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Esquivel's "See It In Sound"

By Josh Kun

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  We've all had the experience, while watching a TV show, a film, a commercial, of being given second-hand sight through the visual trickery of a point-of-view shot. You know it when you see it: instead of unfolding from the perspective of a universal all-seeing eye, a scene is directed from behind the lens of one character so that all we see is what he or she sees. Think of Spike Jonze's much-bruited film debut, Being John Malkovich. He takes this logic to its most literal, corporeal extreme, giving his characters the chance to inhabit the space behind Malkovich's eyes, turning John's head into one big gooey cacophonous camera.

Back in 1960, Mexico's Juan García Esquivel -- neither director nor cameraman but electronic piano eccentric, orchestroid arranger, bachelor-pad icon -- pulled all this off through sound. Working with a 15-piece band at Los Angeles's RCA studios, he laid down a version of Ary Barroso's samba swoon "Brazil" that gave us a "point-of-ear" recording. The finished song we hear as listeners is not "Brazil" itself, but a woman listening to "Brazil" -- a meta-song in which Esquivel lets us hear through another's ear.

We hear her high-heeled footsteps on a nighttime street, her fingers snapping open a cigarette lighter, and then her hands pushing open the door to a club where an orchestra is playing "Brazil." We enjoy the performance along with her (we even hear ice cubes tumbling into her cocktail glass) until she walks and takes cabs to two other clubs to hear "Brazil" played at different tempos. The "song" -- both the one we hear and the one she hears -- ends with a shrill scream and our surrogate ears running down a flight of stairs.

"Brazil" is the aesthetic apex of See It in Sound (House of Hits), the long-lost Esquivel experiment with big-band pomp and sound-effects magic that RCA rejected and that now, thanks to the efforts of intrepid Esquivel junkies (Boston's own Brother Cleve among them), is finally seeing the light. Equally inspired by Henry Mancini and the other Spike Jones, See It in Sound is Esquivel's masterpiece of aural synesthesia -- 11 surrealism-at-the-Tropicana compositions full of giggling congas, cherubic harps, and interstellar vibraphone twinkles that draw visual pictures for listening ears.

Two years earlier, Esquivel's audio-visual chops had persuaded RCA to airlift him from Mexico City to New York and christen him the golden boy of the hi-fidelity, "stereo-action" craze with its motto "the sound your eyes can follow." On his 1962 stereo-action classic Latin-Esque, Esquivel wanted to be sure that you "watched" his split-channel theremins and congas ping-pong and zoom back and forth between your speakers. He recorded the album with half his orchestra in one studio, the other half in another down the road, and dubbed the whole thing "sonorama."

See It in Sound takes the technical studio gimmickry behind the stereo surge and, using layers of sound effects and found ambiance in an age before overdubbing and sampling, composes short audio films about everything from a "Walk to the Bull Ring" to an imaginary dance performance by the enigmatic Fernando and Lupita in "Cumana." In his swinging marimbas-and-maracas orchestra-pop take on the Latin-craze classic "The Peanut Vendor," Esquivel provides the missing link between Gershwin's An American in Paris and Steve Reich's City Life, and we see the beloved manicero in a noisy cityscape full of laughing kids, barking dogs, honking horns, and chiming clock towers. "Honky Tonk Cha-Cha" -- the only song on See It in Sound still stuck in his earlier "Mucha Muchacha" kitsch mode -- is even framed as a film being watched by an audience, complete with laugh tracks and the clattering whir of a projector.

The music of See It in Sound accentuates the weird 1950s middle ground that Esquivel occupied as a Latin American avant-pop composer working in the States who was neither a Perez Prado mambo-nick nor a Martin Denny exotica escapist. To be sure, See It has more exotica-tinged compositions than most Esquivel records: "Amazon Paddle Boat," with its jungle-cruise elephant snorts and squawking birds; "Inca's Dream," with its pan flutes and whining sheep; "Similau," with its tribal hillside war gurgles. But when heard on an album so determined to assert its conceptual and compositional distance from its contemporaries, Esquivel's riffs on his home continent can't help feeling like exotica being given back to itself. If Denny and Les Baxter made post-war nostalgia music that kept colonialism alive by dreaming up tropical utopias of noble savagery, then this was Esquivel -- the Mexican sound wizard imported to shape the tastebuds of suburban American mass culture -- rocking a sort of colonialism in reverse from behind the microphones of major-label studios. Like everything else on See It in Sound, it was his way of getting us to see the world as he hears it.


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