the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
One of the secret treasures of the Frontera Collection is the amount of vintage Cuban music it contains. Among the most popular and longest lived bands is La Sonora Matancera, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. There are some 140 discs in the archives, mostly old 78s, by the iconic Afro-Cuban conjunto, founded in 1924 in the province of Matanzas. However, not all the titles are credited to the band itself. That’s because the group featured so many big-name vocalists who became popular solo artists and are listed separately.
By far, the best known of these star singers is the late Celia Cruz, who launched her career in Cuba in the 1950s as La Matancera’s lead singer, before going on to become a superstar of the salsa boom in New York two decades later.
Other big-name Matancera vocalists whose recordings are featured in the Frontera archives include Miguelito Valdez and a pair of famed Puerto Rican singers, Daniel Santos and Bobby Capó. Most of the tracks were recorded in Cuba and a few were released on multi-national labels such as RCA Victor. The vast majority of the Matancera 78s, however, appeared on the New York-based Seeco label, one of the largest independent Latin labels of its day, founded by former jeweler Sydney Siegel. According to a band bio, La Sonora Matancera signed a recording deal with Seeco in 1949, more than a decade before it left its homeland, along with Celia Cruz, as a result of the Cuban Revolution. The band continued to record for the label in the 1960s, when the label gave way to New York salsa upstarts like Fania Records.
Veteran collectors, however, will be most interested in the Matancera discs on Panart, the classic independent label operating in Havana before the Revolution. The records feature two different label designs, with different lettering and coloring. But they both have the distinctive, bilingual identifier that makes them especially valuable: “Hecho en Cuba Por La Cuban Plastics and Record Corp.” After the Revolution, copies of the Panart catalog were released by Cuban exiles in Miami, but the originals remain the sought-after items.
Like many of the great bands in Latin music, La Sonora Matancera became an institution. It survived even after the death in 2001 of Rogelio Martinez, who had joined the band in the 1920s and had been its director for more than five decades. The latest incarnation of the venerable act is based in Las Vegas and led by pianist Javier Vazquez, another legendary figure in salsa music, who has been the band’s principal arranger since 1957.