Crossing musical borders

Crossing musical borders

World fusion band KoTolán to perform Sunday at the Autry as part of presentation exploring Boyle Heights’ role in LA’s history of fusion bands

By Bliss Bowen 09/19/2013

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Over the past several decades, East Los Angeles has spawned many boundary-pushing artists — Los Lobos chief among them, but also Thee Midniters, Quetzal, Circle One, Ollin, El Chicano, 1940s Mexican-American pop singer Andy Russell, legendary jazz producer Norman Granz, countless mariachi bands … the list rolls on and on.

Within that sprawl of geography and names, Boyle Heights was a shining emblem of LA’s cultural melting pot from the 1920s through the 1970s. It’s now an almost exclusively Latino neighborhood but, midcentury, Boyle Heights was home to working-class Japanese Americans, Jewish Americans and Mexican Americans — and, until the late 1980s, Phillips Music store on Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez) Avenue.

Adorned with marimbas, timpani, shiny saxophones and amplifiers, the expansive store was a vital community resource where kids were exposed to music as another language, and musicians from various backgrounds could jawbone, try out instruments, and — crucially — soak up new sounds and influences.

This Sunday, the Autry Museum will host “Crossing Musical Borders,” which was inspired by a piece of its “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” exhibit that spotlights music in Boyle Heights and was curated by Josh Kun, a respected author and USC professor who was instrumental in organizing the “Boyle Heights and the Music of Democracy” concert for the Grand Performances series in downtown LA two summers ago.

For the Autry’s event, he suggested reaching out to People Under the Stairs emcee/vocalist Thes One, more formally known as Christopher Cesar Portugal. Autry Programs Manager Ben Fitzsimmons, who conceived Sunday’s event, also brought in trombonist Otto Granillo, who in turn contacted Japanese mariachi singer Junko Seki. Granillo and Seki will appear with their world fusion band KoTolán.

Granillo, Portugal and Cal State LA professor/Afro-Latino composer Paul De Castro will discuss the role Boyle Heights has played in LA’s tradition of artists fusing disparate musical styles. Lest that become too academic, their exchange will be grounded in musical reality by bookending performances from KoTolán. The museum setting and the event focus should provide intriguing context for the band’s music, which freely mixes jazz, salsa, electronic pop, dance music and even some klezmer elements. Like their 2011 album “La Tienda de Groove,” it’s very eclectic, and very LA. n

“Crossing Musical Borders” takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Autry Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; presentation included with museum admission ($10 adults/$6 students with ID and seniors/$4 children age 3-12). Info: (323) 667-2000.


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