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Frontera Project

Berlanga y Montalvo: The Blues and the Borderlands
agurza | Thursday, February 11 | 0 comments
One of the most important contributions of the Frontera Collection is the documentation of Mexican-American music, a cultural legacy that may have otherwise been lost or overlooked. Both as a writer and a record collector, I am often dismayed at how little information is available on artists and their recordings, not just Mexican Americans but Latino musicians in general. 
 
At times, information is scarce even for works by commercially popular artists. In the case of many historic Mexican-American recordings, it is impossible to find out even the most basic data, such as when and where the recording was made, much less who produced and played on it. Among their English-language counterparts, by contrast, recordings are regularly researched, archived, compiled, written about and re-packaged with extensive liner notes. 
 
Ironically yet happily, I have found one example in which the elaborate repackaging of works by a respected American blues artist happened to include obscure recordings by a relatively unknown Mexican-American duet. In 2011, Columbia/Legacy released the massive box set Robert Johnson - The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition. The unique, limited edition collection (only 1,000 numbered copies were pressed) included special 10-inch vinyl reproductions of a dozen original Vocalion 78s recorded by the influential blues artist between 1937 and 1939. Plus, the box offered four CDs: two covering all of Johnson’s master recordings, one featuring other blues artists of his day, and one titled “Also Playing…”
 
It’s that fourth CD that fascinates me, historically speaking. “Also Playing…” features ten tracks recorded by other artists who happened to make recordings in San Antonio and Dallas on the same session dates as Johnson. Those were thrown in just to give contemporary listeners and researchers an idea of the musical milieu surrounding Johnson at the time. In the annals of commercial discographies, that’s called going the extra mile. 
 
Enter our humble Mexican-American duet, Andrés Berlanga y Francisco Montalvo. They have two songs on that disc of extras, both recorded in San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday, November 26, 1936. Online reviews list the titles as “Ay! Que Bonitos Ojitos” and “Que piensas tu que mi amore” even though that latter wording is grammatically incorrect in Spanish. (Reviewers, in fact, spell the title two different ways, including “Que Piensas tu que me Amore,” which besides being grammatically wrong uses inconsistent capitalization.) In that same San Antonio recording session, according to annotations in yet another review, Johnson laid down the track “32-20 Blues" (referring to Winchester ammunition) for the Oriole label.
 
The Frontera Collection contains only the first of those two songs, “Ay! Que Bonitos Ojos,” (Oh! What Pretty Eyes), recorded by Berlanga and Montalvo for Vocalion. The Frontera database, however, cites a slightly different recording date, November 27, 1936, which could have been an alternate take. This 78 rpm is backed by the song “Angel Divino,” another romantic ditty with the duo’s bright and happy guitar accompaniment.
 
There’s also an alternate version of one song with a slightly different title that identifies the color of the woman’s lovely eyes, “Ay! Que Par De Ojitos Negros,” (Oh! What a Pair of Little Black Eyes), also on Vocalion but with a scratchier sound. The label on this recording adds an interesting tidbit in parentheses: The duo apparently used the nickname Los Guapos, which means “the handsome ones.” 
 
Here we have a good example of how the sheer volume of the Frontera Collection contributes to our knowledge of these historic artists. Every recording potentially adds another morsel of information. A search of the database yields 14 recordings by Berlanga and Montalvo, their names sometimes listed in reverse order. There are an additional 19 recordings by Montalbo (sic) y Berlanga, with the slight mis-spelling appearing on all their Decca label recordings. Also, the duo recorded separately with other partners – Montalvo with Melquiades Rodríguez and Berlanga with Polo Pecina
 
Usually, only historians and collectors care about these long-forgotten artists from the era of brittle 78 rpm discs, so distant from our digital age. But thanks to the persistence of producer Chis Strachwitz, Frontera’s founder, we get a more recent and vivid glimpse of at least half of this unheralded duo. In 1979, Andrés Berlanga was featured in the short film, Del Mero Corazón (Straight from the Heart), produced by Strachwitz and Les Blank. The movie is a sequel to the filmmakers’ acclaimed 1976 documentary about norteño music and culture, Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borderlands).  Both films, available on DVD, bring these old artists to life in a modern medium. 
 
Berlanga is also featured on a recording with Trio San Antonio, produced by Strachwitz in the 1970s and released on Arhoolie Records. An earlier track recorded in the early 1950s by the same trio, “Que Me Gano Con Llorar,” appears on Vol. 1 of the excellent Arhoolie compilation series, “Texas-Mexican Border Music” (Folklyric Records 9003). In his liner notes to that album, Strachwitz notes that Berlanga “has in his possession one of the longest collections of songs written out on binder sheets I have ever seen.”  Since many of the old corridos were passed along in the oral tradition, having the lyrics on paper was especially important for singers doing duets, and they’d sometimes paste the pages on their microphones to make sure they sang exactly the same words.    
 
Strachwitz also did an audio interview with Berlanga, also in San Antonio (and he estimates around the same time as the films). In it, the singer remembers playing outlaw beer joints during Prohibition, which inspired this popular corrido about bootleggers. He also recalls riding freight trains as an itinerant troubadour during the Depression. And he gets nostalgic remembering the marathon dances that went from dusk to dawn: “They just keep playing and the people just keep drinking and dancing. Man, those were wonderful days.”
 
In the film clip linked above, we see an aging Berlanga, with glasses, a hat and a gold tooth, strumming his bajo sexto outside a store selling religious items. He’s singing the classic song “Las Quejas de Zenaida” while a gap-toothed woman stands nearby and listens, cuddling a young girl and smiling at the humorous lyrics about a soured relationship. As the final verse plays out, we see the rumpled musician lumber down the gritty San Antonio sidewalk, guitar in hand. 
Ya me voy de este pueblo maldito.
Donde quedan mis sueños dorados. 
I’m getting out of this rotten town, 
Leaving behind my hopes and dreams.
And that’s also called the blues, Tejano style.
 
 
-Agustín Gurza

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