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Setting Times stories to music: From the Smiths to 'Amelie'

April 05, 2014|By Kari Howard
  • Accordion student Jason Sanchez learns a new song at the weekly Saturday morning button accordion class at Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles.
Accordion student Jason Sanchez learns a new song at the weekly Saturday… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Two of this week’s Great Reads were about music, which in my book means it was a good week for the Great Reads. (Hmm, maybe I can organize a musical theme for the entire week sometime...)

But the two genres of music were so far apart, it was like they were from different planets.

One was about L.A.’s accordion culture, a world of polka throwdowns and Weird Al Yankovic and twentysomethings with pixie haircuts.

The other was about Brazil’s “ostentation funk,” a dance music born in the hard-luck favelas that's full of economic braggadocio and beats so heavy they’d shake your house like an earthquake if a car drove by blasting them from the stereo.

I’m trying to imagine a mashup of the genres. The “Amelie” soundtrack with rapid-fire drum machine and shouted lyrics about garden gnomes and bling? I’m sure Weird Al could come up with something.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Rose Hills cemetery cultivates Chinese clientele

Bruce Lazenby remembers the spring morning when the management staff of Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier gathered in a boardroom, baffled by the events of the weekend.

In two days, the cemetery had seen Dodger Stadium-size crowds of Chinese mourners. Their cars backed up traffic for miles. Every trash can overflowed, and at many of the graves, people had laid out a confusing feast: fruits, vegetables, entire dishes on disposable plates wrapped in plastic.

The staff later learned that the crowds were celebrating the Qingming Festival, a Chinese holiday on which families tend the graves of relatives and leave food offerings.

Lazenby, the cemetery's executive director, said that weekend in 1991 was a wake-up call.
“At that point, we began to realize how important our Chinese business was,” he said.

For most of its 100-year history, Rose Hills has attracted customers reflecting the region's diverse history. Former California Gov. Goodwin Knight is buried here, as are legendary East Los Angeles educator Jaime Escalante and Compton rapper Eazy-E.

But in the 1980s, waves of Chinese immigrants poured into the San Gabriel Valley and the cemetery found itself at the center of the largest Chinese diaspora in the country.

The 1,400-acre cemetery, so large that mourners need maps and cars to get around, began a massive transformation to compete for an increasingly lucrative Chinese funeral business that has seen some family “estates” go for six figures.

Since 1991, it increased the size of the Chinese-speaking staff by nearly seven times, to 160. Executives learned about Chinese astrology and stepped up construction of feng shui amenities. Salesmen built relationships with feng shui masters.

#soundtrack: “Cemetery Gates,” by the Smiths. Wilde is definitely on Morrissey’s side, but I’ll take Keats and Yeats (especially Yeats).

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Rivals spar over the spouts off Dana Point

Captain Dave Anderson's face tightens as he peers toward the horizon through his binoculars. The Manute'a has been out at sea for nearly an hour, bouncing across the waters off Dana Point, and so far there's not a single whale to be seen.

Clutching cameras and wrapped in sweaters, passengers, who moments before were entranced by a pod of dolphins, crane their necks, looking in every direction.

Anderson's reputation rides on giving his 49 passengers an up-close view they'll share over and over once they get back to port. And, with any luck, some eye-catching video he can upload to his website.

As Anderson searches, his rival is one step ahead. Donna Kalez's crews have already spotted a pair of whales during their first voyage of the day.

Just then, a passenger shouts up to Anderson, “10 o'clock!”

Anderson revs the boat's engine. Was that a puff of water in the distance?

#soundtrack: “Love’s Not a Competition (But I’m Winning),” by Kaiser Chiefs. One of the better song titles in recent memory.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

We held the Great Read because of an overload of news. It happens sometimes (but not too often – it’s good to have an alternative to hard news, don’t you think?)

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Thursday’s Great Read:

More fans of the accordion are squeezing in lessons

Across the street from a wine lounge and a gourmet sausage spot on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, a small red-and-white neon sign reads: “DAVE'S ACCORDION SCHOOL.”

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