Sam Byrd on his new book, The Sounds of Latinidad

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Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you found yourself at a party explaining that you recently published a book on the music playing in the background, how would you describe The Sounds of Latinidad?

bWhen I explain my research, folks often express surprise that the genres of Latin American and Latino music I studied have such a vibrant scene in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Most often their question is, “Why Charlotte?”  The Sounds of Latinidad is a book not just about Latino immigration, but about how the city influences musical production and consumption and how musicians and their audiences position themselves as urban subjects.  In the case of Charlotte, you have a globalizing financial center whose banks were key players in the 2008 financial crisis.  Latino immigrants were recruited to build the bank towers and continue to fill many of the low wage service sector jobs that support the finance industry.  Latino immigrants are still a very invisible population culturally– they are very visible politically in the sense that Mexican and Central American migrants are the target of much anti-immigrant vitriol– but musically most people still tend to think of the South as a black and white place: birthplace of the blues, country, gospel, or more recently, indie rock, southern rap, etc.  Latino musicians are changing that by bridging U.S. and Latin American genres, becoming southern and Latino.  The sounds of latinidad, and the contributions of other recent newcomers- Asian immigrants, Irish immigrants, northern transplants- are transforming the music of the region to a more globally engaged, diverse field.  But there still remains that feeling, that soul that makes the music southern.

When you describe Latino musicians as workers, you point out that the different bands you studied did not all choose the same paths towards being a band.  Some focused on appearing as professional as possible by showing up on time sober, others on seeming to have as good a time as possible, which can involve considerable amounts of alcohol.  Some spent hours and hours rehearsing, others met only to perform.  I was wondering if you could explain some of the working dilemmas that Latino musicians face in particular that allow for such a wide range of strategies?

In chapter 4 of The Sounds of Latinidad, I thought it vital to consider the working conditions of Latino musicians as work.  Far too often, we tend to conflate the extroverted performance styles that many musicians have and the casual way musical performance permeates our leisure time with play, as in musicians are just playing and not really doing difficult labor.  But my research showed how Latino musicians embody the precarious nature of work that is affecting nearly everybody it seems in a globalized neoliberal capitalist economy: they work gig to gig, receive low pay, are non-union, work irregular and sometime unpredictable hours, at times suffer from wage theft or work for “exposure”, and are subject to the vagaries of the consumption economy.  Their experiences are representative of the larger Latino immigrant population.  Their varying performance styles serve as a way for Latino musicians to define themselves and be defined by their audiences, in a way to “brand” themselves, but also to be part of the musical communities that are renegotiating what it means to be Latino in the face of stiff cultural opposition and misunderstanding on the part of non-Latinos in Charlotte.  In other words, for Banda TecnoCaliente, being professional and sober is part of their desire to present a positive image of Mexican immigrants in the face of negative stereotypes of their compatriots in the mainstream media and even from within the local Latino community.  For bands such as Bakalao Stars, having “as good a time as possible” is part of a strategy to use the consumption of Latino culture to bridge genres and connect to audience members of diverse Latin American origins and to non-Latino audiences.  In terms of working dilemmas, Banda TecnoCaliente has to differentiate themselves from other local bands of regional mexicano music to get hired by festival promoters who see bands as interchangeable parts.  Bands that play in bars and restaurants often employ a strategy of drinking and socializing with their audience to make them feel at home, this can lead to the dilemmas of substance abuse and marital infidelity, but also the further casualization of musicians’ labor as they break down the “fourth wall” of performance.

Given that genres for Latino musicians can so significantly signal race and class, how do these interpretations of what different genres index shape the songs of other artists they choose to cover?

 Musicians play what they know.  One striking aspect about Charlotte’s Latino musicians was their wide-ranging tastes. I subscribe to Pierre Bourdieu’s idea that taste is a socially-constructed facet of a person’s class background and habitus. Genres rules can often limit through their rhythm and sound, and through their association with a class identity.  While there is much of this constriction in Charlotte, there also is much borrowing from the diverse streams of culture that immigrants from across Latin America bring to the city.  Because there is no one dominant nationality (and thus genre) that takes precedence, I sense musicians’ openness to trying new ideas.  This is also reflective of  the cosmopolitan nature of popular music genres in Latin America– where Colombian cumbia reinvents itself in Argentina and Mexico, bachata travels outside Santo Domingo,  reggaetón welds together Puerto Rican and Panamian ingredients, or Latin American rock fans grow up idolizing Gustavo Cerati (Soda Stereo) and Slash (Guns N’ Roses). Musicians in Charlotte, I argue, have tried to compile a canon of important songs that they consider vital to cover regardless of genre through an informal process of debate and experimentation during performances. They also engage with their perceptions of what southern music is, integrating blues, jazz, and other American genres into their styles as they interact with local non-Latino musicians.

Some musicians were torn between identifying as Mexican or latinidad, what shaped those decisions and did those decisions change over time?

 “Latino,” “Hispanic” and now “Latinx” are almost entirely United States-specific terms. All the recent immigrants I met identified with their nationality first- Mexican, Venezuelan, Dominican, etc. (and sometimes even the region within the home country) and then begrudgingly Latino or Hispanic next.  I see identifying as Latino as a process that happens as immigrants become long-term residents of the United States and negotiate their new identities as immigrants by interacting with state bureaucracies where they check Latino/Hispanic on forms.  “Latino” also becomes a way to include other immigrants in a common group identity. “Latino” is much more acceptable to the second generation who grows up using the term as part of US identity politics, but increasingly are also the children of mixed-nationality or mixed-ethnicity marriages.  For musicians, the context is important; for certain genres retaining national identity is vital (regional mexicano, for example) while others allow for a more pan-Latino identity.

 You mention that musicians have to be seen to treat their audiences well by giving out a few copies of CDs and so on.  Could you talk a bit about how they use social media to manage this as well?  Are the social media expectations different for Latino musicians than they are for other types of musicians?

  This is a phenomenon to consider in the context of neoliberal economic shifts and the deep (and often devastating) changes technological innovation has wrought on the music industry.  It is now accepted practice for musicians to basically give away their recordings to audiences online (either directly, or though streaming services).  Bands make money through live shows and commercial royalties, if they make money at all. Charlotte’s Latino bands give away CDs to connect with their audience, to convince them to come to future shows, and share the music by word of mouth.  But they also want a tangible product that shows discerning listeners the quality of the music’s production and arrangement (sometimes done at a professional studio with great expense, often on a personal computer using recording software).

Social media is transforming the band-audience interaction.  Innovations like live videos on Facebook allow bands to post rehearsals and shows as they happen to encourage fans to attend, while event pages facilitate publicizing concerts, and band pages become places where people comment and make connections.  It can be a way for an up and coming band to rapidly build an audience.  But does social media presence just become a branding exercise that encourages slick imaging and promotion over musical quality?  Are musicians with less online technological expertise or financial resources, particularly recent, working-class immigrants, being left behind? We shall see.