The Latin American Wrecking Crew: A Conversation with Josh Kun

By Gustavo TurnerSeptember 18, 2018

The Latin American Wrecking Crew: A Conversation with Josh Kun
I MET JOSH KUN in 2010, when the exhibit he had co-curated with Roger Burnett, Jews on Vinyl, opened at the Skirball Center. Kun is one of the preeminent cultural historians of Los Angeles, a deeply curious explorer of the pathways and palimpsests of our great universe of a city. He is a professor at USC, a MacArthur fellow, and the recipient of several awards, including the 2006 American Book Award and this year’s Berlin Prize. We were supposed to speak about his recent work on the inescapable Latin influence — led by a Los Angeles–based “wrecking crew” of Latin American musicians — on American music, but any conversation with Kun turns wide-ranging and we ended up talking about the changing landscape of collecting and archiving cultural artifacts in the age of constant content.

Playlists: Uno, Dos


GUSTAVO TURNER: The book you have edited, The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles, doubles as a treasure trove of information. I was only part of the way through your wide-ranging introduction and I had already built a long Spotify playlist of rare Latin-inflected jazz recorded in Los Angeles, including The Lighthouse All-Stars’ “Viva Zapata,” Cal Tjader’s “Manuel’s Mambo,” and René Touzet’s “El Loco Cha Cha Cha,” which you reveal as the original source for the “Louie, Louie” riff! How do you know when to stop gathering material for such a vast project?

Playlist: The Tide Is High: Los Angeles Jazz

JOSH KUN: Actually, there hasn’t been as much research on the Latin American imprint in Los Angeles music as one might guess and assume, so a lot of the research that we did, building up to the writing and the editing of the The Tide Was Always High, was figuring out exactly what music we should be thinking about. And a lot of that was just collecting records, and doing digs, following trails and clues — a friend would mention an artist or session, and that would lead me to say, “I never heard that record!” And then I’d have to get it — looking on eBay, going to record shops, and that kind of thing.

The fun part …

The fun part! It’s my core methodology. And inevitably, once you finish the book, all these other records are found, and some you ordered are delivered late and so they didn’t make it. You always find new things that might change the stories or add to the stories in some way. [He pulls a copy of Henry Mancini’s Symphonic Soul (1975).] For example, this is one that I was turned onto late, and it’s not in the book but it’s a really great one — Symphonic Soul, by Henry Mancini.

Not the first name one associates with Latin American music.

It’s technically like a kind of pop strings/R&B record as the title suggests, but he’s got all these little Latin traces throughout, like [Brazilian pianist] Mayuto Correa is on there [credited with “Latin American Rhythm”], and Abraham Laboriel [Sr.], the great bass player from Mexico City, whom we interview in the book, plays on this record and it’s a really great example of how these different worlds mix.

All these guys on Mancini’s Symphonic Soul — even the non-Latinos, like [vibraphonist and percussionist] Emil Richards, [keyboardist] Joe Sample, and [drummer] Harvey Mason — these guys were major players in the L.A. funk and jazz world that all played with each other and all were well versed in Latin American rhythms and Latin American songbooks. That was one of the great pleasures and joys of doing this project, is seeing how these different worlds connected. Henry Mancini, who relied on so much of Latin music in his film scores and soundtracks, working with Laboriel and Sample — that is pretty heavy, these are heavy, heavy cats. To have those worlds converge and connect became one of the sub-themes of the book: realizing how intertwined Hollywood studio recording sessions were with the actual club music scenes of jazz and funk, and beyond, in Los Angeles.

Many articles, books, and documentaries have been devoted to “the Wrecking Crew,” the celebrated group of Los Angeles studio musicians that show up in innumerable rock, pop, jazz and funk sessions from the Beach Boys to Elvis to Sinatra to Michael Jackson, but not a lot has been explored about this “parallel Wrecking Crew” which you could (and in many cases still can) call on when you wanted a Latin-inflected sound.

