Arhoolie Records looks forward by preserving the past
Aural documents are what head Frontera Collection archivist (and trombonist for radical ska-punk ensemble La Plebe) Antonio Cuellar specializes in. His Sisyphean task is to scan and digitize a copy of every album — he's been working for nine years, focusing primarily on the 78s and 45s that make up the bulk of the collection. After listening to a recording, Cuellar compiles a list of keywords to append to the digital file. Recurring themes and keywords such as "patriotism" (four hits), "praise of beauty" (3,590 hits), "executions" (32), and "trabajo de emigrante" (277) are entered into the digital database, along with a high-quality scan of the physical vinyl, and notes on the artists (Hermanas Segovia, Narciso Martínez, Orquesta La Campaña) and style of music (conjunto, ranchera, bolero, vals bajito, and Latino rock and soul).
"Often the only information left about a recording is on the label," explains Cuellar, who extracts what he can from each. But besides collecting discards from jukebox joints, radio stations, and major label back-stock, Strachwitz acquired several now-defunct labels lock, stock, and-barrel, including Falcón and Ideal. This has allowed him to expand on the information he archives, noting, for example, what a particular recording artist was paid ($10 and a six-pack) or who was in the backing band. It's painstaking, "sometimes tedious" work, but Cuellar, who may be the only person besides Strachwitz to have listened to so much of the collection, has a clear sense of its historical importance.
"Probably 99.9 percent of these artists are unknown," Cuellar points out. "If I do a search for them online, it directs me back to Arhoolie, to the information that we have here ... [Whereas] I can go and search for information about the most obscure blues guy, and he's going to have something written about him."
"It was Guillermo Hernandez [the late former director of UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center] who made me aware that this music was really the literature of the campesinos," Strachwitz muses. "When he discovered I had all these damn old records, he became totally intrigued. Because nobody at that time seemed to know they had such a long history." "It definitely influences me," notes Cuellar, who was born in Mexico. "It's helped open my eyes to my own history."