One of the World’s Largest Private Collections of Latin American Music Just Hit the Web

Lead Photo: The Gladys Palmera collection at San Lorenzo del Escorial. Courtesy of Gladys Palmera
The Gladys Palmera collection at San Lorenzo del Escorial. Courtesy of Gladys Palmera
Read more

Over the last 30 years, Alejandra Fierro Eleta — also known as Gladys Palmera — has amassed the world’s largest private collection of rare Latin American recordings. The archive includes more than 50,000 albums, photographs, and other ephemera, focusing largely on Afro-Cuban music from the 1950s. Although the collection primarily lives in Palmera’s library in the small town of San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid, listeners have been able to get a glimpse into the impressive compendium on Radio Gladys Palmera, a radio station that she founded in 1999 to share and showcase her musical findings.

But today, the collection cracks open wider than ever before: Colección Gladys Palmera comes to international audiences through a new website and online database that features artwork, curated playlists, podcasts, and a series of articles written by music specialists, letting fans go deep into Palmera’s stunning treasure trove. The website launches with 5,000 important recordings that illustrate the tastes and inclinations that led Palmera to build her collection out “according to my own needs,” the way that Robinson Crusoe designed his own home, as she often jokes. While individual songs and albums will not be available to stream, listeners can access many of the tracks through the archive’s curated playlists. Over time, Palmera will work with her team to add more of the collection online.

“What I think is beautiful about this project is that people can discover the collection step by step. They can slowly get to know the catalog and look forward to albums we’ll be adding, so it’s constantly living and growing. It’ll be like a newspaper you can buy every week that has new articles and new stories every week,” Tommy Meini, a collector and archivist who has been working with Palmera for several years, told Remezcla in an interview.

José Arteaga, a DJ who has worked closely with Palmera through the radio station, adds that through its arsenal of information, the website will offer a kind of education that had previously been inaccessible to people outside of the insular world of collecting. “In the world of Latin American music, collecting is a little different. You might see blogs or WordPress and social media accounts where collectors show off certain finds, but the majority of that world revolves around commerce, or selling and buying vinyls. A website like ours, with a robust archive and access to all of this information, hadn’t existed quite this way before — but it will, starting today, and that’s what makes this project really special,” he said.

The archive pays careful attention to women that Palmera has tenderly dubbed the “divas,” referring to artists who have played pivotal roles both in Latin American music and in her collection. Though they are not yet available for individual streaming, listeners can find tracklists and cover art for rare albums like Tongolele Canta, a 1966 recording by the Mexican cabaret dancer and actress Tongolele, or Cabellera Negra, an album from the 1950s by the Afro-Mexican singer Toña La Negra.

The Gladys Palmera collection at San Lorenzo del Escorial. Courtesy of Gladys Palmera
Read more

The team also sees the project as an opportunity to unearth histories buried within the collection: Today’s launch includes a piece Meini wrote celebrating the legacy of Gloria Arredondo Falcón, a Cuban singer whose voice became known for creating a mysterious “suspense style” in the cabarets of Havana. Next week, the group will share research they’ve discovered about Musmé, a little-known female impersonator of Chinese-Cuban descent who performed in LGBTQ clubs throughout New York City. Each story brings readers closer to the collection and opens new avenues into the world of Latin American music.

“Most people would have to cross the world to see this much of the collection, so digitizing it and putting it online helps and unites people who have this interest and have wanted this information but couldn’t access it before,” Arteaga said.

Check out the entire collection on the Gladys Palmera website.