My Music Is My Flag

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My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican musicians and their New York communities 1917-1940

Ruth Glasser (1995)

University of California Press

The 253 page paperback edition used for this outline was published in 1997 and contains 20 photos. Originally an idea for a dissertation in the mid-1980’s based largely on wanting to know more about Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez, of whom little was written in English but who was a celebrated figure in Puerto Rico. Glasser describes herself as “an independent public historian” and as a “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn” describes her journey into this world from the perspective of, initially, an outsider looking in. You can see her impressive CV here.

Field work was carried out in New York and Puerto Rico with many hours of interview with musicians, collecters and others with significant insight into the Puerto Rico-NYC music world forming the bulk of the books contents. It is a very fine example of oral history work, recollections made by people who participated, lived with and alongside many of the key figures in this music. Whilst the book has been developed from an academic standpoint it is a highly readable one – a degree in Ethnomusicology is not required to enjoy the contents.

Why you might buy it:

You’re kidding right? A true classic, written after detailed interviews and sound research conducted, contains masses of stuff you are unlikely to have come across before, raises the bar considerably for future writers in this area (far too high for some I suspect), it’s a proper grown up book that lays down previously skimmed over history for the first time, if enough people buy it she might just write volume two (1941-1965?), it won’t date and can be re-read.

Why you might leave it:

Not really an entry level book – you should probably read some salsa 101 type books first in order to get the most out of it, if you don’t read the notes, discography and index the book is 1/5th shorter than you were expecting.

Contents:

Preface

Introduction – Buscando Ambiente

1. “In our house, music was eaten for breakfast”

2. From “Indianola” to “No Cola” – The strange career of the Afro-Puerto Rican musician

3. Pipe wrenches and valve trombones – Puerto Rican worker-musicians

4. “Vente Tu” – Puerto Rican musicians and the recording industry

5. “El Home Relief” – Canario and the New York Plena

Conclusion

Notes

Bibliography

Discography

Index

Selected extracts (from):

(introduction):

It is these hidden, quietly heroic, and often ironic cultural moments that I chronicle in this book. Amazingly, Puerto Rican music production remains nearly as invisible to North American audiences today as it did in the 1930’s. Just as Puerto Rico exists in the minds of North Americans, when they think of the island at all, as a kind of netherworld, not quite Latin America but not quite part of the United States, people in the English speaking world have generally given little thought to the immense cultural wealth produced by Puerto Ricans. Indeed they have had little opportunity, for while innumerable books and articles in English dissect social problems among Puerto Ricans, few describe their history or artistic expressions. Puerto Ricans in general, and Puerto Rican migrants in particular, are found more often in the pages of crisis orientated contemporary studies than those of historical works. In fact, scholars casting backward for an explanation for the persistently low socio-economic status of many Puerto Ricans have often blamed this problem on an ostensible cultural deficit within the group itself. Glazer and Moynihans 1963 contention that the Puerto Rican heritage is “weak in folk arts, unsure of its cultural traditions, [and] without a powerful faith” still finds its adherents thirty years later. Indeed, as problems multiply in North American inner cities, there has been a recent academic and popular revival of this blaming-the-victim approach”.

(Music was eaten for breakfast):

“Afro-Puerto Ricans also became adept at performing the music of their oppressors. As in other parts of the Caribbean, a large number of these slaves and freed blacks became artisans, exercising skills considered demeaning for whites to perform. One of these was music making. From the times before emancipation dated a tradition that lasted far beyond, namely, the tradition of the black or mulato artisan/musician performing the songs and dances of his masters on European instruments. The slave owners themselves brought a variety of musical traditions from their culturally distinct regions of Spain, Italy, Germany, France or Ireland. Among their ranks were also planters from other parts of Latin America or the Caribbean who were fleeing revolutions or slave rebellions in their homelands. Thus, Afro Puerto-Rican musicians became adept at a range of European and Creole genres, including contradanza, pasodoble, rigodon, lancero, minue (minuet), vals (waltz), polka, and chotis (schottische). They incorporated these dances into their own repertoires, just as they infused European forms with elements of their own traditions”.

(Music was eaten for breakfast):

Changes in transportation and communication also had an effect on popular ensembles. Throughout the early twentieth century, for example, the new insular government improved railroads and built new roads throughout Puerto Rico to facilitate the export of cash crops and the import of manufactured goods. In the twenties and thirties it became easier for band and orchestra leaders to recruit members from other parts of the island. Efrain Vaz remembers his father building up an orchestra in Aguadilla with musicians from other towns in the western and northern coasts of the island. Vaz and the other musicians in his fathers orchestra were also able to travel to other towns and alternate with other ensembles hired for private parties of the wealthy and public festivals. Greater interpenetration between towns would inevitably lead to musical mixtures transcending regionalisms”.

