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An Introduction and Guide to the Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings

CAT. #: Book - Frontera

Price: $19.98

Winner of three awards at the 2013 International Latino Book Awards

  • First Place: Best History
  • First Place: Best Reference Book
  • Second Place: for Best Non-Fiction, Multi-Author

AND: Winner of the 2013 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence: Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk, Ethnic, or Country Music

The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican American and Mexican Recordings contains over 140,000 recordings on 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassettes; over 2,000 photographs, posters, catalogs, and other images; a database of record company histories, musicians' biographies, and more. It is the largest collection of it kind. Agustin Gurza, along with Jonathan Clark and Chris Strachwitz, explores the Frontera Collection from different viewpoints, discussing genre, themes, and some of the thousands of composers and performers whose work is contained in the archive. Throughout, he discusses the cultural significance of the recordings and relates the stories of those who have had a vital role in their production and preservation. Published by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press. 8 1/2 x 11", paperback, 226 pages


"Four Stars. A Feast of Mexican Border Music.
Chris Strachwitz, founder of US roots music label Arhoolie Records, has done more than anyone else on earth to document Mexican music as it was made along the US-Mexican border from the dawn of the 78rpm era until the 1970s. Strachwitz is celebrated for discovering and recording the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins and zydeco legend Clifton Chenier. But his greatest efforts towards any North American vernacular music form have been with Mexican-American music and musicians. Arhoolie resurrected the career of the magnificent Lydia Mendoza and established Flaco Jimenez as norteno music's leading accordion player. Perhaps most importantly, Strachwitz, an avid record collector, has reissued huge amounts of Mexican music that might otherwise have been lost forever. Strachwitz's huge collection of Mexican music (most of it cut in the US for South-Western audiences) is...the Frontera Collection...this book sets out to document and examine that collection.
Author Agustin Gurza is a former LA Times journalist and lifelong aficionado of Mexican music. He handles matters in a clear, entertaining way that serves up plenty of facts. Jonathan Clark - a mariachi musician and obsessive - writes a chapter on mariachi that gives this much misunderstood music a context it has long lacked. Strachwitz himself contributes a good-humoured essay on the development of the US record business and how so much good Mexican-American music came to be recorded (and how he came to discover so many 'lost' records). Obviously, this book is aimed at fans of US border music and students (studying Chicano Studies) yet it contains much entertaining info and is well illustrated with vintage photos, record labels and advertisements - thus enthusiasts for American roots music will find much rewarding here."
-Garth Cartwright, Songlines Magazine

This review is from Blues and Rhythm Magazine, which is, according to Chris, "the BEST magazine for blues & rhythm (and beyond) lovers!"

"Invisible behind this large-format (8” x 11.5”) paperback is the reason for its existence: the archive described in its (also large-format) title. Nobody else in the roots music and collector world was interested in Mexican- American and Mexican music when Chris Strachwitz started acquiring all the discs – and photographs, posters, catalogues and other ephemera – he could lay his hands on. Buying up radio station and distributor stock, and the inventory of record labels that went out of business, was usually more productive than junking; records that survived in private hands had often been played to death. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection comprises – deep breath – 33,472 performances on 78s, some 50,000 on 45s, 4,000 LPs and 650 cassettes, and is, needless to say, by far the largest archive of this music in existence. Thanks to grants from various foundations, and notably to a share in $500,000 from regional superstars Los Tigres del Norte, by late 2010 all the 78s and about half the 45s had been digitised, and entered into a database at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. This is accessible via <http://frontera.library.ucla.edu/index.html>, although for copyright reasons only the first 50 seconds of each recording is available to computers off-campus. The book under review explores some of the possibilities for research enabled by this resource. First, though, there are chapters about Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records, and an account of how the Frontera Collection came into existence, through Chris’s encounters with the late Guillermo Hernández, a professor of literature who turned to studying border music and corridos after seeing Les Blank’s film, ‘Chulas Fronteras’, and learning of the existence of Strachwitz’s collection. Chris himself contributes a short history of the recording industry, with particular reference to Mexican music.

This is a good place to note that this music (like zydeco and many blues singers) is known about, and documented, in large measure thanks to the efforts of Chris Strachwitz. It’s also the place to observe that Mexican
and Mexican-American recordings seem, far more than many vernacular discs, concerned with history as experienced from below. Guido van Rijn’s series of books about American presidents has shown how blues and gospel music can function as a people’s almanac and editorial page; but the corridos and tragedias of the borderlands seem a far more extensive and deliberate attempt to memorialise and comment on events of historical and local importance, and on the pleasures and (more often) hardships of life in Mexico and America. The Frontera Collection offers an almost limitless resource for the study of Mexican-American sociology and history; and, of course, a lot of it is simply wonderful listening. ‘A Century of Corridos’ responds to Guillermo Hernández’s article, ‘What Is A Corrido?’ (reprinted as an appendix), using recordings in the collection to amplify, and sometimes to take issue with, the characteristics Hernández identified through a study of thirty corridos. There are nearly 4,000 items in the Frontera Collection listed as corridos; some are recordings of the same song by different artists, but this enables fruitful comparison of different versions.

