Hey, Pachuco!

Retro rascality or cultural imperialism?

The past is revered--well, referenced--to an unprecedented degree by pop culture today; roots and history are important in a way that would've been unthinkable a decade ago. Chalk it up to pop's voracious need for product--ideas for which have to come from somewhere--and it's particularly true in music.

That's often a good thing: We're better off if 20-year-olds know about Tony Bennett, or a 30-something Fab T-Birds fan can buy the Charlie Patton box set, but sometimes it can raise some troubling questions. As we run around borrowing willy-nilly from any and every era and culture, do we betray a certain winner's arrogance? Are we giving props or taking plunder?

Thinking about these issues has engendered some of the most tedious writing this side of the Playboy Philosophy, but issues they remain. You don't want to be insensitive, but you also don't want to be some P.C. weenie worrying about the implications of Mrs. Potato Head's not getting her own pipe.

Los Angeles' Royal Crown Revue is a case in point. The seven-piece band, heavy on horns, references the dance-band swing of the '40s and has created its own little hometown scene, heavy on the "noir martinis 'n' cigarettes" vibe so popular these days. The Revue created a persona for its tunes, sort of a cross between the pachuco of World War II-era East L.A. and David Johansen playing Officer Toody in Car 54, Where Are You? This character informs much of the music on the Revue's first major-label album, Mugzy's Move, appearing like a carnival barker between songs and choruses.

The playing is sharp, and the tunes are fun, but there's a dissonance that creeps in around the band's borrowings, particularly where the pachuco comes in. The pachuco of '40s L.A. was a tough guy, possibly but not necessarily a gang member or gangster. A child of the great northern migrations Mexicans made in the first quarter of the 20th century, he was likely the first of his family to be born and raised in America. His style was embodied by the zoot suit, an exaggeration of almost every aspect of men's haberdashery--giant lapels, way-baggy pants with high waists, and astoundingly wide-brimmed hats--that had been borrowed from the jitterbug fad on the East Coast a few years earlier.

The pachuco's high profile made him a lightning rod for specific oppression that mirrored a widespread discrimination, and there were numerous riots in Southern California during the war as a result. The best known of these, L.A.'s "pachuco riots" of 1943, were called "the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riots of the 1870s" by Time and featured marauding servicemen pulling pachucos--or those they took for pachucos--out of theaters and off of street cars and beating them up. It's hard to know what the pachucos themselves would think of their current role in Hispanic history--they've been politicized, made into symbols of a militancy they may or may not have felt--but they live on in many aspects of Latin style, particularly lowrider culture.

How available should the pachuco be to the blindly spinning wheels of pop commercialism? To be Hispanic living in L.A. during World War II doesn't read like much of a party: discriminated against yet drafted to fight, economically disadvantaged in a time of rationing, and recalling with fear the mass deportations of the '30s. If Hispanics were to resent the appropriation of that time--especially to be used as party fodder for a bunch of affluent idiots who mistake nicotine for irony--it would be understandable. The first reaction to Mugzy's Move is along the lines of: "If this is a bunch of white-boy studio guns and Berklee grads, this sucks."

Well, what if it isn't? What determines the bond between a band and its music, and the validity of that bond? In terms of authenticity, how many Hispanics would have to be on board to balance out the studio guns? What if one of the studio guys is African-American but not really all that good? Where do Polynesians fit in, pointwise, or Caucasians with dreadlocks?

For the answers to these and other pressing questions we turn to academia, where people with giant brains sit around all day, thinking. Are we taking all of this too seriously? Should a white guy from the 'burbs who cut his teeth on the Marshall Tucker Band worry about such things? Can he afford not to?

Dr. Cheryl Keyes, an assistant professor with UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, says to study up. "It's a valid concern for scholars who want to give credence to the roots of music. The mainstream [music] industry has been doing this for years, substituting white faces for black or brown ones in the name of commercialization:Think of Little Richard and Pat Boone."

The guys in the Royal Crown Revue, however, haven't a clue; they just play the music. If anything, they're flattered that someone could hear Mugzy's and worry about heartless studio types. Eddie Nichols, who founded the band in 1989 with tenor saxman Mando Dorame and guitarist James Achor, bursts into laughter.

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