Monday, November 13, 2017

Chicano Soul ~ Blog Tour, Excerpt, & Review!

Recordings and History of an American Culture
(Anniversary Edition)
Ruben Molina
  Genre: Music / Chicano History
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
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Date of Publication: September 15, 2017
Number of Pages: 160

In 2007, Ruben Molina published the first-ever history of Mexican-American soul and R&B music in his book, Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture. Ten years later, Chicano Soul remains an important and oft-referenced study of this vital but often overlooked chapter of the greater American musical experience. Chicano soul music of the 1950s and 1960s still reverberates today, both within Chicano communities and throughout many musical genres. Molina tells the story of the roots of Chicano soul, its evolution, and its enduring cultural influence.
"Brown-eyed soul" music draws on 1950s era jazz, blues, jump blues, rock `n' roll, Latin jazz, and traditional Mexican music such as ranchera, norteño, and conjunto music. With its rare and gorgeous photos, record scans, concert bills, and impressive discography (to say nothing of its rich oral histories/interviews), it is one of those rare works that speaks to both general and academic audiences.

As a teen in the 1960s, Ruben Molina used to take a bus to Hollywood to shop for records, and his passion for vinyl never waned. As a dedicated community historian, Molina interviewed dozens of the artists whose music he loves. Much of Chicano soul music's recent recognition and renaissance can be traced directly to Molina. He has deejayed with the Southern Soul Spinners crew since 2010.

“[Chicano Soul} is nada if not revelatory… Molina seeks acknowledgement of this under-the-radar genre. With this book, he’ll get it. By linking the trail of Chicano soul bands to the route of the Mexican-American migrant workers across the United States as well as the migration of south-of-the-border families into Texas after the Mexican Revolution, the author presents a compelling account of rock and roll heroes literally unsung. Molina makes a case for teenagers who took their parents’ musical traditions, the trappings of black R&B bands with pop sensibilities, and channeled them into a vibrant sound that helped define the culture it sprang from.” —Austin Chronicle


EXCERPT from the Foreword by Alex La Rotta, in Chicano Soul

Oldies are forever. It’s a mantra. A credo. A maxim for diehard sweet soul enthusiasts from Los Angeles to London, Toronto to Tokyo, and beyond. Ruben Molina’s The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music (2002) and Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture (2007) — its sacred texts. Not since Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues (1969) has a Book and author so distinctively revived a vintage and marginal American music culture from obscurity to widespread and cult-like revelry. What was once a niche collector’s category in the aughts and prior is a recognized subgenre in the twenty-tens: Chicano Soul. In the decade since its publication, Chicano Soul — like the long-lost recordings it so lovingly documents and historicizes — has itself become a collector’s item. Original copies highly-prized and sought after by record collectors, music aficionados, DJs, musicians, fans, and others. And, too, like much of the music in question: finally receiving its due reissuance. (Only this: a legitimate, not bootleg, reissuance.)
Its long-awaited return is timely. A brief review of the past ten years in popular music culture must surely include the massive reemergence of the vinyl music format (and its swift cooptation by the music industry); roots and vintage pop music revival (film/television soundtracks, documentaries, compilations, cultural histories, etc.); and the (ongoing) digital music revolution. Most notably, as it concerns the latter, one might also note the ascension of streaming media and video-sharing websites in democratizing and disseminating “rare groove” music of the analog past for broader audiences of the digital present. Further still, YouTube- and social media based soulero (sweet soul) DJs and record collector cliques build notoriety as prized possessors of rare Chicano Soul records to wide acclaim — much of which builds on Molina’s foundation. While the diffusion of music and cultural history in the past decade has broadened, the appreciation of this specific brand of soul music has expanded in tandem. You know it as the West Side Sound, the East Side Sound, Brown-Eyed Soul, Latin Soul, Lowrider Oldies, even rock en español — all components of the vast domain of mid-century Chicano Soul music culture principally documented in Molina’s work. And a book that remains today the only single monograph devoted to the subject.
            More importantly, Chicano Soul challenges the assumptions and stereotypes of what “Latin music” could or should be in both popular culture and preceding musical-historical analyses: tropical, exotic, and almost always, distinctly foreign. Unequivocally, this music is none. It is, as the subtitle denotes, an American culture. Molina’s meticulous documentation of over 400 Mexican-American musicians/rock-and-roll combos spanning the American Southwest (née Aztlán) — and their collective thousands of independent recordings — deserves recognition if just for its impressive magnitude. But it’s the paradigm shift that Chicano Soul, and other recent works from such scholars as Deborah Vargas, Roberto Avant-Mier, Anthony Macias, Josh Kun, and Deborah Pacini Hernández, among others, provides for the current discourse on racial identity, hybridity, and the origins of American popular music that warrant as much praise. In part, a response to the tired narrative surrounding America’s supposed black/white racial binary and the forging of a national culture. Yes: Chicanos made soul music. Lots of it. And it’s damn good, too.

