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Contested Ground: Razabilly Boogie and the Latino Rockabilly Scene

In partnership with Boom Magazine. Boom: A Journal of California is a new, cross-disciplinary publication that explores the history, culture, arts, politics, and society of California.

For Los Angeles rockabilly fans coming of age at the turn of this century, Rudolpho's was the place to see and be seen. The Silver Lake establishment, a non-descript Mexican restaurant by day, transformed by night into the "Be Bop Battlin' Ball," a rollicking 1950s-style nightclub serving stiff drinks alongside obscure music from rock 'n' roll's very infancy. Patrons packed the venue to capacity dressed in their best vintage ensembles, drinking, dancing, and singing along to the records of Johnny Burnette, Janis Martin, and Bunker Hill. With hot rods lining the parking lot outside, young musicians could be found inside demonstrating their mastery of rockabilly licks and slapping bass rhythms, often joined by an original 1950s artist booked for the night. While some outsiders may have been surprised to discover that such a vibrant Los Angeles following existed for a genre of music fifty years past its prime, most were shocked to discover that Rudolpho's patrons were almost exclusively young working class Latinas and Latinos.

Rockabilly shows at Rudolpho's came to an end in 2002, but the Los Angeles rockabilly scene has since come to be considered one of the most dynamic in the world. While contemporary rockabilly scenes are prominent throughout California, on any given weekend in the greater Los Angeles area someone somewhere is hosting a rockabilly show to a packed house of predominantly Latino patrons. And whereas most local scenes have to wait weeks, if not months, to see live bands perform Fifties music, it's Los Angeles that has the most consistent access to original 1950s performers as well as scores of contemporary rockabilly bands and disc jockeys. Combined with the homebred Kustom Kulture scene of hot-rodding, rockabilly in Los Angeles is a full-fledged regional phenomenon, with thousands of aficionados ranging from casual observers to diehard fanatics -- and many are Latinos.

The contemporary rockabilly revival was born in the de-industrial Great Britain of the 1970s, and has grown from a small circle of fans to a worldwide network of local scenes throughout the global north. With its working class aesthetics, shoebox hot rods, and bass-thumping rhythms, rockabilly enthusiasts have crafted their own identity, drawing elements from 1950s Americana. Yet, despite claims to a relatively marginal and invisible status, the rockabilly scene is nowhere near an underground phenomenon. An estimated 20,000 attendees took part in the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender of 2012, a yearly four-day festival promoted by UK-born DJ and promoter Tom Ingram. Viva Las Vegas is just one of the genre's dozens of large-scale weekend festivals held worldwide.

The logic of incongruity

The seemingly incongruous pairing of rockabilly music with Latino and Latina fans have left many casual observers wondering why working-class Raza youth in the urban metropolis of 21st century Los Angeles are attracted to the music of rural southern white musicians of the mid-20th century? After all, rockabilly is categorized as country western music, a genre all too often -- and often wrongly -- racialized as music by and for white people. In many ways, this racialization stretches back to rockabilly's birth in the American south of the mid-1950s, when the term rockabilly was derisively coined by white disk jockeys to describe music by white artists appropriating black sounds. The "rock" in rockabilly reflected the black rocking rhythm & blues tradition, and the "billy" gestured to the hillbilly or country tradition. The amalgamation of traditions is most often exemplified by Elvis Presley's first record: one side featured the popular rhythm & blues (read black) song "That's All Right" performed with white country inflections, while the other featured the country and western tune, "Blue Moon of Kentucky" performed in a black rhythm & blues style. It is this type of hybridity that may still resonate decades later with Latinos and Latinas, an audience well familiar with cultural mestizaje.

While Presley and his white contemporaries are remembered as rockabilly artists, you can hear the same hybridity in the music of contemporary black artists, such as Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" or Muddy Waters's "I Can't Be Satisfied." Muddy Waters, however, is remembered as a bluesman while Chuck Berry is emblematic of rock & roll; their use of hybridity in the 1950s is largely forgotten or overlooked in contrast to their white counterparts. To the credit of many rockabilly DJ's who are cognizant of this history, black musicians are equally celebrated, and their songs and records are played alongside those of white musicians. Yet blackness remains a mark of difference in the rockabilly scene. While Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent are rarely referred to as white rock & rollers, it is not uncommon to hear to the music of Kid Thomas or Roy Gaines referred to as black rock & roll.

