the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the first articles I wrote as a music critic for the Los Angeles Times was about a documentary that told the story of how the accordion became a lead instrument in Mexican-American music.
I’ve been listening to Latin music all my life, especially Mexican music. So it’s not every day that I discover a whole new genre, with its own special history. But that’s just what happened recently while I was researching disaster songs in the Frontera Collection. The genre I discovered completely by chance is called La Chilena. And though it’s named for the country in South America, the song and dance style actually come from the coastal area of southern Mexico known as La Costa Chica, along the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.
In my last blog, I looked at the history of disaster songs and cited some examples from the Frontera Collection. But, as it turns out, one of the most original and provocative songs of this genre is about a disaster that never happened.
Most people know that the worst natural disaster in California history was the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. But which calamity ranks No. 2? That happened in Los Angeles in 1932: a catastrophic dam break that killed 600 people, wiped out neighborhoods all the way to the ocean near Ventura, and ended the career of William Mulholland, the famed engineer who had designed the water system for the new metropolis blooming in the Southern California desert.
Recordings are more than just entertainment. They are windows on a culture. In the voice of artists, songs give us a glimpse into what people think and feel in a particular time and place. We hear it in Mississippi Delta blues, the Argentine tango, San Francisco ’60s rock, and a specialty of this archive, the Mexican-American corrido of the early 20th century in the Southwest United States.
Valerio Longoria is considered one of the most innovative conjunto musicians who shaped the music’s classic period in the post-World War II era, a group considered “la nueva generación,” the new generation. The son of migrant farmworkers, he is credited with a number of firsts in the Tejano genre during a career that spanned more than 60 years.
Eva Quintanar was a prolific composer, instrumentalist, singer, and musical director during the 1940s and ’50s in Los Angeles, and one of the few women to take leadership roles in the male-dominated music industry of her day. She appeared regularly with her own orchestra at renowned downtown venues, especially the Million Dollar Theatre, and gained a reputation as a first-rate accompanist for internationally known stars from Mexico, such as Pedro Infante and Pedro Vargas.
A new feature, the Q&A, makes its debut on the Frontera Blog this week. First up is this informative conversation with John McGowan, the son of Eva Quintanar, a composer, pianist, and orchestra director who had a successful career in Los Angeles during the 1940s and ‘50s. (Read her Artist Biography here.) McGowan, professor emeritus of liberal studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has worked to preserve his mother’s legacy and collect her recordings, many contained in the Frontera Collection. Still active in her art as a centenarian, Quintanar is one of the few surviving musicians from an era that featured a particularly productive music scene within the local Mexican American community in Los Angeles. In this interview with Frontera website editor Agustín Gurza, McGowan, 70, provides personal recollections of his mother’s life and times.
Miguel Aceves Mejía (1915-2006) is one of the leading exponents of Mexican folkloric music, with a gifted, versatile voice that made him a star throughout the Spanish-speaking world. During a career that spanned half a century, the singer and actor recorded more than 1000 songs on 90 discs and starred in over 60 films.