HALL WAYS REVIEW: For better or for worse, most of the time, what draws me to read a book is its cover.  And Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture absolutely grabbed me with the bright colors and bold print.  The beauty of the book doesn’t stop with the cover; inside, the lay-out is engaging even as a digital copy, and I cannot wait to hold it in my hands and have it gussying-up my bookshelf.  Filled with fascinating facts and images of memorabilia - many from the author's own collection - it is fun and interesting to flip through the pages just to look at the photos.

"Within the area of South Texas there exists a culture caught between Mexico and the rest of America, a buffer zone if you will, with a culture all its own. The music of this region was a reflection of this uniqueness and of the inhabitants of the region, gritty, and full of life."

I am completely ignorant of music history of any kind - be it Bach or Britney. And in Chicano Soul, there are a gazillion people and band names dropped, very few recognizable to me. But isn't that, in part, author Ruben Molina's point? The Mexican-American music evolution is a huge chunk of music history that most people don't know about.  The good news is that even without knowing the names, the weight of the names and implications of their roles in music history carries readers enough to be able to understand the importance of the change points in history -- how person X heard band Y and arranged a meeting with label/DJ/manager Z really mattered.

There is so much in this book, and it felt overwhelming at times without a strict chronological timeline and without being able to clearly see the building blocks stacked in order. Structurally, the Table of Contents helps break out who is who and shows the division of Chicano Soul into early influences & pioneers, then focusing on groups regionally -- from San Antonio & around the state of Texas to California and Phoenix & Albuquerque. At the end of the book is a substantial discography which lists all the musicians and bands, their cities of origin, and mentioned releases. A chronological listing or mapping would have been a fabulous addition to really help readers see the big picture.

The overall theme of the book is to underscore the rich cultural legacy that paved the way for today's musicians. A few of my take-aways:

*many of the musicians forming these bands in the 1950s and 1960s were only twelve to fourteen years old (Freddie/Freddy Chavez [The Majestics, Thee Chekkers] only eleven!);
*the sound of the music was based on what instruments were readily available -- the newly forming Chicano bands didn't have much piano, for example, because no one had access to them;
*as victims of discrimination, the black and Mexican communities cooperated and supported each other in venues, wage payments, and audiences;
*war(s) decimated the black and Chicano music scenes;
*missing are the expected stories of wild partying and recklessness but repeatedly, the professionalism of the bands is emphasized.

Disappointingly, also mostly missing from the book is the role of women in the formation, participation, and success of the Chicano bands. Readers will notice a few females in pictures, but there are only scattered mentions of lead singers like Rosie Hamlin (Rosie and the Originals), Paula Estrada (The Latinaires), Mary Unzuetta (The Velveteens), and Ersi Arvisu (El Chicanos). There is an interesting story about Lillian Gonzales (wife of Pa-Go-Go records label owner Pato Gonzales) being responsible for the success of “96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians:  

Pato’s wife Lillian went to the radio stations and told them they were being prejudiced because we’re Chicanos, well they started playing it and it hit; she’s the one that made it hit. 

Lastly -- though it is really of utmost importance to me – I am extremely disappointed in the lack of copy editing/proofreading in this otherwise beautiful book. Literally, not a page is cleanly written, and most pages have multiple typos and errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, which really inhibits my ability to enjoy the content. Quite honestly, it is not ready for prime time. My review copy is digital and supposedly final, but I have a print copy coming. If I find that the print copy shows these problems corrected, I will update my review and rating. As it stands, Chicano Soul is a 5-star premise and presentation, with 4-star content, and 2-star delivery.

Thank you to Lone Star Book Blog Tours and the publisher for providing me a digital copy in exchange for my honest opinion – the only kind I give.

As a teen in the 1960s, Ruben Molina used to take a bus to Hollywood to shop for records, and his passion for vinyl never waned. As a dedicated community historian, Molina interviewed dozens of the artists whose music he loved. Much of Chicano soul music’s recent recognition and renaissance can be traced directly to Molina. He has deejayed with the Southern Soul Spinners crew since 2010.


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