by Julio Cann
Photos courtesy of Irwin Chusid
In April 1914, long before the city of Tampico, Tamaulipas became one of the focal points of the ongoing violent war between the Mexican government and drug cartels fighting for control of the northern border, ten Mexican soldiers and a small U.S. Navy contingent saw themselves involved in a minor conflict over fuel supplies for a transport ship. A small misunderstanding quickly escalated into the diplomatic crisis known as the 'Tampico Affair,' as the Porfirian regime struggled to negotiate between the demands of their American supporters trying to protect an investment in the new oil fields, and the challenge of the Mexican Revolution coming from the South. Four years later, as the heat of the war was winding down, Juan García Esquivel was born in the same city.
Although little is known about the composer's early life, it is perhaps safe to assume that he was born into a wealthy Porfirian family that could afford moving to Mexico City and provide Esquivel with a musical and professional education in the difficult post-revolutionary years. Thus, early in his teens, the musical prodigy was performing piano recitals and conducting the resident orchestra at Mexico City's then-only radio station, XEW. After graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering from Latin America's premier university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, 2) Esquivel realized he could make more money in music than in the electronics business, so he decided to take on a job writing incidental cues and jingles for radio as well as the burgeoning medium of television.
It is perhaps this highly-educated, privileged background that explains Esquivel's orientation towards the West-centric utopian ideals of Modernism that developed after the Second World War, aided by the booming post-war economy and the unprecedented speed of technological progress. By the composer's own account, 2 his background in electronics deeply informed his avant-garde approach to timbre in arrangement, as well as his early experiments with stereo recording techniques. This progressive entrepreneurial spirit, however, was not adequately perceived by the broad Mexican audience who lacked the cultural background to appreciate Esquivel's quirky renditions of popular classics such as 'La Bikina' or 'Perfidia.' Although moderately successful as a bandleader and performer, Esquivel soon left the country after landing a contract with RCA in Hollywood. 7
Esquivel with big band in 1955
Arriving in America in late 1959, the composer made an impression on his record company when, given five hours of studio time to record his first album (Other Worlds, Other Sounds), he finished with an hour and a half to spare and decided on the spot to record Four Corners of the World, a record that he later disowned. 7 It was in California, and later in New York, that Esquivel fully developed his highly idiosyncratic, cosmopolitan idiom retrospectively denominated "Space Age Pop," which incorporated the American big band jazz tradition with Latin phrasing and percussion, and the impressionistic harmonic sensibility of composers such as Claude Debussy. 4 It was in America that Esquivel finally got an opportunity to indulge his interest in sound electronics, developing a radical stereo recording technique that he dubbed 'Sonorama' and even going so far as to record two orchestras simultaneously in two different studios a block apart, in order to achieve maximum separation. 3
Although competently founded in the tradition of his greatest influences, Raymond Scott as well as 'serious' cartoon composers such as Scott Bradley or Carl Stalling, Esquivel's music failed to gain mainstream acceptance or even a significant cult following with American audiences. Rooted as it was in Latin rhythms and a deeply Mexican sense of melody emphasized by his repertoire of traditional cover songs, Esquivel's music was ultimately too foreign to be received as anything but novelty. The composer never quite completely surrendered his origins in favor of his adoptive culture, and continued referencing motifs and themes from Mexican culture such as college anthems ('Politécnico Rocanrol') and the Pachuco style of fashion and showmanship.
By the mid-1960's, Esquivel's focus had shifted to his residency at the Stardust hotel in Las Vegas. 2 It was here that Esquivel finally reached the peak of his popularity, often as an opening act for the likes of Frank Sinatra. The ersatz, kitsch character of the city was a natural fit with his postmodern decontextualization of Latin and Western influences. His spectacular light show and showcasing of a pre-packaged but somewhat ironic take on Mexican music struck a note with the loosely defined Exotica movement, an escapist trend portraying idealized illusions of tropical paradises in distant countries best exemplified by Les Baxter and Martin Denny. 1 His wordless vocalizations ("Zu-zu" and "Pow!") revealed a somewhat cheeky attempt to present himself as an eccentric from another world, banking on his alien roots without necessarily acknowledging any moral responsibility toward them.
