Arhoolie Records’ revered Mexican music collection now has a website

Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand the true value of a cultural treasure hidden in plain sight. In the case of Mexican and Mexican-American music that bound and defined evolving communities across the Southwest, an unlikely champion has emerged in the person of Chris Strachwitz.

He was a teenager when his German family relocated to Santa Barbara after being displaced at the end of World War II, and it wasn’t long before American roots music became a lifelong obsession. With his El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records, he made and collected an extensive collection of recordings, and at a time when Mexican music was largely invisible to non-Latino audiences, he began to acquire records that documented a constellation of styles, with particular emphasis on the accordion. – northern music.

“I first heard it around 1948 on a radio station in Santa Paula that played Mexican music, mostly mariachi, but also accordion,” he told me in an interview. devoted to the 50th anniversary of Arhoolie. “I loved the sound. I thought it was like Hillbilly music, but in a different language. In Pomona, I would go to a bar with a conjunto, but most of the time no one was with me. It was an alien thing. Later, when I was recording blues in Texas, you couldn’t miss it. As a record collector, if I couldn’t find good musicians to record, I was looking for records.

Strachwitz ended up compiling the Frontera Collection, the world’s largest private archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music. Last February, after two decades of work, Juan Antonio Cuellar digitized the last piece of the collection, for a total of 162,860 songs. A former leader and member of a punk rock band en español, he started working on the project with no idea that it would become his new calling.

The founding of the great San Jose norteño band Los Tigres del Norte had just awarded Arhoolie a major grant (via UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center) to digitize some 17,000 78 rpm records recorded between 1906 and 1960. Cuellar said joined the project during the first phase “and I never left,” he said. The grants kept coming in and Cuellar kept digitizing. “I went to culinary school and had a career as a cook for 15 years, but that seemed a lot more important,” he said. “I’ve decided not to leave until I’m done.”

After overseeing the massive transfer of music, he moved on to the next phase as Curator of the Frontera Collection, which makes its public debut with the Arhoolie Foundation’s new website. Rumbo in California. Designed by Philadelphia-based Cooper Graphic Design, the foundation’s first major bilingual digital exhibit features hundreds of tracks from the Frontera collection, along with archival photos and video and downloadable song sheets. Easy to navigate, Rumbo a California offers a brilliant mosaic of a century of Mexican music in California, capturing the evolution of songs that described and fueled social change.

Like many people, I was first touched by Strachwitz’s passion for Mexican-American music while making a pilgrimage to El Cerrito’s Down Home Music, the store that had long served as the primary outlet for Arhoolie recordings. . A CD caught my eye, “Pachuco Boogie”, and I added it to my pile. At home, my mind was blown.

Arhoolie Records

Don Tosti’s title song sold a million copies in 1948, an anthem for the Chicano zoot suit scene immortalized in Luis Valdes’ Broadway play and movie, “Zoot Suit.” A compilation of Tosti recordings, the album captured a liminal moment when Latin musicians were absorbing the jump blues and R&B of early 1940s Black Los Angeles.

“This CD opened the doors to the cool factor of this music,” Cuellar said. “It opened the door to the biculturalism that existed. It totally makes sense if you put it in the context of how African American and Mexican communities lived side by side. Obviously, they will share their common fight. I don’t equate the two experiences, but they did this amazing cross-pollination.

For Cuellar, the Frontera collection is Strachwitz’s gift that keeps on giving. As a curator, he sees his role as laying out a trail of sonic breadcrumbs to follow. A Youtube channel offers seamless access to tracks in the collection, while the Rumbo a California website offers the first glimpse into a much larger world, “validating a segment of the population that has been overlooked, particularly in music”, has he declared.

“The digitization has been satisfactory, but the real work is beginning. My role is to explore and present musical themes that are relatively unknown to the general public, to present the stories of hidden artists and composers. There are songs about hard times, but there are a lot of celebrations, and I try to highlight those as well.

Daniel L. Vasquez