That’s precisely what we tried to address with this book. We have interviews with the top living Latin American session players in L.A. We managed to track down the majority of them. [Radio journalist] Betto Arcos and I did those interviews, and he was really helpful in identifying some of those great L.A.-based players. So we have Abraham Laboriel in there, [Brazilian percussionist] Paulinho da Costa, [Colombian reedman] Justo Almario, [Peruvian drummer] Alex Acuña, [Cuban percussionist] Luis Conte, [Brazilian percussionist] Airto Moreira, and [Mexican-American percussionist] Ramon Yslas. They’re all, save for Yslas, roughly the same generation, and together they played on thousands of recordings in the United States alone. And not just in “Latin” projects, but for major commercial artists like Joni Mitchell, or Madonna, or, in Paulinho’s case, playing on monumental Michael Jackson sellers like Off the Wall and Thriller.

The Latin American Wrecking Crew!

These guys absolutely were the Latin American Wrecking Crew, but interestingly, though they were often brought in to play “Latin music,” for the most part they were playing on everything, because these guys can play everything.

Doing interviews with them was so fantastic — hearing their stories like Justo Almario coming straight from Colombia, to New York, to L.A., and then playing with the Commodores. We wanted to make sure that these stories were out there and how that changes the official record, the history of what we think of as L.A. music. When we were researching the book, we started thinking about the role of Latin American musicians and Latin American music in Los Angeles as a kind of open secret with musicians. Everybody in the session music world knows this fact, that Latin American music is central. And yet, it still feels highly marginalized in the way we talk about music in Los Angeles, and for that matter, the way we talk about “American music” throughout the United States.

Several of the musicians that The Tide Was Always High recovers for Los Angeles musical history are Brazilian. The book includes a great essay by Walter Aaron Clark (“Doing the Samba on Sunset Boulevard,” on Carmen Miranda and the Hollywoodization of Latin sounds) and also a thoroughly original piece by Brian Cross presented as “a speculative history of Brazilian Music into Los Angeles.” Brazil is always a special case when talking about cultural influence: it’s its own thing, but also a central part of the Latin American puzzle.

It’s the Texas of South America.

Absolutely. And, as the really important Ruy Castro books on the development of bossa nova (Chega de Saudade [1990, translated as Bossa Nova] and A Onda que se Ergueu no Mar [2001]) make clear, the relationship between Brazilian music and American jazz has always been a very complex two-way conversation. In Los Angeles, the (barely) unofficial Brazilian ambassador of music has been Sérgio Mendes, who arrived in 1964 for the famous Carnegie Hall bossa nova showcase, headed to Los Angeles and never left or stopped being at the center of the Brazilian musician colony here. Whenever I talk to Brazilian and other Latin musicians, they all say that the first thing they do when they get to Los Angeles is go pay their respects to Sérgio Mendes. He is like the Godfather, or the Pope.

That comes up in literally every interview with Brazilian musicians in the book. They all say that for the most part they came here because of him. Sérgio was an active recruiter and advocate, he opened up this space. After the records he made with A&M Records, he was the guy and everybody talks about him as a power player and as someone who cleared some space for Brazilian musicians to come to Los Angeles and work with him, or work with projects, and that’s when a lot of that kind of cross-bleeding happens of Sérgio Mendes connecting with Quincy Jones and then Quincy Jones becomes somebody who falls in love with bossa and Brazilian music and that’s the Michael Jackson connection. In Brian’s essay, he writes about the relationship between Quincy Jones as producer of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones as having already done Brazilian records decades before.

And of course, because of Austin Powers (1997), one of Quincy Jones’s biggest hits under his own name ended up being his “Soul Bossa Nova” (1962)!

That “Hollywoodization” of Latin sounds is actually important and something that Brian touches on. It happened to samba before bossa nova. In Brazil, samba is heavily African music, Afro-Brazilian. When it gets exported and enters Hollywood, in part through Carmen Miranda, its “Africanness” is kind of always there, but it’s also not there. Carmen Miranda becomes a de-Africanized version of a woman from Bahia. The world of blackness in the export of this music is a very important topic. When it enters the mainstream of Hollywood, Black Brazil it’s not so present. It’s sonically present but not visually present.

