‘American Sabor’: Latino influence in pop music
As a young graphic artist in the late 1960s, Michael Rios was struck by the Mission District’s profusion of ugly billboards and ample supply of blank walls begging for adornment. An early activist with the Chicano arts outpost Galería de la Raza, he was one of the first artists to start painting murals in the Mission, and numerous examples of his vivid work can still be seen around the neighborhood.
“Robert Crumb had done one at Mission Rebels at South Van Ness, and I followed in his footsteps in 1971,” Rios says. “From what I recall, the word ‘mural’ wasn’t in the general vocabulary. I thought I was just doing a big cartoon strip on the wall for the enjoyment of the kids.”
Rios’ visual vocabulary took shape at the same time that another Mission District denizen, Carlos Santana, was rocketing to stardom, and it’s not surprising that the guitarist and the painter ended up joining forces. When Rios put Santana at the center of his ambitious three-panel mural “Inspire to Aspire,” flanked by conguero Armando Peraza and pianist Eddie Palmieri (at South Van Ness Avenue and 22nd Street), Santana sought him out and started a two-decade collaboration.
From concert backdrops and custom-designed clothes to hand-painted guitars and several album covers, including the 1999 smash hit “Supernatural,” Rios’ heroic imagery and eye-popping colors embody the way that Latino culture in San Francisco has been projected into popular consciousness.
His album-cover art figures prominently in “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music,” a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian. Focusing on five major centers of Latino popular music production – New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and San Francisco – the exhibition explores how Latino musical innovations since the 1940s helped shape American popular music.
Developed by Seattle’s Experience Music Project and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, “American Sabor” travels to 12 cities through 2015. By employing multimedia resources – including English and Spanish text panels, striking graphics and photographs, listening stations and films – the exhibition celebrates the creativity of transformational artists like Tito Puente, Ritchie Valens, Santana and Selena.
“When you come into the exhibit, there’s a whole wall covered with record cover art,” says Evelyn Figueroa, SITES project director. “It’s work that was commissioned from Latino artists, and the imagery tells powerful stories, from Celia Cruz with her hairstyle and her sabor to Azteca’s pre-Columbian iconography. Each one is very symbolic in its own way.”
The Main Library marks the opening of “American Sabor” on Saturday afternoon with a Latin jazz performance by the Grammy-nominated John Santos Sextet at Koret Auditorium. There are numerous events taking place in conjunction with the exhibition throughout its run, from music and dance performances to film screenings, panel discussions and lectures at various library branches. Rios gives a talk about Santana album cover design at the Main Library’s Skylight Gallery on Oct. 27.