The extent to which the composer negotiated this moral dimension remains unclear to this day. Although Exotica music has been denounced as exploitative, 1 it is perhaps notable that Esquivel was one of the few practitioners who actually came from the place he purported to represent. Furthermore, he unquestionably presented the Mexican elements in his music with a certain degree of pride. As Ulf Hennerz suggests, 10 this conditional surrender does not come without a measure of narcissism, as the cosmopolitan individual asserts control over both his place of origin and his new surroundings while wholly subscribing to neither. The charge certainly rings true for a notorious ladies' man who in his later years claimed to have been way ahead of his time, and who loved "music, cars, women and the piano, not necessarily in that order." 9
Eventually, as Exotica fad started to fade and the heavier sounds of rock and pop completely took over the market, Esquivel and his contemporaries were relegated once more to the novelty sections of record stores. All but forgotten, the composer returned to his native Mexico in the late '60's and wrote the music for seminal children's show Odisea Burbujas, 6 notable for its use of electronic graphics and production value, as well as for Esquivel's popular songs heavily utilizing analog synthesizers. Although his name remains unknown to the general public, it is these songs - ironically the most attuned to American pop formats - more than any other part of Esquivel's output that best transpired into the general Mexican consciousness.
Esquivel's return to Mexico marked the end of his most prolific creative period. While he continued to write for television periodically, the composer mostly lived in retirement with his sixth and final wife, a nurse several decades his junior, in the town of Jiutepec, outside of Mexico City. 9 In Jiutepec, after an accident that left him bedridden for the final years of his life, Esquivel experienced from afar his last - and perhaps his largest - surge in popularity, impulsed by the revival of lounge and cocktail music in the 1990's championed by cultural critics and DJ's such as Irwin Chusid. 8
The impact of this anomalous resurgence of Exotica under a new context has perhaps been exaggerated, and is generally attributed to a very specialized niche market , catering to an illusory nostalgia for the sophisticated cosmopolitan lifestyles of the 1950's portrayed in early Playboy 4 issues, but also to an ironic re-appropriation of music deemed uncool in the grunge era that foreshadows both hipster and geek tastes in the 2000's. 5 The composer himself found the trend baffling but wholly embraced it, though perhaps not lucidly enough to appreciate the measure of irony which accompanied this revival. Although the fad was specifically American, Esquivel has also consistently grown in popularity with Mexican youth in recent years, aided by a remix collection released in 2006. It remains to be seen whether the composer's significance on either side of the border has been completely exhausted.
ED NOTE: Special thanks to Professor Jason King at NYU and Robert Christgau for helping to arrange this article.
ALSO: There is a new Esquivel project on Basta Records.
"Basta proudly announces the release of an album featuring newly recorded versions of music arranged and composed by sophisticated Latin-jazz maestro Juan Garcia Esquivel. The recording is spectacular, featuring the Grammy-winning Metropole Orkest conducted by 6-time Grammy winner Vince Mendoza. Producer Gert-Jan Blom supervised the project, which involved some of the finest audio technicians in Holland."
See more at http://blog.bastamusic.com/2013/05/music-by-maestro-esquivel.html
1. Hayward, Philip (ed.) Widening the Horizon: Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music. Published by: John Libby & Company, Sydney 1999.
2. Interview w/ Juan Garcia Esquivel (1968?) - "Bob Wilkins Interviews Hollywood" [Video]. (1968). Retrieved 21 Feb. 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqdLrEA4uQQ
3. Leiter, Richard. "Composing: Viva Esquivel!" Keyboard 1997: 122-. International Index to Music Periodicals Full Text. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2012 .
4. Rebecca Leydon "'Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer': The Post-War Pastoral in Space-Age Bachelor-Pad Music" Popular Music , Vol. 22, No. 2 (May, 2003), pp. 159-172. Published by: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2012 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3877608 166
5. Macdonald, Cameron "On Second Thought: Juan Garcia Esquivel - Esquivel". Stylus Magazine: 4/11/06. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2012 from http://www.stylusmagazine.com/feature.php?ID=2306
6. Esquinca, Bernardo. "MUSICA: Esquivel y la cultura lounge." in Letras Libres. February 2002. Published by Editorial Vuelta, S.A. de C.V. Retrieved from amazon.com media on 23 Feb. 2012.
7. J.O.H. "Welcome to... Esquivel!" Retrieved 23 Feb. 2012 from http://streetnine.com/spaceage/esquivel/esquivel.html
8. Morris, Chris "Bachelor pad music from '50s, '60s swinging again" in Billboard, Vol. 107 No. 36 (Sept. 1995). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2012 from http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BCRC?srchtp=adv&c=1&ste=31&tbst=tsVS&tab=2&aca=nwmg&bConts=2&RNN=A17728934&docNum=A17728934&locID=nysl_me_nyuniv&finalAuth=true
9. Pareles, Jon "Juan Garcia Esquivel Dies; Pop Composer was 83" in New York Times, January 11 2002. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/11/obituaries/11ESQU.html
10. Hennerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, people, places. Published by: Routledge, London 1996. Reprinted 1998.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|