This “whitening” also happened with Mexican brownness in the case of songwriter Agustín Lara and 1930s “Mexican” (euphemistically called “Spanish”) exoticism in architecture and design, as LACMA’s recent Found in Translation shows. Also true about Caribbean music after Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz …

It’s what typically happens in the United States. It’s everywhere. And especially in the Americas, it’s rare when an Afro-Latino or Afro-Latina rises to the top financially, successfully in pop music.

Celia Cruz would be the exception.

Yes, she’s the exception. But for the rest, there’s always a kind of de-Africanizing that has to happen. I think of Shakira as a great example. She comes from a city with a prominent African musical community, Barranquilla, and yet there’s a kind of, and I don’t say this as a critique of her individually, but there is a whitening that has historically happened in the industry, particularly in the Americas. A kind of browning — or “beigeing” to use the old term.

There’s a chapter in the book about Latin American dance and its relationship to music in L.A. by Cindy García. Juliet McMains wrote a recent book about salsa in in the United States, and there’s a great chapter on Los Angeles about how salsa dance in L.A. was heavily influenced not by Afro-Caribbeans or Afro-Latinos, but instead was heavily influenced by the way people danced in Hollywood productions. Los Angeles’s version of salsa was so distinct from the East Coast because people were modeling their moves after Hollywood.

It’s the same thing that happens with jazz and R&B turning into big-band and swing. Tango is also one of the most egregious examples, where in Hollywood it becomes this weirdly stylized Valentino thing that is not even remotely close to the complex tango styles in Buenos Aires.

But then the question becomes how do you write about all this or talk about all this without clinging to an authenticity narrative or clinging to a purity narrative, which I did not want to do. I didn’t want to say that “this is bad and this is good” because, especially in a place like Los Angeles, it all gets thrown together, and it becomes a constant negotiation of high and low, and “authentic” Latin American music versus completely “Hollywoodized” versions of Latin America through Disney and lots of other channels. While it’s important to track those obviously, and provide critical histories of those, I think we were careful to not demonize in one direction and praise in another, but actually figure out how do we deal with the middle ground, which is kind of the norm here.

Going back to Sérgio Mendes, he would be a great example of that. He has been one of the most commercial successful Latin musicians here for decades, but his music is deeply uncool for many “hip” listeners.

Sérgio is a great example. Those early Brazil ’66 records were brilliant in terms of genre splicing and him learning the market. Sérgio covered “For What It’s Worth,” the Buffalo Springfield song about the Sunset Strip riots in 1966. It’s a really beautiful, kind of awesome, slow funk song. How perfect is that? It’s him saying, “Come on — I’m an L.A. artist, so I can do a Brazilian funk version of the Buffalo Springfield song about white kids rioting on the Sunset Strip and that’s my purview, and that can be part of my songbook and I can cash in on it, but also make something new.” And I love his songbook!

Speaking of songbooks, you also rescue the figure of Trini Lopez. One could argue that the unstoppable rise of the DJ killed that type of entertainment in Los Angeles — the super-professional live bands of session players that could play all the big hits in their own style. Los Angeles in the 1960s had frontmen like Trini Lopez, Johnny Rivers, José Feliciano, who specialized in what today we would call “covers.”

Trini Lopez was, as he was often called, a human jukebox. At PJ’s, he would churn out all the hits of the day and do his own Latin spin on them. That’s something that I really like. I have a soft spot for that modality.

Before we move over from Brazil, we have to talk about Carmen Miranda. In a sense, the Carmen Miranda project of Americanizing (or Hollywoodizing) Brazilian music in the 1940s is a good example of an L.A. modernist project.

I completely agree.

In the Busby Berkeley sense.

Absolutely! Hollywood’s role in that is big. We did a tribute to Latin American composers in Hollywood as part of this project at the Getty where we put together a big band and we did songs by Esquivel, Agustín Lara, María Grever, Lalo Schifrin, and Ary Barroso. Part of that show was a claim about modernism, making the claim that these are modernist strategies that are not ever talked about as such, or rarely.

