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Things With Feathers: Juan Garcia Esquivel and Sun Ra’s Sweet Storm

November 6, 2010

For Esquivel, the atom symbolized mankind's bright future.

In 1962, the year of the nearly apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis and the Mississippi Race Riots and the death of Marilyn Monroe, few people anticipated the euphoric future that Mexican musician Juan Garcia Esquivel seemed to promise in his giddy album, Latin-Esque.

When Esquivel eavesdropped on the future, he heard nothing signaling the fate of John F. Kennedy or Robert Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King. He didn’t catch echoes from Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church or the Tonkin Gulf, nor did he detect the faint rumbling of Soviet tanks inching toward the Prague Spring.

Esquivel tuned into a future of swelling, incandescent brass, surfy slide guitars, and sassy radio-jingle vocals. Latin-Esque envisions the future as an endless champagne-fueled bachelor party hosted by Hugh Hefner on a groovy spaceship parked in orbit around Saturn. 

It’s hard to imagine that Esquivel’s Randy Van Horne Singers, just a small part of his enormous orchestra, didn’t squeal with anxious glee each time Esquivel arbitrarily snapped his baton in their direction, cuing them to really pop and shine, shine, shine as they peppered his suave tunes with some “Zu-zu-zu-zu” or “Pow! Pow! Pow!” or even just a few normal English words like Night and daaaaay!

Often shoehorned into the sub-sub-genre of Space Age Lounge Pop (or some goofy permutation thereof), Esquivel’s music sounds space age, but it’s hard to identify what’s explicitly futuristic about it.

In an era when the theremin was not only a musical symbol of progress-obsessed Soviet Russia, but the instrument of choice for composers looking for a “futuristic” sound, Esquivel used it only once, in “Spellbound,” a song on his 1958 album Exploring New Sounds in Stereo.

Esquivel was a true pioneer, but unlike his contemporary Sun Ra, who was also navigating toward distant horizons, Esquivel eludes the established categories of “experimental” or “avant-garde” music because Esquivel was broaching frontiers that he alone perceived and trailblazing musical territory that other musicians didn’t care about or could never possibly imagine…“Pow! Pow! Pow!”

Perhaps his exclusion from the avant-garde canon is due to Esquivel’s self-admitted tendency to laugh at his own compositions, a trait decidedly at odds with the prissy self-importance that most “experimental artists” embrace as their birthright.

Esquivel never swaddled his art in prickly high-mindedness or icy moral pretension because he wasn’t ashamed of of its middle-brow roots — mainstream radio and television.  Which isn’t to say that Esquivel didn’t treat his craft with seriousness. Esquivel recorded his albums with a perfectionism so relentless as to make Stanley Kubrick’s fastidiousness seem like a slacker’s indifference:

On Latin-Esque, Esquivel pushed the stereo medium to the limit. Commandeering RCA’s Hollywood studios 1 and 2, he conducted one orchestra himself while Stanley Wilson led the other a block away. These majestic performances demonstrating the possibilities of channel panning and separation – and touted on the sleeve as “the sound your eyes can follow ” – were achieved with the help of television monitors and a “click track” now commonly used in today’s pop music. “RCA was very nice to me,” Esquivel recalled:

If I wanted to record the orchestra using drapery behind the trumpets to soften the sound, they would allow me. If I wanted to record the violins with wooden floors beneath to brighten the sound, they would allow me. I could do whatever I wanted.

Since Esquivel thought his own music was often a hoot, to treat it with academic care is to censor and suppress what Esquivel himself saw in his own work, and it’s also a surefire way to come off as a self-serious snob who can’t get the joke.

Esquivel’s brilliance was in the sophistication of his playfulness. His skill at mimicry, for example, his knack for making a human voice or musical instrument sound like anything but itself, never resorted to literalism or mere onomatopoeia. At a very young age, he unnerved people with his ability to make music convey anything he wanted:

Esquivel’s family moved to Mexico City in 1928 [Esquivel was ten years old], and by the early 1930s, he was appearing on radio station XEW. Self-taught as a player, composer, and arranger, he proved a prodigy, and was soon leading the station orchestra. By 1940, he had formed his own band, with 22 musicians and 5 vocalists. Much like Pedro Camacho, the soap opera writer in Vargas Llosa’s “Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter,” Esquivel honed his writing and conducting abilities providing the background music for a daily radio show starring the comedian Panseco. “He’d ask things like ‘Can you play something that sounds like a Russian guy walking through China?’ and somehow, I would do it,” Esquivel later recalled.

Esquivel heard all the real world in the instruments themselves. He knew every subliminal association we make when we hear a given sound, and he could elicit or repress, amplify or diminish, refine or blur, all these associations with virtuosic finesse:

We had no synthesiser, so I tried to get different sounds out of conventional and non-conventional instruments. I explored a little. My approach was as if I were a painter: I can see the canvas and music is colours. For instance, F-sharp is like bright red; A-flat might be deep purple, or yellow. Van Gogh had a lot of influence on me because his paintings had an extraordinary blend of colours.

In the early 1960’s, Sun Ra wasn’t as hopeful as Esquivel about Earth’s future.  Sun Ra  had registered as a conscientious objector when drafted to fight in the Second World War, citing the absence of African-Americans on the draft board as his reason.  After witnessing endless post-war civil rights abuses from his vantage in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra came to the conclusion that Earth was a no-win situation for Black people, and that the future would inevitably see a new African diaspora—in outer space.

Sun Ra

This prophecy followed a vision Sun Ra claims to have had in the late 1930’s:

He was transported to Saturn where aliens advised him to drop out of the college he was attending back on Earth and become a sort of musical prophet who would shepherd the world through an upcoming period of great chaos.

Sun Ra’s friends, however, have been unable to recall his mentioning this remarkable experience prior to 1952.

But that would still place Sun Ra’s trip to Saturn a full nine years before Barney and Betty Hill unwisely stopped their Chevrolet Bel Air on a rural road in New Hampshire to get a better look at a “bright point of light in the sky,” thereby establishing alien abduction as an eternal commonplace of the global public’s imagination.

While Sun Ra may have vacationed on Saturn and hob-nobbed with clairvoyant aliens, his artistic self-discipline was as down-to-earth as Esquivel’s. Sun Ra demanded that his musicians promptly attend daily rehearsals and abstain from all drugs. Though his compositions were seemingly cacophonous, they were played by only the most skilled musicians Sun Ra could find.

And Sun Ra’s music, like Esquivel’s, was an expression of the world’s growing fascination with, and fear of, the unknown.

When duck-and-cover drills were a routine activity in American schools, when Mississippi was burning, when aliens and Communists were abducting Americans right, left, and center, both Esquivel and Sun Ra were able to seize upon hope for the future.

For Esquivel, there was hope right here on planet Earth.  For Sun Ra, it flickered someplace else.

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