Songs in the Key of L.A. is a multi-platform collaboration between the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun that brings to life the Library's extraordinary Southern California Sheet Music Collection. Five L.A. artists were invited to pick some sheet music, study it, and then interpret it in any style of their choosing. The finished products are now available for free download from the website of the Los Angeles Public Library, and Artbound produced short documentaries on the process.
When my students and I began searching through the sheet music collection of the Central Library, one of the first tunes to tip us off that a lost history of L.A. song might be lurking in the stacks was a 1938 hand-clapper from Olvera Street. The song was "Chiapanecas," and its cover art was pure promo lure: come down to Café Caliente to hear Elenita sing the very song you hold in your hands. An exterior photo of the café with a serape-clad strummer leaning against its archway entrance appeared next to Elenita's head-shot, and inside George King's newly-penned English lyrics invited anyone to clap along with the sound of Olvera Street's happy, romantic Mexico: "If you're feeling blue/ This is what to do/ Take a lesson from Mexico!/ Clap your hands and sing/ Get right in the swing/ Sing and dance your cares away!"
The song was no 1930's L.A. invention but a well-known folk dance from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas (the title refers to "girls from Chiapas"). Written by Mexican composer Juan Arozamena in 1924 and first performed by the marimba ensemble Los Hermanos Gómez, "Chiapanecas" was a Mexican hit before it found its way north of the border into Hollywood films like "The Girl From Mexico," where Mexican actress Lupe Velez performed it with signature elegance, and "Anchors Aweigh," where Gene Kelly dances to it on an Olvera Street set with a "Little Girl Beggar" played by Nebraska's own Sharon McManus. By 1962, Nat King Cole headed to Mexico City to record his own version of it for "More Cole Español."
But in the culture-meets-business tourist re-mix that Olvera Street has been looping since its inception, "Chiapanecas" became a jingle for Café Caliente, one of the area's earliest restaurants and musical venues. Owned by the Peluffo family, Café Caliente was originally an Italian restaurant, Casa di Pranzo, but its Little Italy theme soon became an Old Mexico one, promising "an atmosphere distinctive of Old Mexico and early California days, with dancing, entertainment, and floor shows nightly by typical native artists."
The Olvera Street import and re-write of "Chiapanecas" -- and its link to Hollywood movie making -- was typical of the area's double-edged framing of Mexican culture. When it opened in 1930, Olvera Street was Disneyland before Disneyland, an Old Mexico theme park that turned a romantic fiction of the city's Mexican past into a durable tourist attraction. That it was built on the original plaza site of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the historical cradle of the city's founding in 1781 and a stone's throw from the Sonora Town neighborhood that was home to one of L.A.'s earliest Mexican communities only added to its blur of documentary and diorama, empiricism and enactment. As William David Estrada details in his definitive Olvera read The Los Angeles Plaza, Olvera Street was built to be a marketplace of memory for a past that it preserved as much as fudged, a gringo-penned dream that cast Mexican actors in starring roles: "a Mexican Street of Yesterday in a City of Today," as one news headline put it.
The brainchild of ethno-imagineer and socialite Christine Sterling, Olvera Street was both an attempt to save the plaza from encroaching Union Station and Civic Center developers who were ready to clean up the "seedy" and "disease ridden" plaza and all of its "undesirable" racial elements, and re-imagine it as a Mexico that the Los Angeles Times and the Chamber of Commerce were more comfortable with. Sterling herself openly called it "a mixture of romance and capitalism."
Of course, Olvera Street the Hollywood movie set didn't stop it from becoming a valuable hub of Latino life, business, religion, and culture-- from La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles and the many Mexican-run shops and food stalls to the leading Mexican and Mexican-American musicians who frequently performed there (Lalo Guerrero, for example, was also a Café Caliente regular). Olvera was a key node in downtown's bustling early 20th century Mexican music circuit, which included a robust circuit of Mexican nightclubs, movie theaters, and vaudeville houses.
Just south of the original plaza on Main Street was the city's first Mexican record store, Mauricio Calderón's Repertorio Musical Mexicana, which billed itself "the only Mexican house of Mexican music for Mexicans." From the store Calderón also produced his own piano rolls through his Popocatepetl Piano Roll Company and during the 1930s, ran his own sheet music publishing company, Editorial Los Angeles. As Cal State Fullerton professor John Koegel has so carefully documented, Editorial Los Angeles published songs by Mexican artists like Chihuahua's José Perches Enriquez and Saltillo's Felipe Valdés Leal (whose "Echale un quinto al piano" was later picked up by legendary Mexican comic Tin-Tan).
The members of the band La Santa Cecilia know this split-screen version of Olvera Street all too well: it's the very foundation of their own musical identity. "My grandfather came and started selling little pottery and then he had the burro where we'd take photos," singer Marisol Hernández told me after the band finished recording their own version of "Chiapanecas." "So it's very much like a tourist place, but it also represents a lot of Mexican culture. It's a place where a lot of Latin people from Latin America still come because it reminds them of home."
Hernández and the band's accordion player José "Pepe" Carlos met when they were teenagers, each playing in separate groups that both performed for tips on the plaza. "We grew up there," she said. "We learned about music and traditional music on Olvera Street, with all the norteños, mariachis, trios. It's a big part of La Santa Cecilia because that's the first place we started playing our own music and kind of messing around with the traditional stuff."
Olvera's layering of histories and the band's layering of styles both shaped La Santa Cecilia's winking makeover of "Chiapanecas." Instead of choosing between the sheet music's options of either English or Spanish lyrics (written by Blanche Sena), they mixed them together. Instead of holding the song's permanent smile, they threw some rockabilly into the verses and some punk into the chorus, and with a bump from some norteño accordion, moved the hand-clapping from Chiapas to the northern border.
"Everyone living here in LA has the freedom to express themselves in so many ways," says Carlos. "What we try to do in the band is express how we grew up. We listened to punk rock, Nirvana, Metallica...but I also love norteñas. That's part of migration here in LA and the concentration of different ethnicities. We're free to explore and try different things."
Like the song? Here's a free download of La Santa Cecilia performing "Chiapanecas."
Purchase the book, "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles" by Josh Kun.
On Friday August 2nd, La Santa Cecilia will be part of a special Songs in the Key of Los Angeles concert led by Ozomatli and also featuring special guests Jackson Browne, Cheech Marin, I See Hawks in L.A., Petrojvic Blasting Company, Rob Gonzalez, and Ceci Bastida. Grand Performances, 8pm, free and open to all.
The Bedrock Sessions were made possible by the generous support of Bedrock.LA, The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, & The Norman Lear Center.