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Tacoma, WA - November 5, 2007

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EMP exhibit honors ‘brown sound’
Published: October 19th, 2007 01:00 AM

Odds are you’re familiar with Santana’s biggest hits – “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” “Smooth.” Ditto on the hits of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, thanks to MTV.

But what do you know about Tito Rodriguez, the Texas Tornados or Ivy Queen? And how much do you know about the role that such Latino artists have played in shaping American pop music?

If the answer is “nada mucho,” then consider “American: Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” a crash course. That’s the exhibit that opened last weekend at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. EMP’s director of curatorial affairs, Jasen Emmons, gave me a quick tour on Monday.

“You always hear about black music, white music, but there’s not much about the brown sound,” Emmons said, expressing a key motivation for creating Sabor.

The University of Washington and Seattle’s KEXP-FM helped shape the exhibit. And as organizers realized how daunting it would be to cover the general topic of Latin American music – a subject that could easily fill the entire museum – they narrowed their scope to post-World War II innovation in five metropolitan hubs.

Sabor is divided into sections dedicated to the sounds of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, New York and Miami. It’s chock-full of the sorts of interactive multimedia stations that EMP visitors have come to expect.

Patrons can mimic the manic, hip-swiveling dances they see on a big screen that’s the backdrop to a tiled dance floor. At another station, they can hear how cha-cha-cha music has left its imprint on pop hits as disparate as Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie,” LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

And they can hear artists describe their various scenes and sounds thanks to touch-screen video presentations. “It’s just down home music,” Royal Jesters singer Joe Jama says of Tejano music in one clip. “It tells you all about love, hate … just like country music tells the country people.”

And, of course, there are loads of “ooh-ahh” artifacts, relics tied to the likes of Ritchie Valens, Linda Ronstadt and Celia Cruz.

When asked which he was most excited about, Emmons guided me over to the Bay Area section. And hanging on the wall in a fiberglass case was a violin once owned by Carlos Santana. A black-and-white photo of the then 10-year-old artist posing with his dad’s mariachi band puts the instrument in proper context.

“You could point to this one and say this is where it started,” Emmons said, going on to describe how the young Santana eventually rebelled and got his hands on a proper electric guitar.

Granted, he hardly seemed like a guitar god in the making then. “He’s so naive at the time, he strings it with nylon strings and wonders why it won’t work,” Emmons said.

Equally awe-inspiring are an orange poncho that Valens wore on “American Bandstand” and the guitar he played during the historic sessions that yielded “La Bamba” and “Donna.”

“I bet he bought that for 15 bucks,” Emmons said of the latter.

A wall of album covers illustrates the evolution of Latin images over the years, starting with Desi Arnaz, adorned in a frilly shirt and striking a kitschy pose on the cover of his 1940s hit “Babalu.”

“In the beginning, there is this stereotypical portrayal,” said Emmons. “They’re seen as exotic. As they gained more power, they start to have more control over what they looked like.”

Sabor is a much-needed homage to musical styles that, though wildly popular in some circles, are still largely underappreciated by many music consumers. The exhibit is open through Sept. 7, 2008. Call 1-877-367-7361 or go online to for details.

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389

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