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California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads


What does it mean to be "Californian"? California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads suggests an answer that lies at the intersection of musicology, cultural history, and politics. Consisting of a series of musical case studies of major ethnic groups in California, this book approaches the notion of Californian identity from diverse perspectives, each nuanced by class, gender, and sexuality.

In the early twentieth century, the concept of the Pacific Rim and an ...

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California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads

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What does it mean to be "Californian"? California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads suggests an answer that lies at the intersection of musicology, cultural history, and politics. Consisting of a series of musical case studies of major ethnic groups in California, this book approaches the notion of Californian identity from diverse perspectives, each nuanced by class, gender, and sexuality.

In the early twentieth century, the concept of the Pacific Rim and an orientalist fascination with Asian music and culture dominated the popular imagination of white Californians, influencing their interactions with the Asian Other. Several decades later, as tensions rose between the Los Angeles Police Department and the African American community, the once-thriving jazz and blues nightclub scene of 1940s Central Avenue became a primary target for law enforcement's anti-vice crusade. The reactionary nature of the musical scores for Hollywood's noir films of the World War II and postwar eras negotiated the perceived demise of white female sexuality in the face of black culture and urban corruption. Mina Yang also considers Mexican Americans' conflicted assimilation into the white American mainstream from the early 1900s through the 1970s, as well as contemporary Korean Americans' struggles to express their cultural and national identities through hip-hop, a genre usually associated with African Americans.

According to Yang, there has never been a straightforward definition of "Californian." This most populous and most affluent state in the Union has been setting musical and cultural trends for decades, and Yang's study thoughtfully illuminates the multiculutral nature of its musics.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[A] compelling new study ... Yang successfully demonstrates that many elements can and must be taken into account when addressing the formation of any modern musical identify."--American Music Review

"A landscape of California's musical history that draws upon sociocultural and political forces that led to the creation, innovation, and appropriation of musical styles, genres, and forms. This welcome addition to music and cultural studies combines the musical contributions of African Americans, East Asian Americans, and Mexican Americans in a unique and refreshing way."--Cheryl L. Keyes, author of Rap Music and Street Consciousness

“A fascinating and groundbreaking glimpse into a complicated musical geography.”--Journal of American History
"Mina Yang offers a musical message of social hope without stepping back from fierce historical inequities. She shows how the meeting grounds and collisions marking California's racial landscape add up to far more than accidents. California Polyphony will sit on my bookshelf between Mike Davis's City of Quartz and George Lipsitz's Dangerous Crossroads."--Deborah Wong, author of Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252032431
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 3/4/2008
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

An accomplished pianist as well as a scholar, Mina Yang is an assistant professor of music history and literature at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
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Read an Excerpt

California Polyphony

Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03243-1

Chapter One

The Early History of California Cultural and Musical Life

California's population exploded during each of its boom periods, as immigrants from all over the world converged there in pursuit of the California dream, based half on truth and half on myth, of a land abundant in wealth and possibilities. The histories of the various groups who migrated to California from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century were marred by conflicts between the old and new arrivals. The construction of culture involved the demarcation, reinforcement, and transgression of boundaries between the various constituencies, as Californians defined themselves as much by their differentiation from the other occupants of the increasingly crowded cultural space as by their affirmative claim on particular value systems. From the very beginning, prevailing aesthetic and ideological currents showed signs of polarization: between those of the northern and southern parts of the state, the Anglo majority and ethnic minorities, and the establishment and the counterculture that began to emerge at the turn of the century.

By the 1920s, California was already outdistancing most of the country in population growth and cultural endowments. Cultural foundations in Los Angeles and San Francisco were laid piecemeal throughout the second half of the nineteenth century; in the twentieth century, public and private expenditures in the cultural arena surged, overtaking those of older American cities in a few giant strides. During the many boom and bust economic cycles of the region, capital accumulated in the hands of a few who determined the allocation of funding for the arts. In order to solidify their social positions and improve their cities' images, the newly minted elite lavished large sums of money and energy into the construction of institutions for the propagation of highbrow culture, such as universities and concert halls. These institutions were not impervious, however, to the intellectual and aesthetic trends shaped by the various subcultures and countercultures that thronged in the western frontier lands. By the mid-twentieth century, Californians could hear symphonies and operas performed at the highest caliber alongside a fare of avant-garde music that worked to subvert elitist ideals of bourgeois gentility. Gleaming new concert halls—designed to be the exclusive and hallowed domains of high art for the white upper crust—showed fissures from the start, letting in snatches of the colorful and chaotic urban life outside their walls.

