For more than a century, immigrants—particularly those from Latin America—have helped forge the cultural identity of the United States. In so doing they've spiced up America's food and thankfully, its music, too.

It's not every day that an 11-year-old boy gets blasted on Twitter. But last month, when Sebastian De La Cruz stepped into the spotlight to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the third game of the NBA Finals series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, numerous viewers took to the internet to indignantly ask why an “illegal immigrant” was singing the national anthem. Cruz handled the vitriolic tweets with the same poise he uses to sing, and was invited back for a repeat performance two days later.


Even though he's a native San Antonian, Cruz’s appearance (including full mariachi attire) stoked an underlying fear that motivates those who oppose immigration: Too many immigrants will adulterate the culture of the United States. Far from a fringe view, in a 2004 article for Foreign Policy ("The Hispanic Challenge"), the late Harvard Political Science professor Samuel P. Huntington called immigration from Latin America “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity."

What these people fail to recognize is that for more than a century, immigrants—particularly those from Latin America—have helped forge the cultural identity of the United States. And nowhere is this more apparent than in popular music, where from ragtime to hip-hop, artists have frequently looked beyond the North American continent to find American music. As John Boehner and House Republicans try to suffocate the latest attempt to reform America’s hopelessly broken immigration system, it's worth taking a look at just how deeply ingrained Latin culture is in "American" popular music.

At the dawn of the 20th century, rhythms from south of the border began showing up in the instrumental music of the North American mainland, most notably, the tresillo, a long-long-short rhythmic cell, and its logical extension, the habanera, where the tresillo is fit against an even, two-beat march.While variants of these rhythms are common to a number of African cultures and can be heard in the clapping and stomping of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, the stateside suppression of slave drumming kept the rhythms from reaching their full fruition in the United States.

The self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, called these rhythms the “Spanish Tinge”. Likely picked up by Morton from Cubans who immigrated to New Orleans after the Cuban Emancipation in 1886, the use of these rhythms became an integral element of Morton’s distinctive, pioneering style. So essential was the “Spanish Tinge” to jazz that Morton asserted that musicians who could couldn’t put tinges of Spanish in their music would “never be able to get the seasoning (for jazz) right."

It wasn’t just Morton who found inspiration in Cuban music. The “Father of the Blues”, W.C. Handy, who had spent time in Cuba during the 1900 US occupation of the island, wedged a habanera-based tango section into his “Saint Louis Blues". Ever the businessman, Handy added the tango in hopes of currying favor with Manhattan dance mavens Paul and Irene Castle who having invented the fox-trot, were now teaching sophisticated Manhattanites to tango.

One need only read the title of Frankie Valli’s “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on his Tuba” to realize these early flirtations with Latin music were fairly shallow, and full of ugly stereotypes. Still by 1923, the Victor Records catalog listed 146 Cuban recordings, making Cuban music (and by extension, music from Mexico and Central America) a growing force in American Popular culture.

In the '50s, the exotic glamour of Cuba and Mexico began drawing-in visitors from the United States, who were benefiting from a surging post-War economy. If there was one figure who epitomized Cuban music in the mid-'50s, it was Benny Moré. While born in Cuba, Moré honed his craft in the booming clubs of post-WWII Mexico, before taking his act back to Cuba and on to the United States. An electrifying performer, Moré captured the imagination of listeners throughout the Americas.


A mix of recent immigrants and adventurous natives formed the base for a strong Latin Music scene in '50s-era New York. At the same time, bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie began to view Cuban music as fertile ground for new discoveries. By the late '50s, America had Mambo fever and Cuban musicians could easily be seen and heard on American television and radio.

But Latin music in the United States wasn’t just confined to East Coast Cubans. With its close proximity to Mexico and large population of Chicanos (Mexican-Americans), Los Angeles reverberated with Latin music. In the '40s, Zoot-suit-clad Los Angeles youth had carved out a youth culture so cool it was investigated by the State Un-American Activities Committee. It wasn’t just the urban dance styles that Mexican immigrants brought to the American Southwest. Heartrending corridos, ballads, and rancheras could be heard from Oklahoma to California, inspiring country and western musicians like Marty Robbins and George Strait. More than just entertainment, Mexican folk songs had been used for centuries to record stories and provide social commentary. This spirit lives on in Los Tigres Del Norte’s “Los Hijos de Hernandez”, which tells the story of a naturalized citizen who has lost his son in service to the United States but is still by many as “an illegal".


Recently, narcocorrido (a Mexican genre dedicated to chronicling Mexico’s ongoing drug war) made an appearance in the AMC’s Breaking Bad (season 2 episode 7, "Negro y Azul")—immortalizing the deplorable acts of Walter White in song.

Latin threads were woven into rock ‘n’ roll as well, most notably the clave: a pattern of five accents spread across eight beats, demonstrated here by Mambo pioneer Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez.


In the Spanish-speaking world, clave is the heart of salsa or the beat of reggaeton, but in the United States it is the Bo Diddley beat. From the Crickets bopping behind Buddy Holly on “Not Fade Away” to the guitar riff of The White Stripes “Screwdriver”, songs featuring this rhythm are a staple of rock 'n' roll.

Latinos also played an important role in the development of hip-hop. In the '70s, the South Bronx was a war zone. Having been abandoned by city and state authorities, a collection of gangs—usually divided along racial lines—engaged in constant, armed struggle for control of the burned out blocks of the once proud neighborhood. One Puerto Rican gang, The Ghetto Brothers, also doubled as a band, serving up Latin dance music with a fiery rock ‘n’ roll edge.

In support of a peace treaty that was beginning to take-root in 1972, the Ghetto Brothers started playing block parties that were open to everyone, regardless of gang affiliation. These parties gave birth to the idea that music could serve to bind the hopelessly splintered South Bronx -- an idea seized upon by party-goer Afrika Bambaataa. The story of early hip-hop is the story of American immigrants trying to craft a new identity, and it's no coincidence that Latin records from artists like Mongo Santamaria and Incredible Bongo Band were staples of early hip-hop DJs. Recently, son of Afro-cuban percussion legend Willie Bobo, Eric Bobo and critically acclaimed artist Argentine DJ Latin Bitman formed Ritmo Machine, a group that recalls the spirit of the early days of hip-hop.


These are only a few examples of cultural contributions from Latino immigrants. It's true that cities with large Latino populations have developed their own Spanish-speaking subcultures, but this is nothing new, nor does it pose a threat to a city’s cultural identity. Like Boston’s Southie or Chicago’s Polish Downtown, these neighborhoods, and the people who inhabit them, enrich and define their cities.

Likewise, the trade, immigration, and migration between the United States and the rest of the Americas has given life to American pop culture. So the next time you hear someone crying that the United States is going to hell in a tamale wrapper because a kid in a mariachi suit sang the national anthem on TV, tell them to relax, grab an empanada from their neighborhood food truck, and enjoy this King Chango song. Because nothing is more American than a New York ska band, with Venezuelan roots, covering a song written by an Englishman who was trying to sound Jamaican.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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