“Said one American: ‘I can hear those goddamn radios blaring Mariachi music and Rush all day and night.'” — The Onion, reporting on Mexico and Canada building a bridge over the U.S.

The only reason to write about race is to undo it. Completely. Forever. I take as my partner in this wrestling match Richard Rodriguez, whose new book, Brown: The Last Discovery Of America, describes the willful confusion of literature with sociology as “trading in skins.” Remembering that my reading lists at Stanford instructed me to choose at least one woman and African American, I think about the balancing act I’ll have to perform by fitting the world and its music into 800 words.
Rather than confuse music with sociology and trade skins labeled “Latin” or “indigenous” or “Afro-whatever,” the only point to writing about music and its terms from the standpoint of a “world music” column is to undermine. Does it make any sense to say that “rock en español” can lay claim equally to African and gringo sources? Whatever happened to just plain ol’ good music? Did it die on an airplane with Ritchie Valens?
Rodriguez reminds me that I didn’t listen to music as a kid with sociolinguistic filters. Growing up with Tex-Mex accordions and heavy-metal riffs, I tried on punk rock for size and found it a good antidote to all things “shitkicker,” though all of it taken together informs a latter-day appreciation of, for example, Alejandro Escovedo. Now is that Latin music? Texas music? Cowpunk? He told me once before a show that all the terms are bullshit; record labels and musical labels, they’re all just trying to sell something.
In the recently released Living In Spanglish, Village Voice writer Ed Morales observes, “Until the end of the ’60s, rock music was a multiracial enterprise, with crucial participation by musicians of color. The fact that three of Woodstock’s most memorable performances ­ that of Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, and Santana ­ were carried out by Latinos and blacks is a little-developed notion . . . ” Ironic, then, that we try now to separate terms and peoples, mainly because the notion of “rock” doesn’t much allow for imagining faces like Escovedo’s attached to its definition in a dictionary or encyclopedia entry. Think of “rock ‘n’ roll,” and one does not imagine a mestizo with Indian features.
What, then, do we make of a rock singer-songwriter like Mexico City’s Ely Guerra? Some critics have said that language is the only thing keeping Guerra from crossover popularity ­ as if it’s a hurdle easily transgressed, like a bridge from Mexico to Canada. How about a tidy Q101 intro that announces her first big U.S. single as Nuevo Mex-Brazilian Trip-Hop? Having absorbed her mother’s samba and bossa nova records as a child, Guerra hears Milton Nascimiento and Astrud Gilberto in her head when composing tunes equally inspired by British techno-rock and U.S. folk music ­ but with a taste of Afro-Brazilian percussion (the pandeiro and surdo) thrown into the mix, with guest musicians like guitar wizard Marc Ribot plus Steve Barber on farfisa/Wurlitzer keys, all on her 1999 release (available in the U.S. as of 2002), Lotofire (Higher Octave).
“I’m making my own style,” Guerra explains, “sometimes I feel empathy with Radiohead, PJ Harvey . . . but not all the time . . . sometimes Portishead is telling me something.” With a powerful gift for emotive vocalization that alternates from urgent to playful and back, Guerra also revels in the title of her release as a term that’s simply true to the journey she undertakes. “It was kinda’ funny for me,” she says, “to choose a title in English.” And a neologism, a novel compound-word, at that: lotus + fire = lotofire. “In Mexico, I go to the supermarket, and you find products there [advertised] in English and Spanish. As well, something is happening with the language, so that Mexicans speak more and more Spanglish. For me, it was the best name to explain where I was at the time.”
Undoing the terms of discussion might be quixotic, especially since the marketplace would rather just have received terms, like “Latin” and “rock,” mixed together like they were always meant to couple. But insofar as this column is about the world and its music, its subjects will confuse and confound (and then later, strangely, recognize) themselves, will termify and neologize so as to squeeze some sense of real life out of the terms and ultimately leave them behind, to stroll on a street like mine where French-Haitian dancehall music bleeds through my floor into the salsa blaring from the Puerto Ricans next door. To connect these sounds to the Mariachi music and Rush I heard as a teenager in Texas. Like Rodriguez says, literature takes as its only subject what it feels like to be alive.
Forget about the terms. What does it sound like to be alive?
July 2002, Illinois Entertainer

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