By Maria Bakkalapulo for Miami New Times
Spanish-born Alejandra Fierro Eleta is most content surrounded by melodies from bygone days. Inside Gladys Palmera, the massive Latin music archive she founded, you’ll find her thumbing through albums kept in her late-grandfather’s estate in the Spanish village of San Lorenzo del Escorial.
But this is no ordinary music collection. The Gladys Palmera archive boasts over 50,000 recordings on LP, 78rpm, 7’ and CD, along with a large collection of music and films. It’s the largest dedicated Latin and Caribbean music archive in the world — and it’s built, in part, on Miami artists and institutions.
Eleta’s musical journey started early in life after spending a summer in her mom’s home country of Panama. At the age of 10, Eleta went to live with her uncle in Panama, there she would hear boleros and tropical music, which began her romance with the music. She began collecting albums in her late teens, forming the beginning of a lifelong pursuit. Her love for Panama is so strong she started a music school in Portobelo. She also plans to donate her entire music collection to the University of California, Berkeley, in exchange for scholarships for Panamanian children.
The next step in her process was sharing her discoveries. Eleta started as a pirate radio DJ in the late 1980’s in Barcelona to share her musical findings. In 1999, Radio Gladys Palmera was born. Against the wishes of her conservative father, a banker who even refused to have his name as part of the station his daughter created, Eleta still pursued starting her own station. Instead of using her surname against her father’s wishes, she chose “Gladys,” a very Latin name that her brother called her, and “Palmera,” a tropical sounding name that makes people dream of a sensual Latin woman.
Today, Gladys Palmera is an institution. Eleta possesses a Latin music lover’s dream—from James Dean on conga drums to Dizzy Gillespie 45s featuring the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, and recordings as obscure as pre-revolution promo LPs released by Cuban Airlines.
Living in Madrid with her Schnauzer named Rumba, Eleta has many followers in South Florida. “She’s the guardian of what may be the most impressive record collection I’ve heard of,” says Steve Roitstein, leader of Miami’s popular Afro-funk Cuban group, PALO!. “Much of her focus is on salsa and tropical music, which is one of my obsessions as well.”
Eleta credits her Miami connections with building her treasure trove. “I researched so much in Miami because there are some great collectors there, and Florida was one of the main places for the vinyl industry, especially Hialeah,” she says.
Now in her late 50’s, Eleta has a deep passion for Latin divas, like Fredesvinda Garcia Valdés, known as “Freddy,” a Cuban singer with an enormous voice, matched with her 300-pound physique. “I was shocked by her voice, and of course the album’s design,” Eleta recalls. A star of Havana’s nightclub stages, Freddy told audiences that she sang to relieve her sorrows, stemming from her early life plagued by poverty. “I remember as if it was yesterday when Evelio Taillacq, a local radio producer, gave me Freddy’s only album as a gift,” says Eleta. “Freddy is one of the greatest bolero singers I have ever heard.”
Acquiring rare copies of legends such as Freddy is part of a grander plan for Eleta. “Our purpose has always been getting the most precious albums, recorded before the Cuban Revolution,” she explains. “The archive has the complete collections of Cuban record labels: Puchito, Panart, Gema and Kubane. What excited me most was recovering the Panart-Egren catalogue, recorded just before the Cuban Revolution. These vinyls were taken from the stores and just a few of them remained in the market. I have the original editions by Mario Patterson, Renato Salani and Margarita Royero. My little jewels.”
Eleta’s friends in Miami are the “who’s who” of the Latin music scene. Some even got their start in radio with her, including her close friend Ramón Fernandez-Larrea, who broadcasted his radio show Memoria de la Habana, on the Radio Gladys Palmera from 1999-2009. He now lives in Miami and aires his program via the web.
Unsurprisingly, Eleta has made plenty of great finds in Miami’s music scene. “I feel a special emotion to two artists based in Miami, they are Olga Guillot and René Touzet,” Eleta says. Guillot, the quintessential theatrical queen of the Cuban bolero, left Havana for Miami two years after the revolution in 1959. She won a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2007 and passed away three years later at the age of 87. She, Eleta says, was the epitome of a Latin songstress, conjuring romantic nostalgia with passion and emotion. And Eleta continues to find inspiration in this area with contemporary artists. Miami has long been the merging of Latin cultures and has grown to be where its music thrives. “In Miami, the Latin music scene continues to be amazing,” Eleta says about Miami’s relevance to her work “It is very important for me to stay aware of the music there.”
Check out http://www.gladyspalmera.com where the collection is streamed 24/7
Photos by Aurora Fierro