(Music was eaten for breakfast):

“The repertoire of urban cinema music was varied, but as Lopez Vidal’s memories indicate, North American sounds and arrangements often formed an important part. In many cases musical scores were included with the films sent from the United States. American-style fox trots and waltzes formed an important part of this silent film repertoire and filtered their way into popular dances and even public band concerts. And yet the audiences in the silent movie theatres were often lively and participatory, insisting upon certain types of Latin music at appropriate moments. Angelica Duchense remembers that when there was a chase scene in cowboy movies the people in the balcony screamed “pasodoble!” and the orchestra had to play one instantly. The music could even supersede the film. ‘When my brother played El Manisero [The Peanut Vendor]’, remembers Duchense, ‘the people got quiet as if they were in Mass. When we finished, they applauded and forgot about the movie’.”

(From “Indianola” to “No Cola”):

“The thousands of Puerto Rican men who donned the uniform of the United States Army for the first time undoubtedly got more than they expected, for along with that uniform came a new and potent identity, that of the black man in the United States. Even men who trained for the war on their own island were put into racially segregated camps. Although this was standard policy within the U.S. military, it was a new configuration for the Puerto Rican soldiers in training. Puerto Rican society was not devoid of color consciousness or prejudice, but racial categories were different than in the United States. Not only did Puerto Rico have a greater degree of racial mixing than its northern colonizer but its racial classification scheme comprised fluid and diverse categories that were typical for most Latin American countries. Unlike their North American neighbors, according to whom people were either black or white, Puerto Ricans defined themselves and each other on a continuum from white to black, with facial features, hair texture, and even wealth or occupation helping to determine how a person was classified. For these new soldiers in the American Army, the “white” and “negro” camps in which they were placed represented an alien social experience”.

(From “Indianola” to “No Cola”):

“The Puerto Rican performers in Jim Europe’s band were recruited precisely because of their outstanding musicianship, but the image white America had of black artistry worked against their training. It must have been extremely difficult for the “Porto Ricans”, taught to read and display their craft openly in island orchestras and small groups, to come to a country where the qualities they were recruited for had to be concealed, to get used to being “Negroes” with an instinct for music rather than a painstakingly labored skill and a generations old guildsmans pride. These boricuas had to learn to adapt to the stereotypes of blacks as natural musicians. This translated into working without sheet music. Classically trained, they were sometimes unfavourably judged by audiences and colleagues alike as technicians without improvisational abilities”.

(From “Indianola” to “No Cola”):

“But when Puerto Rican and other Latinos decided for commercial or personal reasons to “go back” to Latin music, the choices for the darker and lighter skinned musicians were again geographically and racially separated. The downtown Latin “relief” bands, which alternated with featured orchestras in elegant hotels and clubs, were usually made up of whites only. While the rules may have been made by the ballrooms and hotels, the bandleaders rarely challenged them. Mario Bauza remembers a number of them: “Well, there was a few big bands. Enrique Madriguera was one, Eddie LaBaro, the band in the Martinique, there was a band in the Stork club, there was in the Morocco, all the swanky places”. Puerto Rican Juanito Sanabria was playing at the Havana-Madrid, and Cuban Anselmo Sacassas at La Conga. Although Xavier Cugat employed a number of Puerto Ricans in his stint at the Waldorf Astoria, he never hired those with dark skins. Singer Bobby Capo remembered that even in the 1940’s, when restrictions were looser, Cugat regretfully refused his services saying “What a pity you are so dark”, because he feared a violent response in his southern tours to Capo’s slightly more than olive hue. Capo also recalled that Aguadillan pianist and bandleader Noro Morales, who spent years playing at the Stork club, had a similar policy”.

(Pipe wrenches and valve trombones):

“Rafael Hernandez possessed an infectious energy, an unpretentiousness, and a mischievous sense of humor that endeared him to many. As a bandleader, however, he was a perfectionist who demanded a great deal from his musicians, as his recorded songs, with their meticulous arrangements, confirm. “If they didn’t read music, he didn’t use them”, remembered his sister, Victoria Hernandez. Rafael’s philosophy of music making did not allow for improvisation, an attitude probably reinforced by his role in African-American bands fighting the stereotypes of blacks as spontaneous musicians. Victoria remembers that one time her brother was rehearsing with some pick up musicians for a performance and the pianist began to embellish upon some of Hernandez’s sheet music. “Either you clean up that passage or you leave”, Hernandez told the musician”.