An image that I always think about is the iconic photographs of the Koenig Case Study Houses, and all these iconic Julius Shulman shots of midcentury Los Angeles with upper-middle-class or upper-class white couples in their perfect midcentury outfits, and the Eames chairs, and all the right furniture, and they always have a hi-fi. And nine times out 10, what’s on that hi-fi? It’s always Pérez Prado records or Esquivel records! There’s a soundtrack to midcentury modern and it’s often Latin American–influenced, but it’s been left out, I think, of the narrative of what counts as L.A. modernism. The Tide Was Always High makes the argument that Latinos and Latin American culture are a kind of “ghost in the machine” of L.A. modernism. It is always there haunting it, but it’s rarely talked about with the centrality that it deserves.

It’s like a musical counterpart to the “Mayan” influence in modernist architecture in Los Angeles.

This has been a big part of the work of Jesse Lerner, a curator, writer, and filmmaker who did a series on Latin American experimental film for Pacific Standard Time, called Ism Ism Ism / Ismo Ismo Ismo. And he co-curated the exhibit about Disney in Latin America with Rubén Ortíz Torres. Jesse is an amazing thinker and he wrote a great book called The Maya of Modernism, and it’s all about the role of the “Maya” in the modernist imagination, from the Ennis House to the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, which is actually Mayan-inspired design but it’s called “Aztec.”

With a soundtrack by Yma Sumac!

We had an essay about Peruvian, Incan singer Yma Sumac in the book and we did a concert paying tribute to her at the Hammer. The singers had to figure out how they were going to do this, and often they would ask for lyric sheets, of which there aren’t any. One of the singers emailed, “Can you send me the original quechua lyrics?” And I said, “I don’t think they’re in quechua.” And she started thinking — and she’s from Mexico City — and she said, “I think they are.” So we started poking around, and according to the only book that’s been written about Yma Sumac they are wordless. It’s not quechua. And she said, “Oh yeah, but everything is wrong in that book and he makes claims that she’s singing this and she’s not singing that.”

Was it quechua?

It went back and forth and we ended up with: “It’s not quechua, but it could be quechua, but it could not be, and it’s wordless and it isn’t”! And that was part of what was happening, that there was this open play with exporting manufactured authenticity, and creating this commodified image in the case of “Yma Sumac,” of the Incan Princess who ends up at the Hollywood Bowl or Capitol Records and people are buying her records because she’s supposedly singing in quechua, when in fact, she might just be making words up.

But it doesn’t at all detract from the extraordinary arrangements and the extraordinary talent of her as a singer and performer, so it was really interesting and instructive to watch contemporary artists grapple with that and figure out how they perform themselves in relationship to that.

I wanted to bring up the issue of Latin musical communities in Los Angeles and gentrification. For example, the Boyle Heights community.

I don’t live in Boyle Heights and I cant speak for anyone in Boyle Heights and so I leave those debates to the folks who are rooted in their community and are doing what they believe is the important work for the sustainability of their community and the sustainability of their histories. And I support that 100 percent.

The Boyle Heights of late 20th and early 21st centuries is not the Boyle Heights of the 1950s and ’60s, and it’s important to not confuse those, they are different histories. The Boyle Heights that produced so much of the R&B and early Chicano Boogie Woogie, the Pachuco boogie music of the ’50s, was very different from the Boyle Heights that emerges post-1980s, where Boyle Heights goes from being one of the most multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual immigrant neighborhoods in the country to being one of the least, to become predominantly a Mexican neighborhood. Those are different histories, and I think that we have to approach them very differently and I always try to resist a little bit this, “Oh, it used to be an immigrant neighborhood, and it used to always welcome immigrants.” Well, that’s true, but it’s a different political and cultural climate right now.

Although gentrification and redevelopment are constants in Los Angeles.

These are real issues. I always remind my students that people are fighting because they feel that something’s at stake and there’s a real visceral fear that something is being taken away, and we have too much history in Los Angeles where we’ve seen communities be displaced. We’ve seen people being bulldozed, literally, by corporate, city, commercial entertainment developments, and I don’t think we can quickly turn a blind eye to it. So I think it’s really important.

