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"Conga Commercialism:" The Latinization of American Music in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Abstract:

As music historian John Storm Roberts writes, by the end of the 1930s Latin musical styles “had become overwhelmingly the most important non-U.S. elements in U.S. popular music.” Recording companies, Broadway musicals and Hollywood films prominently featured Latin music and musician, yet we still know little about the complex cultural and commercial process through which bandleaders, recording companies, nightclub owners, radio programmers, dancers, and listeners combined to create this Latinization of American music. The “Latin boom” of the late 1930s and 1940s produced a wide spectrum of musical styles, ranging from goofy novelty songs to unadulterated Latin rhythms, as music men sought to profit by marketing a range of hybrid musical styles in a process that Billboard magazine termed “conga commercialism.”

Throughout the 1930s, men in the music business—in recording companies, radio, nightclubs, the jukebox business, and the music press—struggled to gauge the potential popularity of Mexican, Caribbean, and South American music and to determine whether white Americans would listen to authentic Latin music or prefer conventional American popular tunes inflected with a Latin rhythm. Initially, music men struggled to market Latin music in the United States. Several factors impeded the popularity of Latin music: Spanish lyrics, exotic and complex rhythms, and unfamiliar dance steps all deterred some listeners. Recording companies, radio programmers, and jukebox operators alike observed that many American listeners enjoyed Latin-inflected music, but shied away from exotic Latin songs and rhythms.

At the outset of the 1940s, however, music men hailed a “Latin boom” in the nation’s musical preference. Latin rhythms and arrangements, formerly heard only in nightclubs and ethnic enclaves in New York and Miami, had become popular in clubs and on radio stations across the nation. Just as music men readily appropriated the rhetoric of racial equality to promote blues artists and saluted the dignity of “the people” to popularize country music, they sang the praises of the Roosevelt administration’s “Good Neighbor” policy in order to establish a larger market for Latin music in the U.S.—and, even more important from their perspective—to expand the market for American bands, recordings, and jukeboxes in Mexico and South America.

Most music men were in fact relatively unconcerned with the authenticity of Latin musical recordings (except when stocking jukeboxes or booking orchestras in locations that served a Latino clientele), but preferred songs arranged with a hint of Latin rhythm that would immediately “click” with the largest possible audience. The Latin music boom produced a spectrum of music ranging from popular vocals by the Andrews Sisters or Bing Crosby to authentic Latin arrangements by Nano Rodrigo and Fausto Curbelo. Many American bandleaders and singers scored hits by releasing swing tunes with a hint of Latin rhythm, and some Latin bandleaders (most famously, Xavier Cugat) re-arranged Latin tunes in a deliberate attempt to appeal to a mass audience without sacrificing the rumba rhythm. The “Latinization” of American music, far from a straightforward influx of Latin bands and genres or even a simple dichotomy between authenticity and commercialism, produced a wide array of musical experiments and hybrids.
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MLA Citation:

Rasmussen, Chris. ""Conga Commercialism:" The Latinization of American Music in the 1930s and 1940s." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186524_index.html>

APA Citation:

Rasmussen, C. , 2007-10-11 ""Conga Commercialism:" The Latinization of American Music in the 1930s and 1940s." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186524_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: As music historian John Storm Roberts writes, by the end of the 1930s Latin musical styles “had become overwhelmingly the most important non-U.S. elements in U.S. popular music.” Recording companies, Broadway musicals and Hollywood films prominently featured Latin music and musician, yet we still know little about the complex cultural and commercial process through which bandleaders, recording companies, nightclub owners, radio programmers, dancers, and listeners combined to create this Latinization of American music. The “Latin boom” of the late 1930s and 1940s produced a wide spectrum of musical styles, ranging from goofy novelty songs to unadulterated Latin rhythms, as music men sought to profit by marketing a range of hybrid musical styles in a process that Billboard magazine termed “conga commercialism.”

Throughout the 1930s, men in the music business—in recording companies, radio, nightclubs, the jukebox business, and the music press—struggled to gauge the potential popularity of Mexican, Caribbean, and South American music and to determine whether white Americans would listen to authentic Latin music or prefer conventional American popular tunes inflected with a Latin rhythm. Initially, music men struggled to market Latin music in the United States. Several factors impeded the popularity of Latin music: Spanish lyrics, exotic and complex rhythms, and unfamiliar dance steps all deterred some listeners. Recording companies, radio programmers, and jukebox operators alike observed that many American listeners enjoyed Latin-inflected music, but shied away from exotic Latin songs and rhythms.

At the outset of the 1940s, however, music men hailed a “Latin boom” in the nation’s musical preference. Latin rhythms and arrangements, formerly heard only in nightclubs and ethnic enclaves in New York and Miami, had become popular in clubs and on radio stations across the nation. Just as music men readily appropriated the rhetoric of racial equality to promote blues artists and saluted the dignity of “the people” to popularize country music, they sang the praises of the Roosevelt administration’s “Good Neighbor” policy in order to establish a larger market for Latin music in the U.S.—and, even more important from their perspective—to expand the market for American bands, recordings, and jukeboxes in Mexico and South America.

Most music men were in fact relatively unconcerned with the authenticity of Latin musical recordings (except when stocking jukeboxes or booking orchestras in locations that served a Latino clientele), but preferred songs arranged with a hint of Latin rhythm that would immediately “click” with the largest possible audience. The Latin music boom produced a spectrum of music ranging from popular vocals by the Andrews Sisters or Bing Crosby to authentic Latin arrangements by Nano Rodrigo and Fausto Curbelo. Many American bandleaders and singers scored hits by releasing swing tunes with a hint of Latin rhythm, and some Latin bandleaders (most famously, Xavier Cugat) re-arranged Latin tunes in a deliberate attempt to appeal to a mass audience without sacrificing the rumba rhythm. The “Latinization” of American music, far from a straightforward influx of Latin bands and genres or even a simple dichotomy between authenticity and commercialism, produced a wide array of musical experiments and hybrids.

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