Immigration and Growth, 1848–1945

From the beginning of European settlement, racially motivated violence and rivalries made their impact felt in the political and cultural life of the region. Since Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's sighting of Los Angeles, the Spanish had established twenty-one missions, four presidios, and two pueblos along the entire Californian coastline between 1769 and 1823. Although the missions were fairly prosperous, given the productivity of native labor, the Spanish did not settle in California in significant numbers. After winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico gained control of California and the southwestern states but in 1848 lost the war against the United States and ceded its territories in North America. Against the overwhelming migration of Anglo Americans, the Californios—as the Hispanics and mestizos living in California in the pre-American era were called—eventually lost their sizable fortunes. The region catapulted into the American era, with different rules and a new power structure.

The gold rush unleashed a massive wave of immigration into California from all corners of the world. Following President James Polk's State of the Union message of December 1848 confirming the discovery of gold, California was deluged by 90,000 Americans and foreigners from Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The population exploded from 15,000 in the beginning of 1848 to 224,435 only three years later. Lawlessness soon ran rampant in the mines. The presence of foreigners increased and intensified the conflicts that naturally arose within a society founded on greed. The early Californians successfully mounted a campaign to make life in the mines miserable for nonwhites. The California legislature enacted the foreign miners' license tax, which levied heavy monthly fines on noncitizens. With nonwhites barred from testifying in the court of law, white miners could and did victimize and loot nonwhite miners with impunity. Native Americans, suffering from disease, malnutrition, overwork, and violence inflicted upon them by American bullies and frightened homesteaders, were virtually wiped out by 1880. Already by the time of California's admission into statehood on September 9, 1850, the region was marked by both cosmopolitanism and a strong streak of reactionary nativism.

The subsequent decades saw a general economic expansion, with boom and bust cycles resulting from the discovery of the Comstock mine in nearby Nevada and the establishment of industrial bases and agriculture, followed by runaway inflation, real estate and stock market speculations, and severe droughts. While San Francisco continued to grow steadily after its initial period of settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, Los Angeles exploded from the 1880s on, attracting wave after wave of immigrants from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century. Los Angeles grew at a staggering rate of 351 percent in the 1880s and sustained triple-digit growth for the next several decades; San Francisco, by contrast, maintained a steady rate of growth in the 15–28 percent range during the same period. Los Angeles overtook the northern city in population figures by 1920 and reached a population of 2.6 million by the end of that decade. The pull toward Los Angeles took on a magnetic force with the discovery of oil, the birth of the modern film industry, the establishment of a manufacturing base, which included the aviation and automotive industries, and the expansion of agricultural production made possible by the diversion of water from Owens Valley.

Above and beyond these economic incentives was the vision of a land of sunshine and Mediterranean-inspired idyll promoted by the Chamber of Commerce and boosted untiringly by land speculators, which succeeded in turning Los Angeles into a highly desirable destination for tourists and immigrants in search of a new life. In the Midwest, the chamber launched a massive promotional campaign, disseminating brochures and flyers that touted Los Angeles as an arcadian garden of citrus fruits and Anglo brotherhood, a haven from the decaying and darkening cities back east. During its first decades of growth, Los Angeles attracted migrants who were predominantly American-born and white; in 1920, only 17 percent of Angelenos had been born abroad, as opposed to 35 percent of New Yorkers.

California as a whole continued to experience growth and change into the 1930s. After the boom of the preceding decade and the 1929 crash, Californians were faced with massive labor disputes, epitomized by the 1934 Waterfront Strike in San Francisco, political seesawing between the Far Right and Left, and the incessant flow of displaced migrant workers from the Dust Bowl. The relatively new and untested infrastructure of California was ill-equipped to handle the huge influx of immigrants. More than three hundred thousand arrived between 1930 and 1934 alone, overwhelming the already struggling economy with staggering rates of unemployment. By June 1934, 1,225,000 Californians, out of a total population of 6,000,000, were dependent on public assistance.

Immigrants of color were especially vulnerable to the economic and political vicissitudes of the region. California was home to a sizable population of foreign immigrants by the beginning of the twentieth century, with growing numbers of Asians and Mexicans in particular. By 1924, when the passage of the National Origins Act curtailed immigration from Asia, approximately one million Asians from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and India had entered the United States, and a majority of them had settled in California (see table 1.1). The large Asian presence in the West fomented the growth of a virulent strain of anti-Asian prejudice during the latter half of the nineteenth century, leading to race riots and massacres. In order to mitigate the anti-Chinese furor in San Francisco, the U.S. Senate passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first American legislation designed to exclude immigrants on the account of race and ethnicity. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian agitators finally succeeded in quelling the "yellow peril" in their midst with the wholesale removal and relocation of Japanese Americans into concentration camps in the interior of the country. Increasing numbers of African Americans and Mexican sojourners immigrated to California to alleviate the problem of labor shortage that plagued the economy throughout its boom periods, further exacerbated by the departure of Japanese Americans. As the state's population of African Americans and Mexicans reached the hundreds of thousands, racial hatred was transferred to these new arrivals, and racial hostilities erupted into violence with alarming frequency.