I did a big project from the Phillips Recording Company a few years ago, where we were looking at the history of this very important record shop and music store that was in Boyle Heights from the 1930s to the 1980s. Latino, African American, Japanese American — it’s really this idealized, archetypal example of that story. Even in doing that project, I started worrying about what that nostalgia was about. Why was I and why were so many of the people that I knew so invested in that earlier Boyle Heights story and less invested in the contemporary Boyle Heights story? Where are all the histories of what’s been happening since the ’80s in Boyle Heights? And that’s been told largely through Chicano historians, it’s been largely told by Chicano activists and Chicano musicians. The rise of son jarocho from Boyle Heights as a community force, the rise of Chicano alternative music or rock in español — those histories are being written right now and I think that’s really important and I’m looking forward to 10 years from now what views we have backward to this moment.

It’s really easy to talk about — especially for a white secular Jewish guy — to cling to these old stories and I want to call myself out, I wanna check myself and others on it, to say, “What are we not talking about if we keep talking about the 1950s?” I’m talking about the continual inequalities of Latino life in Los Angeles, the continual transformation of the public spaces of Los Angeles, the ongoing patterns of redevelopment.

I also wanted to bring up the role of thrift stores and record collecting in the survival of a lot of this culture.

Physical thrift stores or digital ones like eBay?

Both, I guess.

These days I’m usually pretty target-driven. My first step: EBay. Set up an eBay search. Second step: Set up a Google News alert. And then start looking for the specific thing you’re looking for. Because pre-eBay I would spend a lot of time traveling, a lot of time driving, even flying to thrift stores in neighborhoods where things might be located and it would always be a crapshoot, you know? You might find something you’re looking for and you’d find a lot of things you were not looking for which might not be useful for the project. I find that online searches can be good at helping you target things. Most of the things I’m interested in are not in official archives, in formal archives, and so it’s hard to find them, but eBay can be very, very helpful.

Don’t you worry about the future of these artifacts you write about?

I do. But that’s another difficult question. Institutionalizing it could take on all kinds of different shapes. We’re just starting at USC to think more about this in terms of Southern California collections. Everyone is getting rid of their records. After I did the Jewish album cover book, that was almost 10 years ago, and to this day I get at least a few emails a year from somebody saying, “I live in blah blah blah and my uncle just died, or my father died and I got a box of Yiddish 78s and I don’t know if I should throw them in the trash or, you know, can I send them to you?” I don’t want them all, though! Part of me always wants to say, “Yeah! Send them to me,” because I do want them all. I want it all in theory, but I don’t want it all in dust and boxes and there’s so much stuff.

And you can’t preserve it all?

We can’t. And so the question becomes: “What do you preserve? And why?” That’s why I think the role of the curator and the role of the archivist, is really tricky.

Music Man Murray, who had a record shop, when he was dying, everyone was trying to figure out what to do with his collection and who would buy it. And I was trying to convince USC to buy it. And we worked really hard to figure out investors, and things, and it became this big question of like, “Well, its 400,000 objects. Where are we going to put that?” To buy that is actually the cheap part. The expensive part is long-term storage, digitization, ongoing preservation. It’s super expensive. And then what? We have four warehouses full of 400,000 things. Who’s going to staff it? Would people visit it? Who’s going to index it and do the metadata? These are really important questions.

It’s much harder than the Library of Congress picking 25 films a year to preserve.

It is. But I understand why and I am very sympathetic to that method. My sheet music project with the L.A. Public Library involved working on an archive of 100,000 pieces of sheet music and songbooks and figuring out which 200 of them are the ones that should be in a book and be our primary storytelling devices.

Don’t you feel you’re killing part of history when you choose something over something else?

Oh, I know I am. That’s why in all my projects I am careful to say, “This is not an official version, this is my version, in this book, in this project.” And if you, Gustavo, went and did this, it would be, and should be, a totally different book.

I had to become very comfortable with the inherent failure of all my archivist projects. Even this new book, there’re so many things that aren’t in there and there’re so many different ways of telling this exact same story, it can keep you up at night. It does keep me up at night.

But it really can make you crazy if you worry about it all the time, and then you never write the book.


Gustavo Turner is a writer and photographer in Los Angeles. Instagram: @gustavoturner and Twitter: @eyecantina.

LARB Contributor

Gustavo Turner is a writer and photographer in Los Angeles. Instagram: @gustavoturner and Twitter: @eyecantina.


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