Exploring The Land of 1,000 Dances

“The Tide is High” is an incomplete history of Latino music in Southern California—and that’s part of its appeal

Latin music album covers

You’ve gotta admire a book whose title purports to give a definitive overview of a subject, then admits its failure at the outset. And that’s exactly how “The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles” introduces itself.

“We realized very quickly that our ambitions would overreach what we could do in a single volume,” editor Josh Kun writes in the preface about the group of journalists, academics and musicians that contributed to the anthology. “An exhaustive study of the role of Latin America in L.A. music is a life’s work, not a single book.”

The casual reader won’t care about this confession. “The Tide Was Always High” is a must-own for music geeks and Los Angeles history freaks — the Latino part is almost incidental, because the stories are that great.

The book’s chapters cover a dizzying array of genres, musicians, eras and venues: Peruvian faux-Incan queens, film composers like Lalo Schifrin, Brazilian session players who anchored 1970s funk, even the history of Latin music at the Hollywood Bowl (oh, for the days when American music stars served as emcees for a night of Mexican and Chilean music, a la Nat King Cole at the Bowl in 1959).

Kun’s actual intro begins on a seemingly cliched note — when New Wave icons Blondie came to L.A. in 1980 to record “The Tide is High” and go native. Why the hell do Angelenos always need New Yorkers to validate their worth? But Kun uses the anecdote to describe how Debbie Harry and her group soaked up L.A.’s “Latin American cadence” and added mariachi horns, violins and Afro-Cuban percussion to their cover of a Jamaican song to create a No. 1 record. The sound entranced listeners nationwide — but, as Kun notes, what might have seemed new to America was already an established L.A. tradition.

“The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles,” edited by Josh Kun, 252 pages, University of California Press, $29.95.
“The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles,” edited by Josh Kun, 252 pages, University of California Press, $29.95.

“The Tide Was Always High” doesn’t just tell readers how L.A.’s Latino sounds influenced so much of American music, but also shows it. Chapters rumba around in various styles — dry academic prose, lively interviews, funny essays and even history as poetry in famed Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro’s recollection about the early days of gay Latino club nights. Gorgeous photos of album covers and musicians are peppered throughout.

And the oral histories of once-nameless session players who served as the bass, sax, drums, keyboards and so many more instruments for rock titans — from Harry Nilsson to Notorious B.I.G., the Commodores to Jackson Browne — show how L.A.’s Latino music heritage seeped into the post-1960s American songbook.

All that’s missing is a companion CD, which kind of already happened because Kun, a University of Southern California professor and MacArthur Genius, instead organized a series of “musical interventions” — academic-speak for a series of great concerts and discussions that Kun hosted throughout 2017.

But I need to challenge my friend Kun: You know some of your gaps are unforgiveable! I understand anthologies are meant to whet appetites — but only a footnote about Chalino Sanchez, the Mexican corrido singer who scandalized Southern California during the 1990s and is one of the most influential North American musicians in any language over the past 25 years? No Central Americans? How about something on how Armenian-American Art Laboe became a god for generations of Chicanos with his oldies show? What about the independent media that covered “rock en espanol” better than anyone in Latin America?

Forgive my inside-baseball rage. “The Tide Was Always High” is wonderful. Now, who’s ready to do the life’s work on the exhaustive version?

RECOMMENDATIONS: Three other great books about Latino music in California

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