Before Tupac vowed to live and die in L.A. there was “Angeltown” a wistful ballad that was considered by some to be the official anthem of Los Angeles. It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1959.
This track will be resurrected on Friday when multicultural fusion band Ozomatli — whom Randall Roberts traveled with to Burma for a cover story a few years ago — performs it and other lost classics at a free concert at California Plaza downtown. (Also on the bill will be buzzed-about Latin alternative act La Santa Cecilia, I See Hawks in L.A. and The Petrojvic Blasting Co.) The event features a modern spin on the L.A. love songs from the 19th to mid-20th century.
It's the brainchild of USC professor Josh Kun, who is the Indiana Jones of excavating musical treasures. His stunning coffee table book Songs in the Key of Los Angeles (which is also the title of the event) is a collection of sheet music and a map of L.A.'s musical history,
“As important as it was to create the collection,” says Kun, “we also wanted to make sure the collection leaped out into life.”
For the book, Kun and his students scoured the Los Angeles Public Library's extensive sheet music collection and came across hundreds of vintage odes to Southern California's striking sunsets, beautiful women, mountains and beaches.
Designed by Amy Inouye, it includes wistful sheet music illustrations that sell Los Angeles as a utopia. Many of these covers are already on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Ozomatli, which headlines the event, will pay tribute to L.A.'s Mexican heritage.
“You can't tell the story of music in Los Angeles without telling the story of Mexican music in Los Angeles,” says Kun.
We spoke with Ozomatli's bassist Wil-Dog about the project.
We're curious to hear your rendition of century old music. How are you going to approach these songs?
Well, there's no such thing as an out of date melody. You take the melody and recreate or rewrite the tune. We're doing some songs in the Samba, Latin Bossa Nova, reggae and hip hop style and backing up some of the bands who have already done an amazing job with the old sheet music.
Is this event particular important for Ozomatli, considering your standing as the multicultural voice of Los Angeles?
Just like everybody else in this country, especially in L.A., we're all immigrants. And these songs are part of the reason why all of our families came here. The music was all about coming to the West Coast for a better life; they're the reason why my family left Yugoslavia and Poland, and the reason why Uli's family left Mexico and all the way down the line. We wouldn't be a band otherwise. Part of the dream, more than the American dream, is the California dream. In some way, it isn't a reality, but this is what people thought and continue to think.
What do you mean?
We love our city. The songs we play and everything we do is a tribute to our community. But at the same time there's a level of idealism. When people first think about coming here, they romanticize how better their life could and will be if they could only get here. And it's not always the case that they will fulfill their dreams. But that's part of the history and reality of L.A.: the hopes and dreams of finding a better life.
Was L.A. where you found your roots in Latin and hip hop music? You know, there aren't too many Eastern European Jewish musicians singing Mexican regional music.
Definitely. I grew up in MacArthur Park, a Central American community and I've been around that community ever since. In the late '80s MacArthur Park was the epicenter of hip-hop. At the time, hip-hop was more of a cultural phenomenon, and the kids who were participating in its music and culture were Central American, Mexican, Thai, Filipino, African-American and I was a part of that mix. Those were my roots.
I also dated a Mexican girl in high school who introduced me to regional Mexican music and I fell in love with it and ever since I've been enamored by the music by well over 20 years.
How do you feel about Los Angeles not really having an official anthem?
Who gets to decide all that official crap? L.A. is a city that is in constant movement; nothing can ever be in stone here. Communities are changing and people are coming in and out constantly. The city is made up of the people who are here now, and we're just excited to celebrate them and perform with some amazing musicians who also have their roots in Los Angeles.