Latin Legacy: Digital Digging in the Gladys Palmera Collection

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Jose Gegundez
Gladys Palmera Collection

The story of Latin music comes alive via a new online home for the collection of 50,000 vintage recordings.

On a hill in a town in Spain, best known as the burial place of kings, stands the Villa Palmera, whose verdant grounds fulfill the dreamy expectations called forth by its name. But it’s what’s inside that is astonishing, even if you have traveled the hour by train from Madrid specially to see it: shelf after shelf of record albums, in meticulous order, encompassing more than a century of Latin music.

There are about 50,000 recordings in the Gladys Palmera Collection, which includes LPs, 78s, 45s, many of them very rare finds. The collection also houses CDs, musical movie posters and photographs of musicians both timelessly famous and long forgotten (but certainly not by Gladys Palmera).

Gladys Palmera is the alter-ego of Alejandra Fierro Eleta, who bought her first albums in the 1980s, and was soon sharing her love for Afro-Cuban music, Mexican boleros and tropical soul via a pioneering Latin music radio show in her native Spain. (Fierro’s father was a member of a Spanish industrialist dynasty; her Panamanian mother’s family included composer Carlos Eleta Almaran, who wrote the evergreen ballad “Historia de un Amor.”)

Fierro later started the Internet radio site gladyspalmera.com, which today has a following throughout Spain and Latin America, and is arguably the most compelling music site that exists in the Spanish language.

Earlier this month, the Gladys Palmera Collection became accessable online through its own website, starting with 5000 titles that are highlighted with themed playlists -- one with a Latin twist, “Africans Dance Cuban Style,” another featuring female bolero singers called “Boogaloo Around the World” -- as well as album picks and articles. While texts are in Spanish, the records, and their fabulous covers, are there for all to enjoy.

Idiosyncratic intros to Fierro’s favorite albums are grouped in the section Gladys’ Gems. (Sample: “Of all of the feline rumberas who shook their hips to the rhythm of the drums in the musicals of the golden age of Mexican film, Yolanda Montes -- aka Tongele -- was undoubtedly the most exotic of them all.”)

Fierro and her small staff of vintage music experts and archivists have taken on the responsibility of rescuing Latin America’s music legacy from the randomness of record bins spread across continents, and worse, oblivion. Physical albums from pre-Revolutionary Cuba have been particularly at risk, and Fierro has passionately made their recovery a focus. (The Cristóbal Díaz Ayala Collection at Florida International University is another indispensable Cuban music archive.)

In addition to reclaiming recordings from the dustbin of history, Gladys Palmera’s new on-line resource also saves them from the digital purgatory of streaming services where catalogue music now languishes, heard only by people who know what to look for (and even then, poorly tagged albums and tracks often do not come up in searches).

Overall, the Gladys Palmera web site’s archive of music that covers wide chronological and geographical territory makes clear that Latin music is not a mere series of “explosions,” but the cultural patrimony of millions, and arguably the richest manifestation there is of the social history of Spanish-speaking countries and their ever-expanding diaspora. That legacy, also indisputably comprises some of the greatest and most transcendent music ever made.