A Manero Primer: Esquivel

By: Giovanni Escalera




No man is a prophet in his own land, that is well known, but few composers have been as under-appreciated by their compatriots as Mexican king of Space-Age Pop Juan García Esquivel.

Born in Tampico, Tamaulipas in 1918, Esquivel started playing the piano at a very early age (some reports claim he was 4, others say he was 6). After moving with his family to Mexico City, he began performing at radio station XEW as a teenager, directing an orchestra of 22 musicians by the age of 14, and musicalizing radio programs. He went on to study electric and mechanic engineering at the prestigious Instituto Politécnico Nacional, which gave him the opportunity to experiment with electronic music, and an institution he paid tribute to in “Politécnico Rock and Roll.”


BEGIN THE BEGUINE. After recording two albums —Las Tandas de Juan García Esquivel and To Love Again—, Esquivel left Mexico to pursue his musical career in New York City. There, he composed commercial jingles and music for TV shows such as Top Cat, Bewitched and The Flintstones, and continued recording his own music. In 1958 released his first American album, Exploring New Sounds in Stereo, which featured the then-groundbreaking stereophonic sound. RCA showed passionate interest in these new sounds and brought him to Hollywood, where he recorded Other Worlds, Other Sounds (arguably the defining moment of Space Age Pop thanks to its zany sounds) and Latin-Esque, an album so impressive in its use of stereo that RCA would give it as a gift with the purchase of turntables.


LOST IN LAS VEGAS. Esquivel made it to Las Vegas thanks to Frank Sinatra, who was impressed by the way he directed his orchestra in the studio and the unique way he experimented with vocals and instruments as if they were samples. He started his live musical stint at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, where he became the king of lounge shows. Unfortunately, the higher ups at the Stardust Hotel were in the mafia, and ended pulling out of the business or simply being pushed out by the FBI. After the dream of Las Vegas vanished, Esquivel fell into excessive alcohol and drug use and stayed out of the public eye. And since Las Vegas no longer had anything to offer him, he decided to return to Mexico.


HOMECOMING. Back home, at the end of the 70s, Esquivel was hired by TV producer Silvia Rocha to write the music for children's show Burbujas. The show and its score —full of complicated and elaborated arrangements— resurrected his career in Mexico. It was also the last album he ever recorded and it is considered a pinnacle work for the generation who grew up with the show and its beloved music. After that, Esquivel’s health worsened as he developed arthritis. To make things worse, he also suffered a back injury which made him spend a decade bedridden, until he passed away in January of 2002 in his house in Jiutepec.


ESQUIVEL, REDISCOVERED. In 1994, when hipsters were fueling the lounge music resurgence, the CD compilation   Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music —with liner notes from The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening— gave the new generation a definitive point of reference for the new old sounds they were discovering. The Ultra-Lounge compilations quickly followed suit, while bands such as Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Buscemi, Kronos Quartet and Stereolab explicitly acknowledged the influence of Esquivel’s retro-futuristic sound—a sound that never fails to sound modern, no matter the time or context.


Giovanni Escalera is a music producer, writer and DJ based in New York City. He released four albums with his band Sweet Electra, and is currently producing a solo project called Too White to be Mexican in collaboration with other artists from Latin America.