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[Blog] “Music as Urbanism” at the Armory Center: Rural Music, Christopher Dorner Corridos, + L.A. Songlines

Photos from Colombia by B+ / Mochilla.com

Photos from Colombia by B+ from the series “Cali to Barranquilla” / Mochilla.com

The main gallery at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts features a photography exhibition by Connie Samaras called “Tales of Tomorrow” — images of cities, towns, and landscapes that depict Samaras’s musings on “the future imaginary.”

It was an apt backdrop for a panel discussion on “Music as Urbanism” March 6, part of the “Big City Forum” series that intends to “recognize transformative moments within the built environment and social space.”

The speaker lineup included Brian Cross (a.k.a. B+) of Ireland, a photo journalist, filmmaker, and the founder of MochillaEamon Ore-Giron, an artist and DJ whose collaborated on “Migrant Dubs” for LACMA’s “Art After the Chicano Movement,” and Josh Kun, a USC professor of communication and journalism whose books range from Audiotopia to Tijuana Dreaming. Susannah Tantemsapya, founder of social documentary film organization Creative Migration, moderated. Artists, architects, museum curators, educators, journalists and musicians (including the awesome Subsuelo crew!) comprised the audience.

The freewheeling discussion took us from the American southwest to Cali, Colombia, and home to Los Angeles. We heard (literally) about Peruvian processionals, Colombia’s “música pacífica,” and Mexican migrant music. And we contemplated the sonic landscapes of both our cities and our minds.

Here are a few ideas that buzzed most loudly in my head.

photos from Colombia by B+ / mochilla.com

photos from Colombia by B+ from the series “Cali to Barranquilla” / mochilla.com


Kun said he was intrigued by the event’s title — not music and urbanism, but “music as urbanism.” He decided to consider it’s literal meaning, saying: “Music is not separate from space; it is the experience of understanding space…It is not just the soundtrack to L.A.; it is L.A.”  The roads on a map could perhaps be better seen as “songlines.”

An artistic map of Boyle Heights covers the wall at Soto Station. / D. Solomon

A stylized map of Boyle Heights dotted with bird silohuettes covers the wall at the Soto Metro station in Boyle Heights. / D. Solomon


We should “think of urbanism as simultaneous with ruralism,” said Ore-Giron. He played videos of Peruvian chonguinada festivals, and observed that many indigenous groups had transplanted their rituals and celebration to southwestern U.S. cities, intact. “Indigenism that got stuck in a time capsule,” in his words. Ore-Giron pointed out that people carry the memory of their homeland in their songs, no matter where they are sung. In one case, a guitarist’s whole “identity was based in a chord.” Josh Kun pointed out that Mexican migrant music (often deriving from rural lifestyles) has permeated L.A. Olvera St., a tourist attraction as well as hotspot for Latino cultural events, installed a towering statue of regional singer Antonio Aguilar just last fall.

Antonio Aguilar statue at Olvera St. / Blogdowntown

Where is Here?

Our sense of space can be thought of as aquí (here), allí (there), and allá (way out there), said Kun. But which one defines L.A.? Increasingly, allá is aquí, and all the boundaries are blurred. A Dodgers cap with the “L.A.” logo adjusted to read “allá” offers the perfect visual example.

Dodgers hat with classic “L.A.” logo / shop.mlb.com

Digital Effect

Thanks to digital technology, we can record music and share it online in a few simple steps. We can also access sounds from around the world. As a result, L.A. music ranges from global to hyper local. Recently, it veered towards the local and the immediate. Within hours of policeman-turned-maniac Christopher Dorner’s death, corridos narrating his life and final hours were posted to YouTube, Kun noted. (For example, “El Corrido de Christopher Dorner,” “Manifesto de Muerte,” and below, another “El Corrido de Christopher Dorner.”) Now that’s an angle the mainstream media missed.

L.A., Land of Sunshine

In past decades, L.A.’s music celebrated the city’s promise. It exuded optimism, the hope for a utopian future. Think “California Dreaming.”  Even Wattstax, the Woodstock-esque 1972 jazz festival in Watts that commemorated the city’s 1965 riots. The panelists questioned whether a sense of optimism still united the sounds and songs of L.A. Josh Kun highlighted a couple of items for consideration. The music of Los Jornaleros del Norte, The Day Laborers of the North, is affiliated with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. (Click to read my paper about the band and their protest of SB 1070.) Its songs trace the vicissitudes of day laborer life, expressing hope for the future without glossing over reality. And local band La Santa Cecilia just debuted a song called “El Hielo.” The title means “ice'” but also refers to ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For sure, music that contemplates labor, politics, and immigration shapes our sense of L.A.’s urban identity.

Musical Overload

After the talk, one of the Subsuelo DJs and masterminds, Canyon Cody, said he felt overwhelmed by L.A.’s bounty of exciting music. What if he missed something truly amazing and unique? I agreed, and added my own preoccupation: That we’re not doing enough to spread the word. In 2010, I wrote an LA Times article about an upcoming Los Tigres del Norte concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It would be historic – the first time a regional Mexican group would grace the stage of this stunning, world-renowned venue. I hoped it would draw a multi-ethnic, cross-cultural crowd. Maybe even my newspaper’s most WASPy readers. Yet the audience was almost purely Latino, and the scene could have taken place in any stadium or field in Mexico. Ticket subscribers in the first two rows left a quarter of the way through.

It made me wonder whether music, while a powerful source of unity, can also create divisions as blatant as the freeways. In L.A., that’s no small worry.

Los Tigres del Norte wow the audience at Disney Hall

Los Tigres del Norte at Disney Hall / D. Solomon


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