No question about it: Documentation of the contribution Hispanics have made to the world of pop music has been scant at best.
Go to any bookstore with a well-stocked section on pop music. Look through the numerous bios of Elvis and Jimi, the collections of essays, the handful of books devoted strictly to blues or jazz. You might not see anything about Hispanic music at all. I know I don't, and I've looked.The new "Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll From Southern California" will not single-handedly correct this oversight, but it's a very good start.
The book (178 pages; University of New Mexico Press; $18.95 paperback, $50 hardcover) is a handsome, well-researched effort. It traces the development of Hispanic R&B and rock - from Mexican-Americans falling under the spell of doo-wop in the mid-'50s to the explosion of bands in the '60s to El Chicano in the '70s to Los Lobos emerging in the '80s to rapper Kid Frost releasing "La Raza" in 1990.
This is a fascinating journey, showing America's cultural cross-fertilization at its best, and how music in one particular community has been shaped by both internal and external forces.
One telling example: Back in the mid-'60s, Cannibal and the Headhunters would, we're told, work in front of a mirror for hours, imitating the choreography of Motown's Temptations. Just a few years later, their "Land of 1000 Dances" would become a national hit for R&B star Wilson Pickett.
"It was a beautiful thing," says David Reyes, who wrote the book over the past decade with Tom Waldman. Reyes grew up in the music of East Los Angeles; he went to shows at Los Angeles clubs and union halls and, as a saxophonist, began playing with Angeleno bands in the late '60s. "In the late '50s Watts artists knew East LA was a big market, and they went out of their way to perform there. It was unique, because the rock scene in L.A. had everything, R&B and pop, and we did it our own way."
In this way, the Los Angeles Hispanic rock/R&B scene was far more advanced (and got more attention) than the one in most large Texas cities. For one thing, so many record companies have offices out there; for another, Los Angeles was, and is, such a melting pot; there was a large, multifaceted black music scene so close by.