(Pipe wrenches and valve trombones):

“In an era when little copyright protection existed for ethic compositions, group leaders could freely borrow each others work in a sometimes friendly, sometimes litigious atmosphere. Pedro “Piquito” Marcano, another singer and group leader who served his apprenticeship in Flores’s group, utilized the music of his mentor and other Puerto Rican composers when he formed his Cuarteto Marcano in 1936. Others who rarely or never performed with organized groups in New York lent talents to those that did. The itinerant guitarist Alberto “Titi” Amadeo drifted in and out of groups and sporadically formed his own, but he was best known as a composer. He and the musically unlettered Felipe “don Felo” Goyco, who never left Puerto Rico, are emplematic of Puerto Rican musicians whose songs, if not their live musical skills, formed an integral part of the developing New York scene”.

(Pipe wrenches and valve trombones):

“Sometimes the close living conditions of such poor neighborhoods proved a boon to budding musicians, who quickly got to know one another. The beginning of singer Daniel Santos’s (1911?-92) career is a good example. Santos and his parents, who moved to New York when he was ten years old, were so poor that during the Depression he moved into a little room of his own and supported himself by shining shoes. Selling ice and coal, and doing whatever other jobs came his way. His situation would improve when he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Meanwhile, “The room which I lived before the CCC took me was rather uncomfortable, since at that time the bathroom wasn’t inside but outside in the hall, adjoining the other rooms. This inconvenience helped me to become a professional singer, because one day, while I was bathing, I began to sing the only two songs I knew, and at once my first contract arrived. I remember I was singing a guaracha that said ‘sola va, sola va la mariposa llorando’ by Rafael Hernandez…. I was in the middle of my profoundest inspiration when all of a sudden I heard a knock on the door, and upon opening, I faced one of the members of Trio Lirico, a musical group that played at dances, baptisms and other activities of the exiled Latino community. He told me that I sang very well and that when I came out he wanted to talk to me. I finished bathing, and then got together with him and the other members of the Trio. They listened to me sing, liked it, and invited me to participate in a party which they were singing the following Saturday. That’s how I became a professional singer”.

(“Vente Tu”):

“Like the European monarchs four centuries before them, Victor Columbia, and their ilk employed professional explorers who spent years continent hopping by boat. These modern conquistadors however went in search of new phonograph consumers and “native” talent. They were not so much experts in Latin American music as functionaries who transferred selling formulas and ideas about musical selection from one place to another ……. (snip)……..Newspaper articles and surviving recording ledgers provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these agents. Commercial expeditions to Puerto Rico began at least as early as June, 1909. The visitor that summer was William Friedberg, a Columbia recording-lab expert who had previously collected music in China and Japan. He was assisted by Columbia distributor Gonzalez Padin Hermanos. This department store subsequently carried the records, which are also listed in export catalogues to be sent all over Latin America ……..(snip)…………The crew adapted the performers sounds to the technical capacity of their equipment, starting a process of subtle modification. A note from their sojourn in Venezuela, for example, mentions that a crew member had taken the seeds out of an artists maracas and replaced them with ball-bearings, which were easier to capture on records. Undoubtedly this crew, which learned only the basics of Spanish and Latino music as they went from country to country, changed a great deal more as well”.

(“Vente Tu”):

“Company personnel often viewed the foreign born as naïve and easy to manipulate. They also saw most ethnics as naturally musical and attracted to records. Much depended on the particular group. The Columbia Record characterized Chinese music as an “ear-splitting-clatter” and an “awful pot-pourri of drums and string fiddles, never in tune”, but spoke admiringly of African musicians. Not surprisingly, in an article entitles “Edison Phonographs in Four Corners of the World: Instruments Entertaining and Educating Civilized People and Untutored Savages”, Talking Machine World affirmed that “The native Cuban, like most of his Spanish speaking prototypes, is musical by nature”. By 1917 Victor’s house organ was exhorting retailers to take advantage of the “enormous” and “intensely musical … foreign element in our midst”, and the company displayed a respectable array of ethnic catalogues in dozens of languages for domestic consumption, including Puerto Rican and Cuban versions. A perusal of these catalogues however indicates that much of the material was still being culled from export lists and that most of the musicians either had been recorded on their home turf or had been brought over especially by the company to record. After World War 1, Victor turned its eyes to the domestic ethnic market and discovered to its chagrin that its major competitor was already there”.

