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Strachwitz Frontera Collection

Chris & Los Pinguinos
Agustin Gurza | Monday, April 20, 2015 | 2 comments

This is the tale of a tall, adventurous German immigrant who trekked through the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico, armed with a tape recorder and a passion for real downhome music. Without speaking the language, he cruised the cantinas and bounced from bar to bar, seeking out the best local bands he could find. His name is Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records and the force behind the massive music collection that bears his name. More than 40 years ago, he was seduced by the soulfulness of music he discovered during his travels through the Southwest.

The story of how Strachwitz recorded his first Mexican album could have made a good corrido, or narrative ballad. He felt comfortable haunting the honky tonks of Texas and Louisiana on his own, as he had for years on his mission to find blues and Cajun singers worth recording. But in Mexico, he’d need a guide. And so, through the grapevine he came to collaborate with a Chicano musician/activist named Rommel Fuentes, from the small border town of Eagle Pass, Texas.

It was the early 1970s and Rommel knew exactly where to go. “Come on down,” he said. “You’ve got to hear Los Pinguinos. They’re our favorite little conjunto over in Piedras Negras .”

Los Pinguinos del Norte (The Penguins of the North) were somewhat humorously named for a place where temperatures hit 100 degrees in the summer. They weren’t hard to find, playing one of the local watering holes in Piedras Negras, or Black Rocks, just across the line from Eagle Pass. Strachwitz had come equipped with a mobile recording device, a two-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder made by Magnacord that weighed 60 pounds. It was “a pretty good machine at the time,” he recalled. And he still has it. The problem was the owner of the bar didn’t appreciate the ethnic music obsessions of “this gringo who wanted to fool with these damn conjuntos,” the under-appreciated troubadours who would pass the hat for a buck a song, then moved on. The owner didn’t want them hanging around for a live recording session that might disturb his patrons.

Ejected but not dejected, Strachwitz ambled over to the bar next door, “El Patio.” He was determined to capture Los Pinguinos playing in their normal habitat. “If I was going to record somebody, I wanted to do it in a cantina,” he recalled.

They set up their travelling studio and turned on the tape. It was May 7, 1970.

“Actually, I’ll never forget it,” says Strachwitz. “These two girls, apparently heard somebody was making recordings and they let us understand they wanted to sing.”

Rommel, his guide, objected. He told Strachwitz that the only women who come into these cantinas are those of ill repute, though his language was not so genteel. Strachwitz wasn’t buying it.

“Come on,” he said, “these girls just want to sing! Listen, they were brave enough to come in here; I want to hear them.”

The impromptu vocal session did not go as well as expected, although Strachwitz has kept the tape of that performance. Later, Rommel would get his chance to redeem himself for what Strachwitz condemned as his “typical macho Mexicano” attitude toward the women.

During the same trip, Strachwitz and his guide visited a local fair where they witnessed some women fighting. Two were arrested and Rommel wanted to head down to the hoosegow to stick up for them because they were not at fault. “We’ve got to go to the jail to get them out!” he told his new American friend.

But now, it was Strachwitz who didn’t want to get involved. Perhaps he had heard too many songs about being trapped in a border-town jail. If things turned tragic, he imagined somebody writing his musical obituary: “La Muerte de Chris Strachwitz.”

“I don’t want no corrido written about me or you,” he said, as he was dragged by his guide to find the female prisoners they didn’t even know. “So I remember going to the jailhouse and telling them, ‘Listen, I’m just some weird gringo. I’ve got nothing to do with this.’ ”

Strachwitz doesn’t recall if their testimony helped, or what happened to the women. And not much has been heard from Los Pinguinos since then, either.

That recording was released as Arhoolie 3002, the second LP in the label’s new ethnic music series. (The first one featured regional Austrian music.) The cover photo for Los Pinguinos, ironically, was shot at the first cantina where the owner had not allowed them to tape.

“That record didn’t sell much but it sure taught me a lot,” says Strachwitz. “Some people didn’t like their nasal singing but to me this was perfect. And I also loved the way people reacted to them, with the gritos (cries of excitement). I had never experienced that before either.”

-AgustÍn Gurza


The focus of the Frontera Collection

by Chris Strachwitz (not verified), 04/25/2015 - 14:08

Although the Frontera Collection includes examples of all kinds of Latin music, the focus of my collecting has been primarily on the music of the Frontera! Musica Norteña, as recorded on both sides of the border. I have generally avoided pop music not based on regional traditions. That applies especially to records from the 1960s on - both on 45 and 33 rpm formats.

Los Pinguinos el Norte

by Chris Strachwitz (not verified), 04/24/2015 - 15:39

As of 2015, Los Pinguinos are still there - but not very active. I recorded more songs by them about 15 years ago and you will find them in our Arhoolie CD catalog. You can also see them in the film "Chulas Fronteras" which I made with the late film maker, Les Blank. The DVD of that film is a classic and also includes the 1/2 hour film "Del Mero Corazon".

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