The 1929 crash and the ensuing years of the Great Depression augmented Anglo-Americans' sense of victimization and strengthened their resolve to protect their interests against the infringement of outsiders. World War II tapped into the rising tide of patriotism sweeping the country, furnishing Americans with enemies to fight and moral issues to defend. Struggling to define Americanism in the face of calamitous sociopolitical turbulences, white Californians pilloried the new arrivals in the region. Their constant confrontation with the nonwhite other influenced the ongoing project of cultural construction, providing antitheses against which to gauge their cultural differences.

The Building of the Cultural Infrastructure

Because the gold rush attracted primarily young men of some means who could afford their fare to this distant land, San Francisco had at its inception a population that was roughly 80 percent male, young and single, relatively well-educated, and drawn from all over the world. The dearth of family life gave rise to an urban setting that encouraged public gathering and outdoor living. Even after the peak years of mining, San Francisco residents continued to live in hotels and eat at restaurants, spending their evenings in theaters, opera houses, and saloons.

From the early gold rush days, San Francisco was a town of letters, boasting successful bookstores, two literary journals, and more daily newspapers than contemporary London. Because of its isolation from other metropolitan centers before the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, San Francisco had to rely on its own writers to provide recreation and edification and eventually produced such well-known authors as Jack London, Frank Norris, and Ambrose Bierce. Along with their compatriots in the other arts, they convened as the Bohemian Club, founded in the early 1870s, to exchange ideas and socialize over a good meal. San Francisco, under the leadership of Bohemian Club members, reached a peak of artistic activity during the 1890s, when the city enjoyed the commerce of goods and men flowing through its port on their northward trek to the mines of Klondike following the discovery of gold in 1896 or to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The thriving economy nourished the arts during the brilliant fin de siècle, its momentum interrupted only with the destructive earthquake and fire of 1906.

As in the older cities in the East, the patronage of the arts fell on the shoulders of the wealthy elite in San Francisco, whose numbers were growing by the end of the nineteenth century. Affluent businessmen, whose fortunes were made in the gold and silver mines, railroads, banks, and other newly installed institutions in the West, controlled every aspect of society, from the political to the mundane. Although the general population was diverse, with half its denizens having been born overseas, the social structure of San Francisco resembled that of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn: less than 5 percent of the male labor force of the city owned between 75 and 80 percent of property, and four out of five affluent men were born in the United States. Prompted by the threat of being overtaken by its rapidly growing neighbors Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle during the last decade of the nineteenth century, the moneyed set, predominantly Anglo American, invested heavily in the arts and the beautification of San Francisco. Cultural philanthropy was a means through which the elite achieved and maintained visible social prestige both within and outside of their community. As San Francisco grew in cultural stature, its glory was reflected back upon its generous benefactors.

The relationships formed by private associations, the municipal government, and the arts community and supported by individual philanthropists contributed significantly in the establishment of museums, libraries, and concert halls. When the San Francisco Museum of Art and the San Francisco Art Association had differences, for example, the mayor, the board of supervisors, and the city attorney all pitched in to reach a resolution. These far-reaching relationships were formalized in the institution of the Arts Commission in 1931, which was given the power to distribute municipal money to art and music organizations.

Wealthy philanthropists also provided funds for educational institutions. Leland Stanford, one of the "Big Four" original investors of the Southern Pacific Railroad, founded a university in Palo Alto in 1891 in memory of his son who had died as a young boy. He endowed $20 million in the construction of an educational center that would rival the best universities in the East. In the meantime, the University of California at Berkeley was expanding, growing from its minuscule faculty of seventeen full professors, five associates, six assistants, and nine instructors in 1891 to become a world-class institution. In 1896, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the widow of Senator George Hearst and the mother of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, sponsored an architectural competition for a design of an expanded Berkeley campus, and in 1903, the university began construction to enlarge the dimensions of the campus to its present size.

Small arts organizations also cropped up with increasing frequency in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1902, the same year that an art department was established at UC Berkeley, the California Society of Artists was founded and the First Secessional Art Exhibition opened in San Francisco. In 1903, Carmel, a small town south of the Bay Area along the Pacific Coast, began its incarnation as an artist colony. In 1907, the California School of Arts and Crafts, which was renamed the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936, opened its doors in Oakland, and in 1916, the California School of Fine Arts was established in San Francisco. Throughout the 1920s, many exhibitions of local art and avant-garde works from Europe were held in the newly built museums and galleries in the area.


Excerpted from California Polyphony by MINA YANG Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. The Early History of California Cultural and Musical Life....................11
2. The Transpacific Gaze: Orientalism, Queerness, and Californian Experimentalism....................33
3. A Thin Blue Line down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub....................60
4. Noir Entanglements: Black Music, White Women, and the Dark City....................80
5. From the Mission Myth to Chicano Nationalism: The Evolution of Mestizo Identities and Music....................98
6. After Sa-i-ku: Korean American Hip-Hop since the Rodney King Uprising....................118
Works Cited....................165
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