Arhoolie Records’ revered Mexican music collection is now online - The Mercury News
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Arhoolie Records’ revered Mexican music collection is now online - The Mercury News

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand the true value of a cultural treasure hidden in plain sight. In the case of the Mexican and Mexican-American music that bound and defined evolving communities across the Southwest, an unlikely champion emerged in the person of Chris Strachwitz.
He was a teenager when his German family resettled in Santa Barbara after being displaced at the end of World War II, and it wasn’t long before American roots music became an abiding obsession. With his El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records he made and collected a vast trove of recordings, and at a time when Mexican music was largely invisible to non-Latino audiences he started acquiring records that documented a constellation of styles, with a particular focus on accordion-driven norteño music.
“I first heard it around 1948 on a radio station from Santa Paula that had some Mexican music, mostly mariachi, but some accordion too,” he told me in an interview focusing on Arhoolie’s 50th anniversary. “I loved the sound of it. I thought it was just like Hillbilly music, but in a different language. At Pomona, I’d go to a bar with a conjunto, but most of the time nobody would go with me. It was an alien thing. Later on when I was recording blues in Texas, you couldn’t miss it. Being a record collector, if I couldn’t find any good musicians to record, I would hunt 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 collection’s final track, for a total of 162,860 songs. A former chef and member of a punk rock en español band, he started working on the project with no idea it would turn into his new calling.

The great San Jose norteño band Los Tigres del Norte’s foundation had just given Arhoolie a major grant (via UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center) to digitize some 17,000 78-rpm discs recorded between 1906-1960. Cuellar joined the project during the early phase “and I just never left,” he said. The grants kept coming and Cuellar kept digitizing. “I went to culinary school and had a previous career as a cook for 15 years, but this seemed much more important,” he said. “I decided I’m not leaving until I see this through.”
After overseeing the massive transfer of music, he transitioned into the next phase as curator of the Frontera Collection, which is making its public debut with the Arhoolie Foundation’s new website Rumbo a California. Designed by Philadelphia’s Cooper Graphic Design, the foundation’s first major bilingual digital exhibition includes hundreds of tracks from the Frontera Collection, along with archival photos and video and downloadable song sheets. Easy to navigate, Rumbo a California provides 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 by making a pilgrimage to El Cerrito’s Down Home Music, the store that has long served as the primary outlet for Arhoolie recordings. A CD caught my eye, “Pachuco Boogie,” and I added it to my stack. At home, my mind was blown.
Don Tosti’s title track was a million seller back in 1948, an anthem for the Chicano zoot suit scene immortalized in Luis Valdes’ Broadway play and film, “Zoot Suit.” A compilation of recordings by Tosti, the album captured a liminal moment when Latino musicians were absorbing the jump blues and early R&B of 1940s Black Los Angeles.
“That 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 context of how African American and Mexican American communities were living next to each other. Obviously they’re going to share their common struggle. I’m not equating the two experiences, but they did do this amazing cross pollination.”
For Cuellar, the Frontera Collection is Strachwitz’s gift that keeps on giving. As curator, he sees his role as laying down a trail of sonic bread crumbs for people to follow. A YouTube channel offers seamless access to tracks from 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, especially in the music,” he said.
“The digitizing was fulfilling, but the real work is beginning. My role is to excavate and present musical themes that are relatively unknown to the general population, to present stories about hidden artists and composers. There are songs about hard times, but there’s a lot of celebration, and I’m trying to highlight as well.”
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