Even on a busy day, you can hear the sound of backbeats, downbeats and clave rhythms of salsa, reggaeton, mambo and merengue emanating from Atlanta History Center’s Howell Gallery, home to American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music through February 8, 2015. The bilingual Smithsonian traveling exhibition, curated by the Experience Music Project Museum and the University of Washington, chronicles the emergence of new Latin music styles in the United States, such as salsa, and the rise of Latino pop stars like Carlos Santana, Selena and Ritchie Valens as well as their impact on American pop music.
Those already familiar with Latino crossover artists may not learn much, but for those who don’t know about Latin music in America, the exhibit is a good introduction.
The exhibit, a dense blend of historical information and interactive sound experiences, is divided into segments about the major cities in which Latin music has flourished: New York City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami.
Panels of text and photos offer biographical information about the artists who lived in each city and the social climate there. For example, the Los Angeles section includes a brief biography of Chicano rock band Los Lobos and material about protests held by the United Farm Workers of America to get better work conditions for migrant workers.
As this section might suggest, the exhibition makes the point that 20th-century Latin music in the United States was inherently political. A display of album cover art and videos throughout the show help tell that story. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t always do its part. Although a discussion of Cesar Chavez’s protests with the United Farm Workers of America mentions that the movement was concurrent with and in solidarity with protests for the civil rights movement, it misses the opportunity to examine how or if the music explored the discrimination faced by black Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans.
Similarly, in the San Antonio section, the text says that Selena was inspired by the conjunto, or accordion ensemble, music in Texas, which blended country, rock and R&B. However, the information on the panel about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which annexed part of Mexico to the United States, does not reveal how that relates to the music.
The two interactive music stations tell the story sonically. Visitors select a Latin musical genre and hear not only a clip of a popular song, but also the history of that genre and which instruments are used to make the sound. The music stations also show how Latin American music was adapted in the United States. For instance, they map how the beats and rhythms of Brazilian samba contributed to American salsa in the 1940s, and they show the similarities between hip-hop and reggaeton; both emphasize the bass and rest on the backbeat and both originated on the streets as party music.
The story is brought to life in a video about Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom, where many New Yorkers were introduced to Latin rhythms. The video explains that African Americans and Latinos living in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx blended their beats to create new genres of music and describes their introduction to mainstream American popular music. Daddy Yankee’s 2005 hit “Gasolina” is positioned as a postmodern fusion of all of these musical styles.
Visitors can also make their own music with the Sabor Mixer, a touchscreen soundboard, and, if so moved, pick a song on the jukebox and groove on a dance floor decorated with colorful lights at the back of the gallery.
American Sabor is inventive, fun and an open-ended story: the full impact of Latinos on U.S. popular music remains to be seen because the legacy of Latin immigrants is still unfolding. However, one thing is certain: from the Conga Line to punk rock to “La Bamba,” the rhythms are here to stay.
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