Kickin’ It En Español: American Music Legends Look South of the Border (Again)

The news dropped earlier this month that two giants of English-language pop music, Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson, were planning to incorporate something of a Latin tinge in their upcoming albums.
The Dylan rumor comes from a report in the Aspen Times that David Hidalgo, a Mexican-American guitarist for the East L.A. band Los Lobos, had impressed the ‘60s icon with his use of the accordion and the tres in a recent recording sessions for Bob’s upcoming album. Robinson was more explicit, telling Billboard that he has been studying Spanish for several years and plans to record an entire album of songs he composed in la idioma castellana.

Anglo-parlante pop stars singing in different languages as a strategy to reach new markets has a long history. Who could forget the early Beatles’ catchy German version of an early hit—“Komm Gib Mir Diene Hand”? But given Latin America’s proximity to the U.S., the focus stateside has been on tapping the Latin flavor, going as far back to Nat King Cole’s three classic albums in Spanish in the 1950s. While they were beautifully produced jazz ballads, Cole’s flawed pronunciation of the language has become more symbolic of Latin culture’s kitsch appeal than the brilliance of the Cuban boleros he covered, like “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” by Adolfo Utrera and Nilo Menéndez.

 

More recently we’ve been graced with rarities like Gloria Gaynor’s live Spanish version of “I Will Survive,” as well as Spanish-language recordings by the Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion. Punk rockers might remember the Clash’s mangled Spanish on “Spanish Bombs” and hiphop heads the “mami ven aquí/I wanna be your papi chulo” chorus from Puff Daddy’s “Señorita.” On a somewhat higher profile, two Latinas who were not generally recognized as Latinas, Linda Ronstadt and Christina Aguilera, released impactful Spanish language albums that helped define their careers.

Even Coldplay, the band Calle 13 doesn’t care whether you like or not, flirted with Latin America by recording the awkwardly titled Viva la Vida, but their subsequent inclusion (with Maroon 5 and the Artic Monkeys) on 2009’s Rhythms del Mundo, which remixed those groups’ songs using Buena Vista Social Club musicians, was not memorable. (This item from the Daily Mirror last December reveals that Coldplay singer Chris Martin is at a loss when his wife Gwyneth Paltrow and their children speak to him in Spanish.)
Still, the idea of Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan “going Latin” shouldn’t be perceived merely as attempts to embrace the other side of the border. Both R&B and folk-rock have roots in exchanges between African American, Anglo-American, and Latino music traditions dating back to the mid-20th century. Robinson and the Miracles’ first hit, “Got a Job,” was an answer song to the Silhouettes’ doowop monster smash “Get a Job.” Doowop, an R&B style that emerged from African American communities in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, also included some Latinos in its history. One of doowop’s biggest stars, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, featured two Puerto Rican members, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni.

Robinson’s central presence as one of the stars of R&B in the 1960s put him in a musical world that had been long influenced, if subtly, by Latin rhythms. Ken Emerson’s 2006 book Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building documented how this famous New York songwriting factory influenced artists like Willie Mae Thornton, Darlene Love, the Coasters, and the Drifters with a frequent undercurrent of Latin beats. Fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder even went so far as including an R&R cha-cha-cha, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” on 1973’s “Innervisions.”

“You know I speak very, very fluent Spanish,” he says in the song’s intro. “Todo ‘sta bien, chévere, you got that?”

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, became famous by bringing the folk sensibility developed by artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie into the context of the countercultural 1960s. While he did bring up matters Hispanic in an early ballad called “Boots of Spanish Leather,” his guitar playing style seemed to have a significant influence on Cuban nueva trova singer Silvio Rodríguez, particularly on a song like “Óleo de Mujer Con Sombrero.”

Trovador is easily translated as troubadour, the persona often taken by singers like Guthrie, Dylan’s major influence, who was born in Oklahoma and spent significant time in Texas. The Texas cowboy ballad, and to a lesser extent, talking blues, has been as interlaced with Tejano culture as much as the cowboy and ranchero culture on both sides of the Rio Grande. While the stories were different from the Tejano perspective, the Texas cowboy ballads were, like Mexican corridos, poetry accompanied by roving guitarists who worked the same land.

In fact, one of Guthrie’s most cherished songs, written in 1948 and covered by countless folkies, was called “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” The song described a California plane crash that resulted in the deaths of 28 migrant farmworkers who were being deported back to Mexico. While this particular repatriation was in accord with the provisions of the Bracero program, the song was an indictment of the way the U.S. had historically treated Mexican workers. Guthrie particularly objected to the way the newspaper reports did not even list the names of the dead, referring to them only as “Deportees.”

“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted/Our work contract’s out and we have to move on,” read the lyrics to “Deportee.” “Six hundred miles to that Mexican border/They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Maybe a Dylan cover is in order, or perhaps he can incorporate these lyrics in an update of his old hit, retitled: “The Times Haven’t A-Changed.”

published today in Univision News Tumblr 

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