Love, sex and their discontents are nevertheless the most represented topics in the collection, of course, and ‘Transcending Machismo’ considers the range of responses to love and loss. As the chapter’s title implies, it
argues, with supporting examples, that there’s a lot more to the Mexican male’s reaction to being dumped than machismo. It’s unfortunate, however, that ‘machismo’ is nowhere explicitly defined in the discussion. The OED offers ‘macho: ostentatiously or notably manly or virile; assertively masculine or tough; producing an impression of manliness or toughness’, but Gurza characterises it both more narrowly and more vaguely: ‘the macho response – from murderous rage to debauched despair – can certainly be found in these songs…’ ‘Gringos, Chinos, and Pochos’ looks at ‘intercultural conflict in Mexican
Music’, and is commendably honest about the stereotyping of blacks, Gringos and – especially, it seems – Chinese people. Gurza pithily sums up Xavier Cugat’s ‘Chino Soy’: ‘it’s notable that so much musical thought
can go into a subject so inane’. Needless to say, Mexicans have been and are subjected to racist stereotyping and hostility themselves, from the War of 1846-8, to the zoot suit riots, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (‘FEMA – Find Every Mexican Available’ was one of the jokes going around in New Orleans). ‘Pochos’ are Mexicans who try to act Anglo; they are the frequent subject of musical mockery and scorn, although ‘El Pocho’ by Conjunto Hermanos Rojo makes the practical point that hiding one’s Mexican identity also hides one from La Migra.

Jonathan Clark, author of ‘El Mariachi From Rustic Roots To Golden Era’, has worked in mariachi groups as a guitarrón player for many years, and has done as much as anyone alive to research the roots and history
of the music that exemplifies Mexican culture for many outsiders. This account of the music’s origins and development, with biographies of notable artists, constitutes an immensely valuable section of the book.
The final chapter tells the story of major funding contributors Los Tigres del Norte, four brothers and a cousin from a poor village in Mexico who became the biggest stars in the music. Along the way, somewhat to their disquiet, they inadvertently inaugurated the narcocorrido genre with their first, and much-covered big hit, ‘Contrabando y Traicíon’. The book concludes with eleven appendixes, mostly designed to show
ways in which the database can be searched – for music from elsewhere in Latin America, for the ‘top ten’ (#1 ‘Cielito Lindo’, 147 versions present), for most represented songwriters, genres and performers, and
so on. Archivist Antonio Cuéllar (the only person alive who has listened to every 78 in the collection) contributes ‘Seventy-Eight Favorite 78s’, Jonathan Clark lists ‘Forty Notable Mariachi Recordings’, and Mister Chris enumerates his ‘Fifty Favorite Mexican and Latin Recordings’. These listings may seem like self-indulgence, but in fact they are useful guides, by knowledgeable escorts, to the places where one should look for quality, entertainment and historical significance. I won’t say that they’re anything as formal as an attempt to define a canon, but that may turn out to be a by-product of the existence of the Frontera Collection, and of its accessibility (albeit in excerpts, and via what seems to be a slow server) worldwide.

The only thing that remains to be mentioned is that the illustrations are wonderful, and that $19.95 is a remarkable price. This book is a fitting celebration of the achievements of a man who, according to his biography within, ‘doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish’. (Actually, he speaks enough to phone a Mexican record shop and find out what time it closes; I went there with him shortly afterwards, and bought an Alegres de Terán CD)."
-Chris Smith, Blues and Rhythm Magazine


"Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recording by the Arhoolie Foundation feels like reading several volumes of books on the history of Mexican and Mexican-American music. Not only does it touch on border music, it goes on to educate you about music from deep within Mexico and other Latin American regions like Cuba and Puerto Rico. This is a magnificent piece of work that was written by former Los Angeles Times writer Agustín Gurza. But Gurza wasn’t alone here, other areas in the book also had some great pieces by other writers (more on that later).

To those that don’t know about the Strachwitz Frontera Collection, I’ll let the book cover this:


“The Strachwitz Frontera Collection is the largest repository of commercially produced Mexican and Mexican-American vernacular recordings in existence. It contains more than 130,000 individual recordings.”

This book goes on to give a wonderful, analytical overview of the music in this epic collection. There are certain people who look down their noses at any Spanish music. Some of those people have a bizarre idea that it all sounds the same. It’s a weird myth that even really educated music fans will utter when dismissing countless genres of music. This book shatters that ridiculous myth, obliterating it with detailed breakdowns on what makes a corrido, the differences of various regional groups, the panoply of themes covered in songs, “intercultural conflict” and more. So much more. For example, even a corrido that covers the same subject can be a radically different experience depending on the region it comes from due to local dialects, regional aesthetics, etc. The serious academic way this book deals with corridos, treating it as a subject worth investigating, is reason enough to get this book. While that might sound like serious business, it’s also a joyous celebration.

As mentioned earlier, this book also features other writers. The writing from Jonathan Clark discusses the origins of mariachis and the path they took. Along with that, Clark also covers the most significant individuals that played a role in mariachi music. Another writer that is highlighted in the book is the great, late Guillermo Hernández. His work on corrido music is a treasure to anyone interested in the subject. Also Mr. Arhoolie himself, Chris Strachwitz wrote a neat chapter that details not only his own, invaluable history of recording regional music, but he even goes on to briefly describe the very history of the record business itself.

One of the most fun aspects of the book is the lists it features. The three key lists I’m talking about are by Antonio Cuéllar (archivist who has listened to every 78 in the Frontera Collection), Strachwitz and Clark. The most valuable types of lists are those that come from individuals with unique stylistic preferences. When it comes from that mindset, you’re going to be introduced to something that you normally wouldn’t know of. Thanks to Cuéllar, I learned about many curious gems, some of which blew my mind. One such example is titled “El Tirili,” a crazy jazzy 1940’s Chicano number using caló slang about “el zacatito” (weed). The list by Strachwitz is a great love letter to the music he cherishes (a list that includes plenty of South Texas acts like Los Donneños, Narciso Martinez, Freddy Fender and more). Finally, Clark’s list is the list to look at for anyone that seriously wants to know about mariachi music. These are three legitimately valuable lists for exploring music.

It’s almost overwhelming to review a book such as this. There is genuinely so much information that simply could not be covered in one simple review. Everyone that took part in putting together this book and preserving this music deserves a standing ovation."
-Eduardo Martinez, The Monitor