The racial shift

While the Los Angeles rockabilly scene of the 1990s was never explicitly racist or xenophobic, it did serve as a recruiting ground for white supremacist groups. The 1990s saw an explosion in the neo-Nazi hate music scene, with a handful of bands such as Orange County's Youngland performing rockabilly. Banking on the music's southern white roots, the Confederate flag became a recurring symbol in the scene, appearing everywhere from belt buckles to tattoos. White supremacist groups sought to capitalize on white working class anxieties evidenced by the passage of California's Proposition 187 (denying basic healthcare and education rights to undocumented immigrants), Proposition 227 (eliminating bilingual education), and Proposition 209 (an anti-affirmative action measure). White working class hostility against immigrants in California of the 1990s reached heights unseen since the 1920s. In Los Angeles County alone, a reported 23.5 percent increase in hate crimes occurred against Latinas and Latinos in 1994. The relationship still persists, as popular rockabilly festivals such as the Hootenanny in Irvine and Kustom Kulture gatherings, like West Coast Kustom's Cruisin' Nationals in Santa Maria, are popular haunts for members of Southern Californian hate groups.

Most L.A. rockabilly scene veterans demarcate a racial shift in the scene, largely solidified by the turn of this century from majority white to majority brown. In Southern California, the presence of people of color in the rockabilly scene, although notable, was nevertheless considered marginal and negligible. With the exception of Rosie Flores, the bi-racial Robert Williams of Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, The Paladin's Dave Gonzales, and a few others, Southern California Latinos did not see themselves reflected on rockabilly stages in the early to mid 1990s. After the turn of the century, the Los Angeles rockabilly scene experienced a tremendous demographic shift towards a majority Chicana/o and Latina/o make-up. This shift also happened to take place during a political era of xenophobia and intensified attacks on civil rights. In the introduction to her compiled series of photographs, The Rockabillies, Jennifer Greenberg noted that her own interactions with the scene coincided with the first term of George W. Bush's presidency and the intense xenophobia associated with the war on terror following the events of 9/11.

For many Latinos, Rudolpho's was one of a small handful of venues that provided an accepting place for Raza fans of rockabilly. Located in the rapidly gentrifying (or already gentrified) neighborhood of Silver Lake, inside Rudolpho's, La Raza out-rockabillied rockabilly. Dubbing their promotion of "Be Bop Battlin' Ball," event promoters Vito Lorenzo and Gonzalo Gonzales and their patrons turned to the core elements of the scene's British roots to create sonic and aesthetic alternatives to what represented rockabilly in the United States. With the tagline "It doesn't get closer to the real '50s than this!" the promoters of the Be Bop Battlin' Ball fully embraced the British model.

Rudolpho's patrons rejected the "mainstream" American rockabilly style for actual vintage clothing that is more specific and obscure. Eschewing the cuffed jeans and solid white t-shirts synonymous with the archetypical American greaser, Happy Days' The Fonz, male patrons opted for double-welted suede loafers, high-waisted gabardine trousers, flap pocket shirts and two-toned rayon Hollywood jackets, emulating what the European rockabilly scene dubbed the hepkat: a gendered identity meant to apply to a hard partying, rock & roller who always dressed in vintage 1950s American teenage fashions, drove a hot rod, collected vintage records, and had a healthy disdain for modern aesthetics. Women patrons refused their greaser counterparts' cotton cherry or polka dot print sundresses and simple Betty Page hair styles for printed cable knit pullover sweaters, rayon cocktail dresses, and elaborate victory curls from the 1940s.

Recording artists were booked and expected to perform their original rock & roll or rockabilly material from the 1950s. New artists were only booked if they played and looked like vintage artists; artists who experimented with modern elements or genre cross-pollinations like psychobilly (a hybrid of punk and rockabilly) were strictly prohibited. Both men and women practiced to perfect vintage 1950s dances of the bop, stroll, and jive to perform with precision accuracy. And yet, ironically, despite the attempts of Raza Rockabilly enthusiasts to strive for a sense of historical authenticity through leisure, their legitimacy as "true" Americans with claims to citizenship was being shunned in the political realm.