(“El Home Relief”):

“Once the tango was excised from its original setting, its lyrics seemed relatively innocuous. The plena however, was an unsentimental form whose verses contained explicit social critiques issuing from the lower classes. In terms of its forms, social roles, and repression by authorities, the plena was similar to tropical and satirical genres from the Caribbean, including the Cuban son, Dominican merengue and the calypso of Trinidad. Like its cousins, the plena lampooned people of wealth and position, criticized government policies, and satirized powerful institutions. Vigoreaux recalled many Puerto Rican examples of strong lyrics stirring up controversy: “When there was a criticism of something that had happened, a piece of news, a plena came out, among the people themselves. For example, when rum was prohibited here during the First World War, they came out with a plena. And then when a Spanish bishop came to Ponce, all the women were in love with the bishop”…..(snip)……Satirizing the cleric’s unpriestly appearance and behavior, “El Obispo” caused a huge scandal and was officially banned”.

(“El Home Relief”):

“Canario’s greatest fame lies with the plena, but he spent years singing other types of music before he devoted himself to this particular genre. In fact, Canario may well have been the first Puerto Rican singer to record music in New York. By his own account, Canario spent the second decade of the twentieth century singing corridos and other Mexican songs for Pathe, Odeon, and other labels. He even recorded for Daniel Castellanos, the Spaniard who probably had the first Latin music store in the city”.

(Conclusion):

Recently a number of writers have also called into question the use of blanket terms to describe certain genres of music. Separately but consistently, they have come to the conclusion that terms like polka, salsa and son refer to, not genres with specifically describable characteristics, but umbrellas under which many types of music fit. Such blanket terms for genres have an ahistorical weakness as well. There is no reason to suppose, for example, that Cuban rumbas from the nineteenth century were the same as the ones played even for Latino audiences in New York City in the 1930’s Moreover, such classifications often occur within the ear of the individual listener. I would argue that scholars need to do more oral history work not just with musicians but with their audiences as well, regarding what songs they remember, how they classify them, what was the most popular in a historical period and why”.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Amazon.com by John Storm Roberts

This book is everything other reviewers have said, and more. For it doesn’t cover some encapsulated mono-ethnic phenomenon. Long before Diz, Puerto Ricans were a permanent part of mainstream jazz. They made up almost half JR Europe’s WWI Hellfighters band, and were present in some of the most famous black swing bands (and you thought it was just Juan Tizol!) Moreover it was largely PR music and musicians who added to Cuban roots what turned them into US salsa. As anybody who has read my LATIN JAZZ knows, I couldn’t have written parts of it without Glasser and I’m glad to acknowledge the fact publicly.

Contemporary Sociology

“Though at one level this is a social history that rescues Puerto Rican music from musty layers of misinterpretation and scholarly neglect, at another it is an exploration of the agents and the contexts of national and ethnic redefinition. . . The lesson so wonderfully conveyed is that it is hopeless to search for absolute cultural moorings in societies born under the sign of massive international movements of people and capital. . . . An indispensable source for Puerto Rican studies and a distinguished contribution to the North American scholarship on race, ethnicity, and immigration.”

Latin American Studies by John Charles Chasteen

“This book joins the ‘must see’ list of exciting new historical work on Latin American music and identity. . . . A successful combination of theoretical sophistication and empirical research that will hopefully find many imitators among students of Latin American popular culture.”


Latin Beat Magazine by Jesse Varela

“With brilliant insight, Ruth Glasser recalls a golden age of Puerto Rican music in New York City that threads through the lives of long forgotten musicians and their songs. . . . [The story is] told with such fascinating detail that it hooks you on the richness of the subject’s evolution. . . . A new perspective on the evolution of genres like Salsa and Latin jazz in New York City.”

American Historical Review by Reid Badger

“An interesting and informative book about a neglected area of North American ethnic history. . . . Both a valuable introduction to a complex subject and a challenging interpretation of it.”

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6 responses

2 10 2007
Ana Flores

Glasser’s MY MUSIC IS MY FLAG is a gift for everyone who is striving to find the truth regarding Puerto Rican music. Truly one of the most comprehensive books on Puerto Rican music, Glasser plays a leading role in having written an educational and trustworthy guideline for ethnic studies with integrity; this book is a must-read and should be in every school/college.

6 12 2011
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