Sounds of California:
Hearing Migration Through Music

The Shady Lane mural in Coachella Valley was initiated in 1979 by Artistas Del Barrio and later restored and expanded through an effort coordinated by local leaders and arts organizations. Photo by Azusa Oda, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts
The Shady Lane mural in Coachella Valley was initiated in 1979 by Artistas Del Barrio and later restored and expanded through an effort coordinated by local leaders and arts organizations. Photo by Azusa Oda, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

In 1948, on the centennial of the California Gold Rush, journalist/historian Carey McWilliams observed an underwhelming celebration for the occasion. “Just as California cannot properly celebrate its centennial, so the time has not yet arrived for a real summing-up; one cannot, as yet, properly place California in the American scheme of things,” he remarked. “There is still too much commotion, too much noise and movement and turmoil.” Though migration had spurred population growth during World War II at a speed and volume no other state had experienced, McWilliams suggested that “the nation has still failed to comprehend the meaning of the continued mass migration to California.” [1]

In 2015, fifty years after the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act launched an era of accelerated and greatly diversified immigration to the United States, have we achieved a better vantage point? Have we gained perspective from which to consider how California might forecast something about what the rest of the nation is experiencing, or is a simple summation as unattainable as ever?

Since the nineteenth century, California has been a site of contention over issues relating to citizenship, identity, and representation, and developments over recent decades continue to complicate this. From 1970 to 2010, the number of California residents who are immigrants increased from 1.8 million to about 10 million. In 2012, California reportedly received one-quarter of the refugees arriving in the United States. Today, the state is officially recognized as having a Latino plurality, while Asian migration to California is now surpassing the rate of Latinos’. One in four immigrants in the United States currently lives in California, which has the highest percentage of immigrants in its population of any state. California is also home to the largest and most diverse population of Native Americans, one of the largest populations of people who identify as mixed race, as well as people and communities whose families migrated to the states several generations ago.[2]

Sidney Robertson Cowell (right) recorded “Song of Freedom” along with dance music tracks by Aslanian’s Armenian Orchestra in Fresno, April 1939. Oud player Archie Krotlian (left) was born in Turkey but grew up in the United States. In her notes, Cowell writes that the group performed “all up and down the San Joaquin Valley, where there are a great many Armenians… to play for weddings and funerals and dances generally…” From the W.P.A. California Folk Music Project Collection, 1936-1991. Recorded on acetate discs. Used by permission of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

“Yo no le tengo miedo a nada” (I’m not afraid of anything) was recorded live during a 1966 meeting of the United Farmworkers in Delano. Agustín Lira composed this song in the early days of the 1965 grape strike, and he can be heard in this recording as he leads the crowd in song. Music was a key component of the farmworkers movement, providing a manner of engagement, encouragement, and energy to the organizing efforts. Recorded on half-inch reel tape—and using, in Lira’s recollection, “mattresses to cover the doors and I forget what else to cover the windows.” Courtesy of the UFW and Agustín Lira. Photo by Jon Lewis, courtesy of Agustín Lira.

The public discussion around immigration is now more audible than ever—with soundbites of presidential candidates debating the requirements of citizenship, while American lawmakers reconsider the U.S. capacity to receive newcomers. Against this, we think about the long force of immigration on California culture and communities to focus attention on how people have utilized music to express their circumstances, their cultural knowledge, and creativity, even while aggrieved and marginalized—and even when “no one” was listening.

A collective comprised of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), Smithsonian staff, and Radio Bilingüe—along with colleagues from several universities, the American Folklife Center/Library of Congress, and the Oakland Museum of California—has begun to explore how experiences of immigration are embedded and archived within music, sound, and social practice.[3] Together we are establishing an initiative called “Sounds of California,” which will bring together traditional cultural artists, scholars, organizers, curators, and media producers to generate public engagement through dialog, documentation, and new collections. Thus, we have interspersed within this article a selection of historical and contemporary audio recordings to provide sonic snapshots of how immigration histories are expressed in music and layered into the California soundscape.

“Sounds of California” is inspired by the W.P.A. California Folk Music Project, a historical collection of music archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. This remarkable resource of recordings, photographs, and technical drawings was collected by ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell between 1938 and 1940.[4] With a staff of twenty, she led a field ethnographic project that was one of the earliest efforts to implement a large-scale regional survey of American folk music.

This recording picks up the live musical accompaniment and the movement of the dancer during an arangetram, presented by Anuradha Kishore Ganpati under the tutelage of her guru Viji Prakash, in Torrance, September 2015. An arangetram is a public debut in which the skills of the dancer are assessed and celebrated. In the United States, arangetram has become in important means through which families sustain links to cultural heritage. At the urging of her guru and to the delight of family and friends, Anu presented her arangetram after marriage, two kids, and successful cancer treatment. Recorded on an iPhone 6. Courtesy of Sabrina Lynn Motley.

Pusaka Sunda, a West Javanese gamelan ensemble based in San Jose, performs “Eceng Gondok” in Sacramento, May 2011. Master suling flute player Burhan Sukarma co-directs the group with his wife, Rae Ann Stahl, and teaches his regional tradition to American musicians. Gamelan ensembles first emerged on the West Coast in context of ethnomusicology programs on college campuses and U.S. Cold War entanglements, which included cultural exchange with Southeast Asia. The first gamelan ensemble was established in 1958 at UCLA. Recorded with a Zoom H2. Courtesy of Elisa Hough. Photo courtesy of Rae Ann Stahl.

