the United States, what is ‘American’ in music has often been defined by, or described as, interaction between blacks and whites,” says Dudley. “The Latino contribution gets left out of that story. But Latinos are an important part of that history too. The exhibit covers music that most Americans think of as ‘Latino,’ including salsa, which first developed in New York, or conjunto music from Texas. But we also wanted to show how Latinos have contributed to musical styles that we think of as quintessentially American, including jazz, rock, hip hop, punk, and country music.”

Take the example of “Louie, Louie.” The song was written by a black composer and popularized by a white band. But when the song is played side by side with an earlier cha cha composed and recorded by Cuban band leader René Touzet, the similarities are unmistakable. It turns out that “Louie, Louie” composer Richard Berry had heard that cha cha while playing with Chicano musicians in Los Angeles.

“If people know that history, they have to think about Latinos when they hear “Louie, Louie,” says Dudley. “It’s a whole new understanding of what that sound means.”


A Bilingual, Mixed-Media Experience

Dudley, Habell-Pallán, and Berríos-Miranda began exploring the idea of an exhibit in 2004. They started by organizing a colloquium series through the Simpson Center for the Humanities that brought visiting scholars to the University to discuss Latinos in American popular music.

“We explored big questions,” says Habell-Pallán, “the biggest being ‘What is Latino?’ We Latinos come from such a diversity of voices, colors, opinions, and trajectories, so the question was how to represent that many voices.”

By the end of the colloquium series, the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum (EMP/SFM) was on board with the exhibit and agreed to let the UW team take the lead on its content. The team then spent two years immersed in research. During that time, they taught a graduate seminar on the topic, which helped sharpen their focus.

“The seminar was a chance to discuss the music, the histories, and the theoretical ideas around them,” says Dudley. Adds Habell-Pallán, “Although we shaped the content of the exhibit, it was through these conversations with the graduate students that our vision emerged and flourished.”

Kids look at an animal skeleton with a UW student.  
A poster for El Vez, “the Mexican Elvis,” playing at the Crocodile Café in Seattle in 1997. Courtesy of the Experience Music Project.  

The team structured the exhibit by focusing on five U.S. cities—New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Miami. Through those cities, several broad themes are explored, including the role of immigration and migration in shaping music; the role of youth culture in the emergence of new musical styles; and the role of popular music in articulating the “American” experiences of diverse Latinos.

Given the exhibit’s content and message, the curators felt it was important for all materials to be presented in both English and Spanish. That meant half as much space for explanatory text—a real challenge given their voluminous research. “We really struggled with how to make something brief and catchy but also true and not misleading,” says Dudley.

Their solution? Focus on the music.

A rich sampling of music is presented in 20 sound modules, available in both English and Spanish. The modules, each less than five minutes in length, juxtapose popular songs with the Latin sounds they incorporate.

“We call them ‘guided listening,’” says Berríos-Miranda, who produced many of the modules. “A narrator will say, ‘Listen to this song. You are going to hear this rhythm.’ Then we play another song and say, ‘There’s the rhythm again.’ So both the musical elements and the cultural context are explained through the sound. There is an incredible amount of music—and an incredible amount of work—in these narratives.”

Listening to the modules, EMP/SFM visitors are likely to experience many “aha!” moments. There’s the juxtaposition of a Tito Puente cha cha and Santana’s hit, “Oye Como Va,” which copies Puente’s version faithfully but for the addition of electric guitar and organ. Or the example of a Tex-Mex-style organ solo in the 1960s hit “96 Tears.” Hearing two musical examples side by side, the connection is often impossible to miss. The modules cover a range of musical genres from salsa to classic rock to punk rock to hip hop. A module produced by Michelle Habell-Pallán highlights the contributions of Latino women in American music.


Reaching Out Through Courses and Lectures

  Mike Etnier kneels at the edge of a pit being excavated.

Singer Willie Torres dances with an instructor at the Pines Hotel in NewYork’s Catskills. Jewish summer resorts were an important part of the performing circuit for Latin musicians in New York in the 1950s and ‘60s. Photo courtesy of EMP/Johan Kugelberg.

American Sabor fills 5,000 square feet of space at EMP/SFM, which is about twice
the space originally planned. The museum took down its Jimi Hendrix area to make room for the show.

Berríos-Miranda credits EMP/SFM curator Jasen Emmons with being open to the team’s vision for the show. “We were three strong-willed people who felt that this was our baby, and we were building it on years and years of research,” she says. “Jasen embraced that.” Adds Dudley, “I’ve been awed by the way Jasen has stepped aside and let us determine the content of the exhibit. With a different kind of person as head curator, we could not have done this.”

The exhibit is on view through September 7, 2008, and the UW is making the most of the collaboration during that time. UW students are leading bilingual exhibit tours, Dudley and Habell-Pallán are teaching a related winter quarter course in the School of Music, Berríos-Miranda will teach a related music education course in the spring, and the Simpson Center has chosen American Sabor as the focus of an upcoming Wednesday University lecture series. Dudley and Habell-Pallán will lead the five-class series, which begins April 2 and is open to the general public.
(Visit http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/courses_wednesday.htm for details.)

All these activities are keeping the guest curators busy, and they couldn’t be more pleased. They welcome the opportunity to introduce the exhibit’s themes—and those engaging sound modules—to a broader audience.

“We want people to get into their cars, turn on their radio, and hear “Hang on Sloopy” or “Louie Louie” or “Incense Peppermint” and say, ‘Oh, I hear the Latino instruments there. I hear the cowbell. I hear the cha cha cha,’” says Habell-Pallán. “We want their perception of American popular music to be forever altered.”

Return to Table of Contents, Winter-Spring 2008