Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Exhibit at UMass Amherst celebrates 50 years of Latin album cover art

Last modified: Friday, April 04, 2014
Pablo E. Yglesias’ father left Cuba on the eve of that country’s revolution, and most of the personal items he took with him were his 10-inch records.

Yglesias was about 5 years old when he began investigating those albums, putting them on the turntable and staring at the covers — like Orquesta Aragon’s “Cha Cha Cha,” which back then made him feel confused, intrigued, even a little scared.

“I did not understand the imagery of the donkey’s jawbone (later I learned it was a percussion instrument), and the red background was kind of infernal and sexy,” he said. “I was drawn to the fact that the jawbone seemed to be saying ‘cha cha cha’ like it was doing this crazy donkey braying laugh.”

The fascination with Latin LP cover art stuck with Yglesias (who also spins tunes as DJ Bongohead and plays in the Valley band Shokazoba), and after decades of soaking in sounds and digging for LPs around the world, in 2005 he created a book celebrating classic Latin album jackets, “Cocinando! Fifty Years of Latin Cover Art.”

Next week Yglesias opens an exhibit called “Visual Clave: the Evolution of Salsa Graphics and the Expression of Latino Identity Through Album Cover Art,” a multimedia showcase that’s not just about the amazing album covers — works of art in their own right — but a behind-the-scenes look at the skill and creativity that went into their creation, as well as their historical and socio-cultural significance.

The exhibit, held in the Student Union Building’s art gallery at the Univerisity of Massachusetts Amherst, will have its grand opening Feb. 27 from 5 to 7:30 p.m., featuring deejays spinning vintage Latin vinyl (so visitors can hear the records they’re seeing on the walls) and also a personal appearance by artist and album cover designer Charlie Rosario.

Following the opening, at 8 p.m., right next to the art gallery in the Cape Cod Lounge, it’s a live music dance party featuring a performance by Jesús Pagán y Conjunto Barrio. Everything is free and open to the public.

he exhibit’s title “Visual Clave” refers to the “clave” rhythm — the unifying beat in most Latin music — and uses it as a metaphor to bring to mind the unifying elements of Latin album art.

Yglesias has done some exhibits of Latin LP cover art since his book was published, but the UMass event is the first one where he’s been able to expand the scope beyond just the LPs themselves and include original pieces of art that were used for the covers, plus outtakes and rejected ideas. “I wanted to show people part of the creative process that you don’t see when looking at the finished product,” he said.

He’s excited to have on display, for example, Rosario’s original metalwork (or “sculpture graphics,” as the artist himself describes it) created for Charlie Palmieri’s “Electro Duro” album and Orquesta Harlow’s “Live In Quad.”

“Seeing these wall hanging relief images made of copper and tin, in person, will blow people away because of the dimensionality and how the light hits the metal,” Yglesias said. “This stuff has never been seen by anyone, and for those who know and love the music it will be a dream come true; for those who do not know who Larry Harlow or Charlie Palmieri is, it will be like any other great gallery experience where they learn about a new artist.”

Other striking items in the exhibit are Izzy Sanabria’s Rapidograph ink drawings for covers like “Hecto-mania” by Hector Rivera, as well as Ron Levine’s fantasy/comic-book/sci-fi illustrations for Sonora Ponceña’s “Energized” and others.

Yglesias said the original pieces “blow the LP versions out of the water, because of the immediacy of the paint and the clarity of line. A lot of times the printers did a terrible job of trying to reproduce the art, and commercial concerns on the part of the record companies forced the designers to make changes and compromises they would not have made otherwise.”

Mechanical paste-up layouts from designer Chico Alvarez will also be on display to show the “hands on” process used in the days before computers ruled the design world.

Colorful and rare 10-inch record jackets of the ’40s and ’50s are included in the exhibit to show the early days of the medium, but Yglesias is especially keen on shining a spotlight on “the more provocative covers from the rebirth of Latin album art in the 1970s, when Latinos and Latinas themselves were involved in creating the covers, the musicians were creating songs with social commentary, and there was a cultural and socio-political thought process behind the designs that promoted the music in a whole new way.

“The most controversial would be the covers that used stereotypes, low-brow aesthetics, or deliberately satirical imagery to question the status quo or turn a preconceived notion on its head through subverting ‘from the inside’ — like Izzy Sanabria’s famous Willie Colon cover, for instance, that features a wanted poster.”

The exhibit will be on display for much of March. More information can be found at Yglesias’ blog. bongohead.blogspot.com.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.