Cowell collected from people whose experiences were unrepresented, if not unrecorded at the time, including Armenian, Portuguese, and Basque immigrants. She was interested in what people were singing, recognizing this would be represented in different languages, sounds, and aesthetics. She understood that California was made up of people who brought cultural repertoire from many different places. It’s a remarkable inclination given that the 1930s were an era marked by such Nativist reactions as the exclusion of Asian immigrants and the mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. In her “Instructions to Workers,” Cowell wrote, “Remember that the Anglo-Saxon music which we are inclined to think of as the only ‘American’ kind is a relatively recent importation on this continent, exactly as the Hungarian, Finnish, and Armenian folk musics are. The Portuguese and Spanish have been in California three times as long as the ‘Americans.’”

While the W.P.A. California Folk Music project is a compelling touchstone into the historical record of the state’s cultural and musical heritage, it also reflects the limitations of any collection. For instance, there is only one recording from California Native Americans in the collection—a Spanish Mission song—and no music from Asian American communities.

Accordingly, this collection suggests some guiding questions for the “Sounds of California” project. First, whose experiences, via musical expression, are audible and inaudible in the public and commercial realm—both in the past and in the present? How has immigration historically shaped California’s distinctive cultural landscapes and soundscapes? And finally, how has the nature of ethnography and collecting changed? In particular, we are interested in how new communications technologies and expanded participation will yield a different kind of record today and for the future.

In 1989 the son jarocho collective Mono Blanco, who was central to revitalizing this tradition from Veracruz, Mexico, came to the Bay Area and instilled the jarocho fandango into the local cultural landscape. This excerpt of “El Buscapies” is from a September 2015 fandango in Santa Clara, a monthly gathering hosted by the Beltran family and facilitated by Artemio Posadas. Posadas is a local cultural leader who has made Mexican traditional folk music available to the Bay Area community since 1974. Recorded on a Sony PCM- D50 handheld digital recorder. Courtesy of Russell C. Rodríguez. Photo by Maria Virginia Prieto Solís.

A procession of musicians on percussion and flute energize the dancers and the volunteers drawing the final float through the streets of Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo during the Nisei Week Parade, August 2015. Established in 1934, Nisei Week is the longest running public Japanese celebration in the United States, though it was disrupted for six years when West Coast Japanese Americans were removed from their communities and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during World War II. Recorded with a Canon S110 camera. Courtesy of Sojin Kim.

Though not archived formally by such bodies as the W.P.A. or captured on mainstream labels, we know the lives of many more communities have been historically loud with musical culture. We see it in black-and-white photos from performances in San Francisco’s Chinatown from the 1930s. We read it in the eloquent prose of Carlos Bulosan, who describes joyful and melancholic musical moments in the lives of Filipino farmworkers. We hear strains of it in the East San Jose Guadalupe church’s self-produced recordings of the “Cursillos” (religious seminars) and the English, Spanish, and Japanese-language records in the jukebox of Mildred’s Café, a Walnut Grove restaurant that catered to Japanese and Mexican agricultural workers in the 1950s.

With the “Sounds of California” project, we look forward to uncovering new means and resources through which to hear California’s immigration history through music. We expect to leverage various technologies and platforms for engaging the public in the documentation process. We endeavor to create a broader view of immigrant experiences by bringing together historical collections and new collecting efforts. We also know that any consideration of the impact of migration on California must address the experiences of Native Californians.

“Everyone in this state is a migrant/immigrant except California Native Americans,” ACTA executive director Amy Kitchener reminds. “The history of human habitation in this state and the sounds that people have produced and are still making begins with listening very closely to Native California.”

Music has the power to create environment. It is immersive. It can transform an otherwise generic local veteran’s hall, park, or parade route into a culturally specific space. If we listen to California communities, we learn how music and related cultural practices function through generations and contribute to supporting a sense of collective memory, knowledge, identity, and belonging. We can hear how people express their place in California—making it sound like home.

Russell C. Rodriguez, based in Santa Cruz, California, is a program manager for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. Sojin Kim is a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

[1] Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (New York: Current Books, Inc., 1949).

[2]  U.S. Census Bureau (“Nativity for Population, for Regions, Divisions, and States: 1850 to 1990,” “The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2010”); Refugee Council USA, “The US Resettlement Program in California”), Public Policy Institute of California, “Immigrants in California”; Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Weaving Traditional Arts into the Fabric of Community Health (2011, UC Davis).

[3] Advising scholars include: Donald Brenneis (UCSC), Martha Gonzalez (Scripps), Theodore Gonzalves (UMBC), Catherine Gudis (UCR), Greg Landau (CCSF), George Lipsitz (UCSB), Deborah Wong (UCR). This phase of planning has been supported by the Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia for the Humanities in relation to the Our American Journey-Immigration/Migration Initiative.

[4] Special thanks to folklorist/archivist Catherine Hiebert Kerst, who processed the collection which is now digitized and available online with substantial contextual framing. She has helped familiarize us with this collection.