While Rudolpho's and other venues provided physical space for Latinos to stake their claims to rockabilly, the Internet provided a virtual world where those stakes could be claimed on a broader scale. By the early 2000s, the Internet had become more accessible and user friendly. Online services such as Yahoo group listervs provided rockabilly promoters, who once relied solely on physical flyers and word of mouth, with another venue to advertise their upcoming events. However, with the creation of free webhosting services in the early 2000s, and social networking sites, anyone with access to a computer could broadcast themselves and their identity to the world at large. Developed by Ruth Hernandez from Whittier and Erick Sánchez from Santa Ana, "Razabilly" was a MSN hosted user-based forum and website where fans could share their love for rockabilly music and style. Infused with a campy tongue-in-cheek spirit evidenced in its wordplay title, "Razabilly" allowed its users to post upcoming events, discussion topics, and pictures.

Social networking sites such as Friendster and MySpace provided anyone with access to a computer their own mini-web page, where they could upload pictures of themselves, compose their own self-descriptions, talk about their interests and interact with other members of the respective site's membership. Instead of the off chance that a fan could stumble upon a rockabilly show only during specific hours on a specific night, MySpace provided a virtual rockabilly scene that could be discovered at any hour of the day. Images on MySpace of brown bodies in the rockabilly scene normalized the demographic shift that was occurring and depicted the scene as Raza-friendly.

Through physical venues like Rudolpho's and through virtual portals like "Razabilly," Latinas and Latinos not only crafted spaces where they themselves made up a critical mass, they also deftly positioned themselves as the American torch bearers in an international rockabilly scene. As Los Angeles-based bands, disc jockeys, and rockabilly fans travelled internationally to festivals, they transformed the representational face of the United States, the birthplace of all things rockabilly -- from white to brown.

Rewriting history

Significantly, the invocation of the scene's British roots and strict guidelines to what is and is not rockabilly provided Latinos with the space to radically alter the scene to fit their needs. With an understood ownership of the scene, they were free to adapt the scene and makes changes as they saw fit. Disc jockeys began playing 45's of Lalo Guerrero and Gloria Rios alongside Glenn Glenn and Joe Clay. Latinos looked for their own icons to emulate from the golden age of Mexican cinema, Pedro Infante, and Tin Tan instead of Elvis Presley and James Dean. A single white streak in dark hair, in honor of US-born dancer Yolanda "Tongolele" Montes, became a common sight amongst Raza rockabilly women. For those enthusiasts, the experience of the 1950s was reimagined through their own eyes, shaped by their own unique vantage point. Of course, the relationship between Chicanos and Latinos and rock & roll music in California is a long and fruitful one. Yet, while rockabilly music had always had fans within La Raza, the appeal of embodying the era of that music each and every day was new. While low-riding enthusiasts could pay homage by incorporating and modifying elements of bygone eras into their own contemporary style, Raza rockabilly fans sought to fully recreate those looks and performances.

In many ways, Raza rockabilly provided a way for Los Angeles Latinos to rewrite themselves into the history of Los Angeles, and rewrite Los Angeles into the history of rock 'n' roll. While black and white rockabilly and rock 'n' roll musicians experimented with each other's sounds in the segregated south, groups like The Silhouettes (Ritchie Valens' original band) and the Rhythm Rockers were racially mixed, reflecting the multiracial make-up of the urban areas they descended from. In Los Angeles, rock 'n' roll served as an alternative culture operating against hegemonic racial segregation and discrimination. Far from novel, black and brown shared cultural expressions were ordinary and to be expected, due to shared neighborhoods, schools, and social spaces.

Through rediscovering, and in many ways embodying these artists, Raza rockabilly enthusiasts engage with their own past. For many, the cultural practices of Razabilly not only reflect musical and aesthetic interests, but also speak to one's identity as a Chicano or Latino. Thus, race holds an equally important role in the construction of the Raza rockabilly that both parallels and surpasses the traditional rockabilly arrangement of clothing, hair, make-up, and tattoos. Given that so much of their past has been stricken from the institutional historical record, and their very presence in certain Los Angeles communities is being wiped clean through gentrification, this strong and creative musical movement is all the more impactful. As memory made flesh, the Raza rockabilly enthusiast provokes Angelenos to recognize their own immediate history as well to consider all the unfulfilled promises of equality made to people of color since the era of the civil rights movement.

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